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January 27, 1998


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Guest Column: Veeresh Malik

The Great Auto Mela

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Any business report on Auto Expo '98, touted as the 'largest' in Asia, presupposes that it was, to begin with, a business exhibition. However, it was soon apparent that for a city like Delhi, starved of all entertainment barring elections, the Auto Expo '98 represented all there was, probably, at any fair -- state, university or agricultural -- and short skirts added to the joy. Rediff On The NeT takes you on a quick run through with its correspondent.

Stuck in a traffic jam on Monday, January 19, it took me an hour and a half to cover the one-and-a-half kilometre distance from the Oberoi to the Pragati Maidan main gate. Once there, another hour of looping around to find a decent parking space, till, by chance, Mr Pandita of LML spotted yours truly and provided succour in the form of a parking slot in their already jampacked free parking ground behind the National Stadium.

Once clear of that mess, you move towards the gate to enter, to be hit by a triple whammy of security guards who, while gladly permitting all and sundry in for the lightly slipped Rs 50 note instead of the official fee of Rs 150, insisted on examining in detail the camera slung around one's neck. Press card and remonstration notwithstanding. Past that and you hit the queues at every hall.

Fed up, you decide to lounge on the 'pedestrian only' walkways when one more of Delhi's various VVIPs (Very Very Ineffective People) drive past in convoys with lights flashing and sirens blaring, in this case the Cabinet secretary to the government of India. (Question: If hecan't walk, should he be the Cabinet secretary?)

The Confederation of Indian Industry is, apparently, very very pleased that over a million people attended Auto Expo '98, held between January 15 and 21, at Pragati Maidan. Pity them, for they know not about the population explosion, it seems!

Preparations for this Auto Expo began almost two years ago, if not earlier, as soon as the previous one in 1996 got over. Matter of fact, the most popular stall then was the Premier Automobiles stall, displaying the Fiat Uno which was to, apparently, drive Maruti into the ground. Two years later, at Auto Expo '98, PAL didn't even have a token presence, and groups of people with letters in their hands demanding their refunds walked around, looking for them. There was a good chance that if PAL had put up a stall, they would have been lynched at worst and stoned at best!

Auto Expo '98 also had what can be called the 'Best-Hyped Stall', this time from Daewoo. Situated right in line with the entrance through gate number 2 of Pragati Maidan, and displaying one rather apologetic left hand drive model of the Daewoo d'Arts, the crowd couldn't have enough. Of the leggy, short-skirted models, that is! Unfortunately, as Daewoo realises that this doesn't neccesarily translate into sales, they also had to show the Cielo, which, priced cheaper by about one-fourth just a week earlier, was still not selling. Any bets on which company may not have a stall at Auto Expo 2000? Readers in the United Kingdom are invited to send their comments on the Daewoo experience there.

Tata small car On to more pleasant matters, and that be the unveiling of the Tata small car. Unnamed, 'like Zen' would be the best description, except for the fact that, unlike Zen, it has an excellently roomy rear seat. Test drives, however, were out for the moment. For those of you wondering, yes, it is likely that Telco (the Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company) will make, and sell, a world class car. It appears to be, frankly, like a cross between the Maruti Zen/Alto and the Mercedes Benz A-Class small car with cheaper specs.

As of now, just about five prototypes, in various trim levels and with both diesel as well as petrol (car and multi point fuel injection versions) were displayed. Plans for production? Somewhere around end 1998. One of the most exhaustive and correctly designed market research survey forms was another highlight, along with the T-shirt you got for it.

The other small car, from Hyundai, may have a hope, but only if their factory comes up in time. Unconfirmed reports have it that construction work has slowed down after the last South Korean crisis and the second-hand plant being shipped from Canada has run into rough weather of the financial sort, too. For what it is worth, the Hyundai Santro is another bubble-topped car. To delicate to even sit in, apparently. At least that is what they told us at the unveiling!

In the small car stakes, the Daewoo and Hyundai efforts seem like market pooping efforts while the Telco small car seems like something which would dominate the challenge to Maruti. Nobody gives much importance to the 500 cc 'car' from Kinetic simply because it is, even by Indian standards, a bit off.

Their complete strategy, incidentally, depends on the Indian government reducing excise duty from 40 per cent to 15 per cent. It is doubtful that any government would do that, and it is even more doubtful that the other manufacturers would agree for a specific reduction in excise only for this manufacturer. Without this reduction in excise their complete plans go 'phutt.' Which is also what the lawn-mower engine fitted car sounds like...

Which brings us to 82 per cent of the car industry in India. Nestled in an obscure corner of the grounds, content to distribute caps, buttons and stickers to the hordes, a lesson to other advertisers. That even if all you display is your current range of cars, people will flock around.

Maruti Udyog Limited was one very satisfied company, showing production films and, every now and then, getting some rather petite girls to do a bit of a funny unveiling of the seven veils, thus attracting every lech in town and further spurring rumours that CII had asked them to tone it down!

On to the larger cars: The new E-Class Mercedes Benz, if you could afford it, they would give you a private preview. The rest of humanity trooped past, collected more pamphlets and the luckier ones sat in it. Some were even allowed to pull the flasher stems, causing great amusement to the rest of those outside.

Bang opposite, a study in contrast to the dark suited Mercedes Benz staff were the people from Audi, obviously having a great time and making whoopee in casuals, permitting everybody to do whatever they wanted with the three cars on display which may or may not be made in India.

Moving on, in the same hall, more from Deutchsland, Skoda, erstwhile of Czechoslovakia and Eicher fame. Eicher are out of cars for good, pun intended. Skoda is at the fair because, probably, they don't know what else to do. Nobody, least of all they themselves, know what they will do in India.

Next to them, BMW. Their local dealers have a German tie-up by marriage and never give up. It, apparently, gives them a patent on all things German. Sometimes that means snooty. Yes, you can buy a BMW in India, but it has to be imported.

The mid-size cars, that segment that didn't take off, the ungrateful Indians! In 1996, we didn't have enough from Ford, General Motors, Daewoo and Peugeot. This time around, Peugeot was absent (see PAL?), and Daewoo was in colourful confusion. Ford displayed their new 1.6 litre petrol engined Escort, price yet unfinalised, but with the more promising Zetec engine, to replace the existing push rod 1.3 litre, and along with, not as a small car launch, displayed the Model A, restored to immaculate perfection.

Cameo piece was the super GT-90 sports car and to top up the display was the amusing Ford Ka (Will the Indian version be called Ford KaKa? We may never know!) and the Fiesta platform, Ford Puma. Fords future plans are deep in shrouds, but they do have a small car code-numbered C-185 and based roughly on the small car platform for Asia.

General Motors, represented in India by Opel, showed their range of Astra cars, and promise a diesel as well as an automatic transmission version 'soon. But the interest was around the 1-litre Opel Corsa. Now if ever there was a car for Asia, or even India, that was it. Would they make it? Who knows. They weren't telling.

These apart, the other car manufacturers displaying their wares were Toyota (again, no answers and only assumptions based on minimal info about their Kirloskar tie-up), the Italians with a Ferrari/Alfa Romeo/Fiat group stall, Mahindras with nothing new except their Mitsubuishi-based Voyager, and a cute little sports car imported from France called the Sanstorm/Streak. To be made by a locomotive manufacturer based in Bangalore. Well, if Honda can tie up with makers of cloth and vanaspati (cooking fat) (for its Siel) then why not...

Ah-ha! Honda Motor Co! After a glitzy front page launch in December '97, deep silences. Their Honda City is not on the roads as yet. And when it comes, it is not expected to set anything ablaze. The Honda City is a Thailand-built sedan with an over-fancy engine, and results of trials on Indian petrol are just not forthcoming. However, Honda are very hopeful that they will sell one thousand cars a month at least.

Given that in December 1997, Daewoo Cielo, Ford Escort and Opel Astra all put together managed just about that number, Honda has probably got a bit of a surprise coming. Once again, another stall with plenty of short skirts and 'fashion shows', large numbers of males hovering around.

Last in the car stakes, the oldest, Hindustan Motors. Showcasing the Ambassador centrestage, with the Mitsubishi Lancer and the Contessa as well as a few-odd looking creatures known as Oka (an Aussie assisted rural transport vehicle) and maybe a Trekker (a homegrown effort ditto). Note: The Ambassador Isuzu 1800 cc petrol version sells as many as they can make, and is the preferred car for bullet-proofing.

As per HM estimates, having spent about Rs 1 billion on new dies for making more Ambassadors (from Taiwan), they expect to continue selling these till at least 2012. There is a retro wave going on, and you may have noticed, worldwide cars are getting rounder in the roof, higher in the seat and larger in the grills. Maybe...

So that was cars at Auto Expo '98.

On to 2-wheelers.

Disappointing, to say the least.

The Royal Enfield Bullet, now owned and resurrected by Eichers, starred a new 350 cc motorcylce and spruced up versions of the existing 350 cc Bullet. No sign of the super bikes being talked about in collaboration or with assistance from Fritz Egli of Switzerland. And this was the best stall on 2-wheelers, with something new.

Bajaj showed off more 2-stroke stuff, and also showcased a new 4-stroke engine on the same Chetak frame. More 4-stroke petrol engines for a 3-wheeler and a motorcycle called Eliminator! Also a teeny weeny sub-100 cc 4-stroke on a display bike called Saffire. Test rides? Sorry, not ready as yet.

The rest, LML, Escorts, Hero Honda, Kinetic Honda, TVS Suzuki, the works, all of them had a few imported bikes/scooters but nothing by way of actuals. There are two schools of thought here:

a. They have nothing in the pipeline, in which case they are going to be in major trouble with new pollution norms;

b. They have something in the pipeline, are not sure, in which case expect them, as usual in India, to do debugging on account of the poor paying customer.

Which brings us to the end of this report, almost.

What, you say, nothing else?

Yes, no insurance, no IT industry in automobiles, no road safety, no environment and very little public transport. Very little public transport? Where?

To discover that, I took the bus to the Auto Expo '98 on the next day. To further discover that, in their intelligence, the great Delhi traffic police had diverted buses to a closest point to Pragati Maidan of almost 3 kilometres, thus forcing even those who wanted to take public transport to use personal vehicles.

The state of public transport in Delhi is so miserable that even the existing railway station on the railway line that skirts the fair grounds has a ticket counter that was not 'operated' during the Auto Expo '98 because the organisers were unable to coordinate with the Indian Railways! So, while all and sundry in their official cars happily double parked on the "No Parking No Waiting" signs as well as on the bus lanes, there was just one solitary little 'Citi bus' by Ashok Leyland on display, along with a more sophisticated one from Volvo.

And there is another tale.

When I asked for a test drive of these two city buses on actual conditions over the roads on the outskirts of Delhi, Ashok Leyland readily agreed, whereupon I played Speed 3 without Sandra Bullock over the badlands near Palli Mines to the best of my ability. Great bus, can take everything you throw at it.

Volvo said no, their bus couldn't take the that sort of road!

The Ashok Leyland city bus costs about Rs 1.5 million, the Volvo is rumoured to cost about Rs 7 million!!

Auto Expo '98. Not a business fair. A mela (fun fair).

And they'll have another one in 2000. Wonder if they'll invite me again? If I haven't died of the pollution by then.

Because the last thing we need in Delhi is more personal transportation. That message, hopefully, got across to them. As they waited in the traffic jams every day!!!

The Auto Expo '98


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