Indian roads were once ruled by family cars built by General Motors (GM) and Ford. These cars offered comfort, reliability, space and performance at amazing value. So successful were the vehicles that the duo remained the world’s largest and second largest companies respectively for many years. The exit of GM from India is indeed a sad occasion, more so given its outstanding success in the past.
GM triumphed in India, thanks to its Chevrolet brand, which was the world’s largest selling car brand from 1936 to 1976. Pontiac, Buick/Oldsmobile, LaSalle and Cadillac cars formed the rest of its portfolio but were less sold.
For example, Calcutta had a large number of Pontiac taxis. But the real success was Chevrolet, which built leadership through careful strategy
In order to topple Ford’s model T (topping sales figures), Chevrolet came up with its own 4 cylinder car, the 490, but with a conventional gearbox and suspension, wheel brakes and a lower chassis. Immediately, the cheaper T looked silly with its high clearance, foot operated gears, transmission brake and wagon springs. By the late 1920s, Ford’s leadership was further eroded as prestigious customers like Sir Nilratan Sircar in Calcutta shifted to using Chevrolet. In addition, it started offering styled bodies, as the two photographs show: one is an open tourer used in Ritwick Ghatak’s movie ‘Ajantrik’ and the other, a stylish two-door coupe sold to a leading barrister by Walfords.
Fighting back, Ford launched the conventional 4 cylinder Model A. In response, Chevrolet in 1929 launched its Six, a 6 cylinder motor that immediately attracted buyers on account of its superior performance and smoothness. In addition, it had a modern overhead valve design which greatly improved reliability and reduced overheating problems. Prestigious buyers like Dr Bidhan Chandra Ray started using a Chevrolet. The competition was in the shade.
Then Chevrolet came up with another masterstroke; it offered fashionable factory produced steel bodies with style changes every few years so that its cars always looked fresh and modern and could be driven straight out of the showroom to home.
The pre-1945 Master, belonging to the Mayurbhanj ruling family displayed such a body. In contrast, most cars were then bought as chassis and sent to a body builder for its body. Thanks to these steps, the 1930s saw Chevrolet as the market leader.
Upset, Ford Empire came up with a V8 but it was a side valve engine. Although smooth and powerful, it could not match the Six with its overhead valve in terms of efficiency and cooling.
After the Second World War ended in 1945, the Indian market for cars exploded. By then, Chevrolet had come up with innovations like independent front suspension and servo assisted gear change; in terms of car luxuries and modernised bodywork it was ahead of its competitors. Its Master series had integrated lamps and constant annual design changes were introduced to keep cars looking new.
In 1949-50, Chevrolet launched a totally new wide bodied Fleetline series with automatic transmission and other goodies, as the accompanying advertisement shows. It was also accompanied by a momentous announcement: the Fleetline assembly centre for India was to be Calcutta, not GM’s main assembly unit at Sewree near Mumbai.
But alas, it was not to be. The Indian government cracked down on all cars and banned their sale. Only three models – one each by Hindustan Motors, Premier Auto and Standard Motors – were permitted by narrow minded politicians. The GM plant was a non starter and the company pulled out of India with its full portfolio.
Chevrolet remained ‘King of the Market’ till the end came in 1950s— defeated not by the competition but by corruption. The grand success story was sadly not repeated again despite products like the Chevrolet Cruze, an international success on the racetrack and in the market. Let us hope GM will re-enter India sometime in the future with greater success.