Will Americans Buy Cars From India?

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Oct 11, 2016

It’s fair to say that the Indian auto market has, what’s the word, evolved. I lived there in the bad old days, when India protected its local industry from foreign invasion. What this meant in practice is that car buyers could get in line to buy a Hindustan Ambassador.

The Hindustan Ambassador, in all its ragged glory. We love Indian food, could we learn to love Indian cars? (Gingerbeardman/Flickr)

What’s that, you ask? It’s a copy of a Morris Oxford Series III from the early 50s. They started building them in India in 1957, and didn’t quit until 2014. Yes, an antiquated British car (antiquated even in 1957) managed to stay in production nearly 60 years. More than four million were sold.

And it became as beloved as…the Trabant in Eastern Europe. Lovable only because it was the only choice. We had a really snazzy Ambassador when we lived in India. I remember two-tone gray and black, and a sporty sunshade. We even had a driver (with a cap!) and I vividly remember the column shift coming off in his hand while we sailed through jammed central Mumbai (Bombay at the time).

The Premier Padmini, born a '50s Fiat, is a popular Indian taxi. (Remundo/Flickr)

We weren’t royalty, so we were denied one of the cars made by the high-falutin’ Premier Automobiles. From 1949 this company built Plymouths under license from Chrysler, and only the best families had one of those—complete with chauffeur and wide white tires.

Other familiar sights in India back in the day were old Fiat 1100s, sold as the Premier Padmini after 1962, and cool Triumph Heralds until 1970, via Standard Motor Products of India, LTD.

I learned what true Indian royalty was when the son of a film star was delivered to our school in the Himalayas. Despite the horrendous roads, he was transported in a brand-new Cadillac convertible, which must have cost the GDP of a small nation, given the import duties then. Today, a who's who of international carmakers have plants in India, so the rolling stock is more diverse--though lots of the old timers still roll.

Ssangyong's Korando is Indian by way of Korea. Coming to America? (Ssangyong  photo)

But all this is prologue to a reborn Indian auto industry. Tata Motors owns Jaguar and Land Rover, for crying out loud. And now Mahindra & Mahindra is talking about selling a pair of its small SUVs in the U.S. circa 2020.  

M&M repeated Tata’s pattern with the purchase of a foreign automaker, in this case South Korea’s Ssangyong (the name means “Double Dragon”), which hopes to repeat Hyundai/Kia’s success in the American market. So the SUVs aren’t strictly Indian, but then neither was the Hindustan Ambassador and the Premier Padmini.

The path to U.S. success is somewhat daunting, because the cars will have to survive American crash testing, among other obstacles. The fact that the cars are built in South Korea, which has a long familiarity with the U.S. market, certainly helps. The Indian car industry is starting from a position far behind China’s, and its domestic market isn't very demanding. Tata's acquisition of Jaguar/Land Rover probably offers the best path forward--buy an existing company already making cars ready for the international market. And that, come to think of it, is what M&M is doing. 

The Reva E2O is an all-Indian electric car. No, it's not coming here. (Reva/Mahindra photo)

India’s high bar can be seen in the halting progress Chinese automakers have made trying to sell competitive cars here. Chery is a big Chinese automaker, and it said it would be selling 250,000 cars in the U.S. by 2007 (with partner Malcolm Bricklin). Never happened. Geely (before it bought Volvo) said it would market the Chinese Dragon model here, starting in 2008. Seen any Dragons? BYD’s electrics haven’t gotten a foothold, either, though there’s some hope that upstart Faraday will plant a flag—it is building a factory near Las Vegas. And don’t forget Atieva, whose sedan is described as looking like “a futuristic descendent of the Audi A7.”

The Maruti line looks promising for export, until you realize they’re rebadged Suzukis. The company gave up on the American market, but it’s still game about competing in India.

India does make its own cars, and one I’ve sampled is the Reva G-Wiz electric. It was easily the worst car I’ve ever driven—tinny, slow and dangerous, with horrendous brakes—but a fair number were sold. These cars became surprisingly popular in London, because they’re cheap and an easy way to get around the city’s congestion charge.

In 2010, M&M bought a controlling stake in Reva, and now churns out (hopefully improved) versions of the E2O electric minicar. Don’t expect much—the driving range is only 75 miles. Under “features,” it lists “smartphone connectivity” (but Bluetooth is optional, as is the Driver Information System). Geez, you’d think everybody would get the information system. Top speed is 50 mph, so no highway driving. But India doesn’t have any autobahns, anyway.  

Americans love Indian food, Ravi Shankar, saris, gurus like the Maharishi, yoga, and lots more, but will we learn to love Indian cars? I don’t see it happening. Of all our family cars, I miss that two-tone Ambassador least of all.

Speaking of the Ambassador, here's a review, which includes the information that the Ambassador is a favorite of kidnappers in Bollywood movies. Why? The big trunk:

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