The World Turned Upside Down – UK to Assemble Indian Car
By Andy Bannister
Just how much times have changed in the global car industry in the last decade has been brought into focus by news that Britain is to begin assembling an Indian-designed electric car, from Tata.
For decades, this trade ran in the other direction, with some rather less-than-glamorous products of the British motor industry pensioned off to India and manufactured there by companies like Hindustan, Standard and Sipani.
Tata Motors is a big player in Britain now, since the company owns two of the country’s best-known marques, Jaguar and Land Rover. Both are struggling quite a lot in the current difficult economic trading conditions, which have hit makers of larger, more polluting vehicles particularly hard.
The Indian firm has not attempted European assembly of its own products before, contenting itself in the past with half-heartedly selling a few vehicles under its own badge in Britain and some other European countries like Italy, Malta, Spain and Portugal.
British offerings under the little-known Tata name have included the rather rudimentary Loadbeta Pick-up and the Gurkha and Safari 4X4s.
A potentially lucrative deal to sell the Tata Indica five-door hatchback through MG Rover dealers as the CityRover sank without trace in 2005 along with that ill-fated company, and quite a few boat-loads of CityRovers ended off being sold off incredibly cheaply at auction.
That doesn’t bode that well for the new electric vehicle, which is a second generation, slightly sleeker Indica. In CityRover guise it was panned for a low quality interior and considered overpriced and old-fashioned compared to European rivals, though the new model should hopefully address some of those shortcomings.
Tata is being lent £10m ($16m) by the British Government to assemble the Indica EV in the UK from knocked-down kits. The cash comes out of a package of assistance announced to kickstart the ailing domestic car industry and help companies develop low carbon technologies.
The deal has taken eight months to finalise, and Tata Motors will invest £25m ($41m) into the project, which optimists suggest could create hundreds of jobs.
At this stage it is unclear whether assembly will take place in a Jaguar Land Rover facility or elsewhere. In the meantime, interim manufacture will take place in Norway, where the Tata’s electric batteries will come from.
Tata says the Indica “will be the world’s first mass-produced family-sized electric car” and that it should be available in Europe by the end of the year.
Electric car sales in the UK have risen in recent times thanks almost entirely to the effect of the London Congestion Charge. Electric vehicles are among those exempt from a hefty daily payment to drive into certain parts of the capital.
Whether the move will herald a long-term future for Tata assembly in the UK is another matter, but the company – most famous recently for the tiny Nano microcar – has big ambitions, so anything is possible.
India itself is fast becoming one of the motoring world’s success stories, with booming exports of small models like the Suzuki Alto and Hyundai i10.
These cars are a far cry from the vehicles the British pensioned off to India over many decades. The most famous and long-lived of these is the 1950s Morris Oxford (still in small-scale production as the Hindustan Ambassador).
Hindustan also offered for many years a model known as the Contessa, a version of the 1970s Vauxhall Victor, which for some time was seriously considered to be the country’s ultimate luxury car.
Standard of India (a company associated with Standard-Triumph, a predecessor of British Leyland) made the Standard Gazel, a modified four-door version of the Triumph Herald, and much later attempted to sell the Standard 2000, based on the Rover SD1 hatchback.
Even Reliant, the maker of Britain’s three-wheelers, got in on the act, offering its 850cc glassfibre Kitten (a four-wheel version of the infamous Reliant Robin) to Indians as the Sipani Dolphin, made in Bangalore.
Unsurprisingly, it was not a great success, nor was a later Sipani project to build the 1980s Austin Montego saloon.
These mostly unlamented models may not be the last the Indian public see of Great British design, however. A logical step – and one more palatable to today’s more discerning consumers – would be for Tata would be to manufacture Land Rover and even Jaguar vehicles on its home turf.
Surely it can’t be long before that move comes to pass?
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