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Ratan Tata: Hero to a nation starved of heroes
BS Bureau
January 11, 2008

Tata Motors, Chairman Ratan Tata during the launch of its people's car, Tata Nano, at the 9th Auto Expo in New Delhi on Thursday. PTI Photo by Kamal SinghRatan Tata is a hero to a nation that sometimes feels starved of heroes. He knows it too. Mr Tata has used the emotional route before, when he announced his first passenger car years before it became a reality.

It takes a certain courage to play with the expectations of a huge nation and then stick to the plot and deliver the goods.

The Indica had a hungry audience when the car was finally launched. A car that was cheap to buy and run, it went on to become a huge success story and propelled Tata Motors [Get Quote] to the third largest passenger car maker's position in the country.

This time round, he has flirted with the emotions of an even bigger audience and, from the looks of it, the Tata Nano will be an even bigger success story. Certainly a billion hearts swelling with pride helps, but it is also important that the "one lakh car" looks and drives like a dream.

We don't know yet about the driving part, but what was unveiled at the Delhi Auto Expo on Thursday was a production-ready prototype that takes the accepted way of building a mass-produced automobile.

It uses a steel monocoque with built-in crashworthiness, and conventional sheet metal body parts. Mr Tata could have gone the route of using an extruded aluminium structure to ensure even more safety but then it would have cost much more.

A frugal petrol engine mounted at the rear of the car has helped the engineers liberate a great deal of room inside the cabin. And, most importantly, everything is wrapped up in a beautiful package -- there has been no compromise on either aesthetics or safety.

All this at an investment cost of Rs 1,700 crore (Rs 17 billion) -- which includes the development cost of the car as well as that of the upcoming plant at Singur in West Bengal.

Mr Tata has warned that inflation and the rising price of materials will mean the price tag going up in the future -- but that should not be a worry in a country where 7-8 million two-wheelers are sold.

A fraction of them converting to four wheels would ensure the success of the Tata Nano. But the car will have competition, as there are other car makers, some of them from the big league, who are toying with the idea of similar low-priced cars.

Carlos Ghosn of Renault has already made the plunge and has asserted that such a project can only be done in India. Suddenly the needs of a developing market, like India, are getting priority with leading car makers.

This is not very different from post-World War II Europe, which lapped up cost-effective transportation. Automotive legends such as the VW Beetle, the Citroen 2CV and the Fiat 500 were born out of the socio-economic conditions that forced car makers to reinvent the wheel.

The Tata Nano, which features a rear engine format like that of the Beetle, has all the ingredients to join that list of illustrious automotive designs. The fact that it meets the necessary crashworthiness and emission norms of the day enhances its appeal.

It might have started as a widely misquoted dream of one man -- but Ratan Tata has ensured that he has turned it into an opportunity to take his firm to new heights.

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