The Role Cars Play in the Society of India
Cars have been associated with comfort, luxury, style, and social standing. The future may well see cars being used as a fashion statement. India’s British Raj was solely responsible for introducing cars to Indian roads. It was not done to start progress, but rather to provide comfort to the high ranked officers in India. History identifies 1898 as the year that first saw cars on Indian roads. Soon, these cars were utilized by the more affluent Indians in society, namely the Kings (Maharajas) and Landlords.
History of Cars and their Stature in Society
India’s first manufacturing plant for cars was established in Okha, Gujarat, before Independence in 1942 by Hindustan Motors (HM). However, HM was mainly restricted to manufacturing car parts and accessories. Another manufacturing unit was also established in 1942 called Premier Automobiles Limited (PAL). The year before Independence, 1946, PAL imported and assembled the De Soto and Plymouth cars in a partnership with Chrysler. These were the first cars assembled in India for use by the masses. However, the prices were maintained such that only the upper stratum of society could afford to buy and maintain these cars.
After Independence, the Government of India established protectionist policies to protect Indian companies and industries and counter foreign-trade influence. In 1949, the Ambassador became the first completely indigenized car to take to Indian roads. Mahindra and Mahindra captured the SUV market with its rugged looking Willys Jeeps. PAL introduced the Premier Padmini in 1962, which was another completely Indian-manufactured car, albeit with an outdated “foreign” car body mold.
The 1980s saw the Government relax some of the trade policies that allowed the Indian car industry to suddenly expand with sudden investments from foreign manufacturers and collaborators. Maruti in collaboration with Suzuki of Japan was the first beneficiary of the new government policy and re-wrote the rules of the Indian Car Market, capturing nearly 85 % of the market share. The policies still protected Indian car manufacturers and did not allow their direct competitors to enter the market, but all foreign investors with cars that were above the price range of cars produced by Indian manufacturers flocked to India in a hurry. Indians were given more choices with new models and new technology pouring in from around the globe. People with high social standing in government jobs or with successful businesses or with abundant ancestral heritage were the crux of the car market. Cars were a possession of luxury that only successful or rich people could afford.
Advent of the Middle-Class
The Government in early 1991 affected a liberalization movement allowing foreign manufacturers and competitors to enter the Indian market in earnest. There was a sudden surge of foreign car manufacturers entering the Indian market. During the same time India witnessed the IT Boom and businesses opened up, which spread wealth to a large section of the population. The progress of the Indian economy empowered many Indians with the ability to purchase cars, not for luxury but for convenience. Soon the market was flooded with impressive small cars for the middle class population that could now afford to travel in comfort. Financial institutions jumped on the bandwagon and started offering low interest rates on EMIs for car loans. Suddenly, possessing a car was no longer a dream but an affordable reality for many. Manufacturers did not ignore the upper stratum of society either. The market saw a flood of imports starting from high-end luxury car brands to sporty SUVs, so that the rich could still distinguish themselves from others using the cars they owned. A Mercedes-Benz was style, a Skoda Octavia was luxury, while a Hyundai Santro was comfort.
The beginning of the new millennia saw an eruption in terms of luxury cars, which included sedans, coupes, convertibles and SUVs. Why? Because people driving an 800 in the 90s were fast moving towards an Accord and the people driving the Civics and Corollas were getting behind the wheels of Mercs and BMWs. Standards of luxury and comfort were being redefined. Now, the people who drove the BMW and Mercs in the 90s had nowhere to go but higher. Manufacturers soon started importing high-end luxury cars from Rolls Royce, savvy sports coupes and convertibles from Audi and Porsche, innovative technologies from Volvo and Volkswagen, and breathtaking power devils from BMW and Mercedes who didn’t want to be left behind either. The middle class Indian population too was engulfed in a sea of choices that was not even imaginable a couple of decades ago.
However, no frenzy came close to the one that had enveloped the small car market. Led by Tata Motors, the introduction of the Nano as the cheapest car in the world shook the global automotive market. Tata was soon joined by Bajaj-Renault and other manufacturers who promptly announce their version of low cost cars. Saturation of small cars in the market caused some manufacturers to look for other avenues and rethink their strategies on SUVs, which wooed the affluent Indian youth who were moving up the ladder of success at a fast pace. SUVs from Tata and Mahindra targeted those who wanted SUV comfort, but were hesitant about the exorbitant prices. Others targeted everyone else.
Those who didn’t want to compromise on brand, but were economically cautious, looked towards the pre-owned car sector, which saw a sudden surge in trade-ins and sales of top-end brands. Small cars did just as well with waves of people moving from two-wheelers to four at nominal rates. Cars were no longer just luxury but a means of comfort for the common man.
Current Car Trends
The sanctum of social standards that most people feel, while owning luxury brands, is fast disappearing due to the booming pre-owned car sector. Today, the distinguished Indians are looking for new ways to highlight their social stature and to differentiate themselves from others in society.
The fast-becoming popular trend is vehicle registration number plates. This is a tradition that is common in UK and Thailand. The U.S. also has its share of people who like their very own distinguished number plates. Defining social status by paying huge sums to acquire a fancy number plate is a trend that is now picking up pace in India. There are different types of expensive and fancy numbers used on plates. There is the single digit number like “1” or “6” or “9”. Then there is the plate with identical numbers like “6666” or “9999”. Palindromes are quite popular; for example “7667” or “3553”. Another popular type of usage is consecutive numbers like “1234” or “6789”.
Another way of showing class in Indian society is by collecting and displaying vintage and classic cars that are treated with utmost awe and respect. Various rallies around the country allow participants to drive these beauties while thousands of envious eyes follow the trail of the vintage splendor that beatifies their streets once every year. However, vintage cars do not exclusively belong to the rich in society. There are those who had the foresight of preserving their ancestors’ purchases and are now proud owners of what the world has labeled as “vintage”. Of course, these numbers are fast dwindling since many offers thrown their way are too good to resist. After all, to some people, money is more important than social status. There are other vintage car owners who have turned their possessions into fruitful businesses and rent out these cars to people during festivities like marriages, film promos or shootings, and so on.
What the Future Holds?
In another decade, India will experience another burst of economic progress that will further diminish the societal differences between the middle-class and the rich. In other words, expensive or vintage cars and distinguished number plates will no longer be out of reach for the common man. However, the society in India is such that it will still try to maintain a recognizable difference between the different strata of society. This will give birth to a new genre of “customized” cars.
This trend is already noticeable in some cities of the country. These cities have seen a flourishing growth of auto-designers who not only use graffiti on the car’s body to make it stand out, but also completely redesign the car by changing the suspension, tyres, and engine. The most famous auto-designer in India today is Dilip Chhabria, whose recent expedition to completely revamp an Ambassador attracted a lot of media. He is best known for his successful endeavour in revamping a Maruti Esteem car into a Roadster. Honda, Nissan, GM, and Fiat have provided funds to initialize the establishment of an auto-design school that will be headed by Dilip. His successes in revamping cars, vans, and even buses for years have always held Indian car enthusiasts in awe, but the trend to move towards designer cars is yet to peak.
Young and rich Indians will soon look for “something different”. These cars will imbibe new technologies that will suit each individual’s requirement of comfort and luxury. Each car will be customized to take on the personality of the owner and have an identity of its own. This will be the future of cars in a society that has come a long way from the Ambassador.