Timeline- The 70s. Location New Delhi. One man sits at his desk with a faraway dream in his eyes, that of producing a world class automobile in India for the Indian masses. The man- Sanjay Gandhi & his company – The Maruti Motor Company. The foreign collaborator who helped realize this dream was the Suzuki Motor Corporation from Japan & thus was born Maruti Udyog Limited although by then Sanjay was no more. Their earliest offering was the Suzuki Alto rebadged for India as the Maruti 800.
First made available in 1983 it initially drew a lot of curiosity & also skepticism from the average Indian consumer who had grown up on a steady diet of lumbering monsters like the Premier Padminis & Hindustan Ambassadors. ‘Bas 800 cc hain ji?’ (merely 800 cc is it?) or ‘Loha bada patla hain yaar, thok do toh bach nahi paaoge’ (the metal is so flimsy that you won’t survive a collision) were very common comments made on the humble 800. But it proved them all wrong however and went on to dominate the market for a long, long time to come.
Based on the SS80 Suzuki Alto kei car, the 796 cc front engined vehicle quickly became popular with the masses. Local production commenced in 1983 and it was quickly snapped up by eager motorists who were turned off by the long wait for their Padminis & Ambassadors to be allocated & delivered to them. The light nippy car was also fun to drive & turned a lot of eager housewives & first tine drivers into ace drivers in no time at all. For many years, the 800 was the middle class car buying consumer’s first car. It was also the preferred mode of transport for shopping trips, long distance trips and just about any sort of trip. In 1986 it got a full model upgrade & was replaced by a more modern design. Gone was the hinged glass back- it was replaced by a metal hatch that had a fixed rear windscreen. Vehicle dimensions also changed a bit & this shape of the 800 remained the shape that continued till date albeit with nips & tucks & cosmetic changes here & there.
In the late 90’s to comply with emission norms the 800 got a multi-point fuel injection (MPFI) system. Maruti also introduced a 5 speed model for a brief period but then stopped producing it since it was eating into the Alto’s sales (yes, the Alto was launched under its own name by then). Interestingly enough, the Indian market was probably the only one where different generations of the Suzuki Alto were sold side by side under different brand names (Maruti 800, Zen, Alto 800 & Alto 1100). The story of the 800 continued- it just went on & on. Although it was getting a bit long in the tooth, Maruti designers kept on making cosmetic changes to refresh its looks time & again. It still continued to be a popular entry level car primarily due to its cost & fuel economy.
In 2010 due to Euro IV emission norms coming into force in major Indian cities, Maruti had to withdraw the model from 13 cities since they had no plans to make the 800 Euro IV compliant. It still continued to sell in other cities but Maruti had already made plans to eventually phase out the product altogether. And so, as of 18th January 2014 the death knell has sounded for this popular product. It has gone out and faded into black. We will still continue to reminisce about the 800 in very fond terms and will only say this- the car may have faded into obscurity but the legend lives on.