Nehru & the Story of Indian Automobiles - I
With the Indian elections over and with a resounding win for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), bashing Jawaharlal Nehru is back with much fervour. One of the points made by most anti-Nehru friends is how he and his policies strangled India’s automobile industry and how the industry (with the Hindustan Ambassador as a favourite example) came to symbolise all that was wrong with Nehruvian India. 
Personally, I am hardly a fan of Nehru (or the political dynasty that followed); but I am not too sure whether the policies regarding automobile industry could have been all that different, even if any other political party, of a different hue, were in power in those post-Independence days. 
Pre-Independence Automobile Industry in India 
As a part of the British colonial empire, there was no incentive or protection available to start an automobile industry in India pre-Independence. Automobiles, mostly British, were imported into the country and the American car-makers Ford and General Motors had assembly plants in the country. In the early years, several European car-makers did ship out their cars in chassis-mechanical form, to be ‘bodied’ in India. 
Building coaches of these bodies was, perhaps, the earliest automotive ‘manufacturing’ activity in India. That disappeared though, once the industry moved from coach-built cars to series production automobiles. 
Though Ford Motor Company was first off the block in incorporating Ford India on 31 July 1926, the company took a while to set up its first assembly plant in Bombay, in the suburb of Bhandup, in 1931, followed a few months later by similar facilities in the port cities of Calcutta and Madras too. Before Ford got its assembly facilities going, a wealthy Calcutta-based barrister Sushil Chandra Chaudhury decided to invest in a car assembly facility, in 1927. Mr Chaudhury’s nephew, Anil Kumar Mitra, had studied automobile engineering in USA and then worked with Ford, before signing up with fledgling car-maker Graham-Paige and heading back home to Calcutta to set up the assembly facilities at 2 Rowland Road, where the Chaudhurys already had a tyre service centre, International Tyre & Motor Company. 
Initially, Graham-Paige seemed to be successful, selling well as taxis because of the car’s rather compact turning circle; but the investment was considerable and, within two years, International Tyre & Motor bankrupted.  
General Motors (GM), on the other hand, had a much more successful run in India. Though its assembly facility at Sewri, neighbouring the Bombay Port, was inaugurated in December 1928, series assembly began in earnest in 1929, with several of the many GM brands, including Buick, Chevrolet, Oakland, Oldsmobile and Pontiac, rolling off the lines simultaneously. 
Trucks, with the GM branding, were also assembled. By the time GM overtook Ford worldwide (in 1931), the Indian market, too, was contributing to the GM’s global lead, and this was reflected by the increasing popularity of Chevrolets and Buicks in the sub-continent.
Ford, too, did well in India. Ford Canada had the distribution rights for the British colonies and, in 1926, the first year of Ford’s direct operations in India, 4,152 Model Ts found buyers. By 1930, the number of Fords sold in India had gone up to 5,107 (all imported); by 1935, these increased to 5,444 (by now, mostly assembled) and then to 7,011, by 1940. 
In fact, in the WW-II years, 1940 to 1946, Ford assembled and delivered as many as 114,485 defence vehicles to the Allied forces in India from its three assembly plants!     
Surprisingly, just one other car assembly set-up came up in the 1930s, that of Addison in Madras, to assemble British Wolseleys, a logical move as Addison was already the dealer for Wolseleys, Morris and Riley, amongst others. Incidentally, most of the British car-makers did not need to set up assembly facilities, as the market was, in a sense, a captive one for them. It also was not in their nature to do so—Austin preferred licensing production elsewhere and Morris Motors did not have a Ford-style assembly line until 1934! 
For the Americans, shipping complete cars all the way from USA was expensive. Ford was, as well, a pioneer in transplanting the assembly line and in international thinking with the Model-T, opening plants in Canada and the UK as long back as in 1911, where Model-Ts were assembled from knocked-down kits. GM, sure enough, learnt quickly.
The failure of the first Indian car-assembling venture, that of International Tyre & Motor to make the Graham-Paige cars, may have been a deterrent for many Indian entrepreneurs looking to invest in the car-making business in the 1930s. At the same time, the Great Depression, by wiping out two-thirds of the car-makers across the globe, may have also played a role. 
Yet, it is interesting to note that it was in 1930 that Japan’s fledgling car industry had made a very modest start with the manufacture of all of 500-odd units! 
Though exact numbers are not available for car sales for pre-Independence India, it has been estimated that about 17,000 cars were sold in the Indian subcontinent in the calendar year 1930. A plausible figure, given that in 1950—the first officially available statistics—sales of cars in a divided-and-significantly-impoverished India totalled all of 14,688 units.
One theory on why car-assembling ventures never took off in pre-Independence India, is that Indian business houses just did not have the confidence to take on such capital-intensive projects with the British ‘masters’ around, and that it was changes in the political environment that, finally, got the Indian businessmen to seriously start thinking of automobile production. By 1940, the writing was on the wall—the beginning of the end of British imperialism and the dawn of a new order and a new era in Indian industry. 
Make in India, Then
Business houses like the Birlas and the Walchands, as well as the Tatas, were the first movers to perceive business opportunities in automobiles. Walchand Hirachand Doshi saw opportunities in shipping as well as construction of aircrafts. 
In fact, Hindustan Aircraft in Bangalore (which later became Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, HAL) was born out of a chance meeting between an American aircraft executive and Walchand Hirachand on a flight to the US in 1939. 
Mr Walchand’s visit was for a possible collaboration with one of the American ‘Big Three’ for the manufacture of cars. His first stop was at General Motors; but then GM already had its assembly set-up in Bombay. An audience with Henry Ford, it seems, went well. Mr Ford asked him to speak to the Ford Motors’ Canadian division, which was handling the British Commonwealth markets, including India; but Ford had three successful assembly operations going on in India, so Walchand Hirachand then knocked at the doors of Chrysler Corporation. Chrysler Corporation and Walchand Hirachand signed up in 1940. 

With WW-II intervening, car production was set aside for the War effort, as Chrysler Corporation concentrated on the manufacturing of the famous Sherman tanks and Dodge made the engines for the Boeing B-29 Superfortress and military trucks. Walchand Hirachand, in the meantime, incorporated his car company, Premier Automobiles Limited, in 1941. Then he had to wait patiently, till the War came to an end. 
It was a somewhat similar story with the Birlas. Hindustan Motors was incorporated in 1942, at the tiny Gujarat port town of Okha. The War and the consequent diversion of efforts into the production of war material had all the car majors busy—Birla and Hindustan Motors had to wait, too. 
Other industrial groups also saw opportunities and automotive enthusiast JRD Tata decided to get the Tata group to incorporate Tata Engineering & Locomotive Company Limited (TELCO) in 1945, with plans to make locomotives and vehicles. In Ludhiana, a company called Mahindra & Mohammed was incorporated in 1945 to trade in steel. 
With India’s independence, and only after things stabilised, that the business of car-making and assembly was, once again, considered. By 1948, Mahindra & Mohammed had become Mahindra & Mahindra, as business partner Ghulam Mohammed left for Pakistan to become Pakistan’s first finance minister. Hindustan Motors migrated to West Bengal in 1948 and set up a factory in a town called Uttarpara, some 15km north of Calcutta.
Premier Automobiles was first off the block getting its factory in the Bombay suburb of Kurla up and running by 1949, when the first set of Dodge, Plymouth and DeSoto badged cars rolled off the lines, along with the first batch of trucks with Dodge, Fargo and DeSoto branding (Fargo being the brand for trucks sold by the Plymouth dealers).
The same year, the assembly lines began rolling at Hindustan Motors as the company cleverly signed two deals, one with American car-maker Studebaker, and the other with British manufacturer Morris Motors. Hindustan Motors began its Morris assembly operations with the Morris Ten, launched in India as the Hindustan 10 in 1949. The 10 was replaced with the ‘Baby’ Hindustan (Morris Minor), and complemented that with the slightly bigger Hindustan Fourteen (the Morris Oxford). The Fourteen was replaced by the Hindustan Landmaster (the Morris Oxford Series II), which, in turn, was replaced, in 1957, by the Ambassador (the Morris Oxford Series III). In 1959, when the Oxford Series III was replaced by an all-new car, the tooling of the Series III was shipped to India… the Ambassador remained in production until 2014. 
Not unlike Hindustan Motors, Premier Automobiles, too, had two tie-ups: one with Chrysler, the other with Fiat of Italy. Initially, completely built up Fiat 500C Topolinos and 1100s were imported and sold. 
Then they moved to assembling the two-door 500C and the all-new 1100 in 1954. Until 1965, as Fiat in Italy kept updating the 1100 with cosmetic upgrades, the Premier-assembled Fiats in India too kept getting facelifts. In 1965, Premier introduced the Fiat 1100 D, or Delight. This was the Italian Fiat 1100D from 1962. The tooling was shipped out to India in 1966, and, like the Ambassador, the Fiat 1100D remained in production from 1966… to 2000!
In the meantime, TELCO went into the business of manufacturing trucks in a factory in Jamshedpur, after it inked a technical collaboration with Daimler-Benz, from Germany, in 1954. A prominent importer in Calcutta, Dewar’s Garage also waded into the assembly business, bolting together and selling British brands such as Singers and Rovers. 
Mahindra & Mahindra signed up with Willys to assemble the Willys Jeep CJ3B, under licence in India, in a factory in north Bombay; this was sold as the brand ‘Mahindra Jeep’.
Madras, too, had its fair share of automotive assembling action. Entrepreneur Raghunandan Saran set up an assembly plant in Madras to assemble Austin cars, naming the company Ashok Motors. Starting operations in 1948, Ashok Motors assembled and sold the Austin A40 from 1949. The Austin A30 was also considered but, apart from receiving a prototype in 1953, no progress was made on this, as Leyland trucks became the focus.     
(Part 2 of this article will be published next week)
4 years ago
Wow!! This is one of the very rare articles that I have come across about the evolution of automotive industry in India and that too with so much details. Wonderful!!
5 years ago
Fabuous article, giving the right historical perspective on Indian automobile seen. I am aprticularly glad that there is a picture of Landmaster car, the forerunner of the Ambassador car. Most people have forgotten the Landmaster, that it existed, just as people have forgotten the Standard car made in Madras those days, which some people preferred to buy because it was low, so a lower CG for safety, and it had a smaller turnaround circle. This fact was demonstrated by a rich businessman in Punjab when he bought the Standard car and was asked what is special. Old-timers would recall that the Standard car was used in the famous car-race between Dilip Kumar and Manoj Kumar in the film Aadmi (1968) - Dr. J.V. Yakhmi
govind wattal
5 years ago
Sir Mirza Ismail and and Sir M Visvesvaraya wanted to start a Joint Venture with Chrysler Corporation but were stymied by the British.

Meenal Mamdani
5 years ago
Thanks. You have done us all a great service by not just defending the policies of the govt at the time but also providing the background information.
5 years ago
Excellent article. It is great to learn about India's automobile industry history. Fascinating. Thanks to the author for the thorough research.
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