India changed in the 1980s.

It was the decade when several private sector firms, including some of today’s worthies in the IT and pharma space, were founded. Consequently, it was also the decade when private sector jobs became respectable (and lucrative).

It was the decade when more Indians than ever before started travelling abroad, discovered readymade garments, and became brand-conscious.

And it was the decade when marketers and advertisers here did some of the best work they would ever do—drafting smart strategies and clever messages.

The crisis of the early 1990s was still some way off, as was the tipping point that forced India to reluctantly (and partly) discard socialism in favour of free market economics, but India, and Indians, were already beginning to think that it was not a crime to be rich.

Two foreign brands, launched within a year of each other reflected these changes as much as, some would say, caused them.

The first was Nestle’s Maggi two-minute noodles, although the company behind it was then called Food Specialities Ltd (the name would change in 1989-90). The second was Maruti Suzuki’s 800cc small car (the company was called Maruti Udyog Ltd; its name was changed in 2007).

Maggi is going strong (maybe because there is only so much you can do with noodles to improve them), but on Friday, a Maruti executive said that the last batch of 800s had rolled off the company’s production line in January.

In the 30 years since its launch, 2.7 million of the Maruti 800 were sold.

The Maruti 800 wasn’t the longest-lived car in India, nor is it the one that has sold the most numbers. Both records belong to Hindustan Motors’s Ambassador, launched in 1958, and which is still being produced. Around 4 million of the cars have been sold over the past 55 years.

Yet, launched at a time when the customer had only the Ambassador, the Premier Padmini (popularly called the Fiat, after its provenance), and the Standard Gazel to choose from, the Maruti 800 changed the way cars are made, serviced, and sold in India.

It was—and the claim may seem laughable now—the most advanced thing on wheels on Indian roads in the 1980s and introduced Indians to a level of quality they had not been used to before.

In an attempt to kick-start the production of the parts it needed, Maruti Suzuki encouraged local entrepreneurs to establish auto parts companies, or expand the ones they had. It helped with equity in some cases, but insisted that the parts be made to a certain quality.

By the late 1990s, India had a thriving auto components industry that owed at least part of its success to the Japanese auto maker. Starting the late 1990s, several of these component makers won the prestigious Deming medal in quality, won only by a handful of companies outside Japan.

The Maruti 800, powered by a 796cc engine, was structured as what is called a hatchback, which means that it didn’t really have a boot (in technical terms, it was a two-box car, one box being the engine compartment and the other, the cabin).

It is interesting to think of what may have been if Maruti had launched a three-box sedan as its first offering in India. Would India still be a small car market? Small cars account for 7 of every 10 cars sold in India.

The Maruti 800, and the vehicles that came off the Maruti stable in those initial years—the Omni van, the Gypsy compact sports utility vehicle, the Zen—helped motorize India. They made commutes easy, and encouraged people to drive around the country. Maruti flooded the market with parts (thanks to the auto parts industry it helped part-revive and part-create), and established service stations across the country. Near the turn of the millennium, when the first serious competitors to Maruti, Hyundai and Daewoo launched their small cars in the country, they found a market that was, in many ways, ready for cars.

Most importantly, though, the Maruti 800 changed the way people thought about, and treated their cars. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was not unusual to come across people who had spent as much on accessories for their new Maruti 800 as they had on the car itself.

The great Indian consumption boom started in the 1980s, and the Maruti 800 played a part in its genesis.

Did Maruti 800 define the Indian consumption boom? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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