It’s time to say ta-ta to the world’s cheapest car

Quartz india
Quartz india

The idea of the world’s cheapest car was conceived by Ratan Tata on a rainy day after he saw a family of four on a bike.

“The fact of unsafe travel was bothering me,” Tata, the erstwhile chairman of the Tata group recalled in an interview in March 2011. “What really motivated me…was constantly seeing Indian families riding on scooters, four or five on a scooter, maybe the child sandwiched between the mother and father…on slippery roads in the dark.”

Now, after a nine-year run, the Nano is ready to drive into the sunset, with the Tatas announcing earlier this month that the car will henceforth be produced only on demand.

It was in 2003 that Ratan Tata set out on his quest for the affordable car—later christened the Nano—using the resources of the group’s car company, Tata Motors.

Nano did not just rewrite the story of affordable cars, it also altered the 34-year-old political history of the Indian state of West Bengal. The company decided to build its plant in Singur in 2006, about 50 kilometres from the state capital Kolkata. Tata Motors planned to invest up to Rs2,000 crore and turn Singur into an auto city.

The interior of the Tata Motors' plant in Singur in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal is seen in this undated handout photograph. The government in West Bengal state earlier this week rejected a demand by agitating farmers to return disputed land acquired for building what is billed as the world's cheapest car. Tata Motors, which is setting up the plant to roll out the 100,000-rupee ($2,380) Nano, has faced violent protests and political opposition over the acquisition of farmland in Singur, an hour's drive from state capital Kolkata.
The interior of the Tata Motors plant in Singur, West Bengal. (Reuters/Tata Motors/Handout)

To set up its sprawling factory, the then Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPIM) government of West Bengal sought to take over 997 acres of fertile farmland, sparking a severe backlash.

Widespread protests broke out across the state, leading to the ouster of the communists after over three decades in power. The state soon got its first woman chief minister in Mamata Banerjee who had spearheaded the Nano protests.

Mamata Banerjee (5th R), chief of the regional Trinamool Congress party, marches with party activists during a protest rally in front of Tata Motors' small car project at Singur, north of Kolkata, September 26, 2008.
Mamata Banerjee (5th from right) marches with party activists during a protest rally in front of Tata Motors’ small car project. (Reuters/Jayanta Shaw)
Activists from the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) scuffle with police during a protest in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata December 19, 2006. The protest was held after the charred body of a 19-year-old female was found yesterday morning on farmland acquired by an automobile plant in Singur, local media reported.
Activists scuffle with police during a protest in Kolkata, West Bengal, in 2006 after the charred body of a 19-year-old female was found on farmland acquired by the Tatas for the Nano plant. (Reuters/Jayanta Shaw)

Given the political turbulence in West Bengal, the Tatas, in October 2008, shifted the Nano factory to Sanand in Gujarat whose chief minister Narendra Modi reportedly approved the project over just an SMS.

Tata Nano automobiles are seen parked at the carmaker's plant in Sanand, Gujarat state, September 26, 2011. At the end of a dusty, traffic-choked road in the western state of Gujarat lies what may be India's industrial future. As laborers work under a blazing sun to widen the highway, auto giants Ford Motor Co and PSA Peugeot Citroen prepare to spend nearly $2 billion to build huge new plants in Sanand, a sparsely populated collection of villages about 40 kilometres west of Ahmedabad, the state's main city. Picture taken September 26, 2011.
Tata Nano automobiles are seen parked at the carmaker’s plant in Sanand, Gujarat. (Reuters/Amit Dave)

Finally, in 2009, the car was launched in two variants: a basic model priced at Rs1,12,735 and the luxury version costing Rs1,70,335.

The launch of one of the world’s smallest cars sparked unprecedented euphoria in India and significant excitement across the world.

Ratan Tata and Narendra Modi wave at Sanand in Gujarat
Ratan Tata (L), chairman of the Tata Group, and Gujarat’s then chief minister Narendra Modi.
Ashok Vichare, owner of the first Tata Nano car, greets the crowd as Ratan Tata, Chairman of the Tata group of companies, left, applauds at a Tata Nano showroom in Mumbai, India, Friday, July 17, 2009. The $2,000 Nano, the world’s cheapest car, was launched in India this year and hit the roads Friday.
Ashok Vichare (right), owner of the first Tata Nano, with Ratan Tata. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)

In 2010, around 9,000 units of the Nano were sold. Since then, however, things have been on a downhill.

By 2011, Tata Motors was selling a mere 500 units a year. This drop in sales can be attributed to various reasons, the foremost being safety. In 2010, a Nano caught fire in Mumbai and over the next few months, several such incidents were reported.

A brand new silver Tata Nano, heralded as the world's cheapest car, stands in flames on the suburbs of Mumbai, India, Sunday, March 21, 2010. The car belonging to Satish Sawant, a software engineer, burst into flames as he was proudly driving it home from the showroom, draped with a celebratory garland of marigolds. Sawant managed to get his wife and five-year-old son out of the back seat before the smoke billowing from the rear engine turned into flames that engulfed the tiny car.
A brand new silver Tata Nano caught fire in Mumbai. (AP Photo)
A Tata Nano car made of gold is pictured during a ceremony in Mumbai September 19, 2011. About 80 kg of 22 karat gold, approximately 15 kg of silver and gemstones were used to decorate the car, according to a press statement.
A Tata Nano car made of gold in Mumbai September 19, 2011. (Reuters/Danish Siddiqui)

Moreover, the stigma of buying the “cheapest car” proved to be its undoing.

“It became termed as a cheapest car by the public and, I am sorry to say, by ourselves, not by me, but the company when it was marketing it. I think that is unfortunate,” Tata later admitted.

In June 2018, only three Nanos were sold and just one produced at Sanand. The curtains may have finally come down on a grand experiment in the Indian automobile sector.

An idea born on a rainy day seems to have broken down irreparably by the rains in 2018.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search