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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.