The manufacturing industry was the pride of Bengal and its foundation had been laid long before the country gained Independence. In 1948, a major development had put West Bengal in the headlines- the establishment of the first integrated automobile plant at Uttarpara by Hindustan Motors owned by the Birlas with its own railway station at Hind Motor
G D Birla & His Car
The head of the Birla family, legendary businessman Ghanshyam Das or G D Birla, was a visionary who understood that a country should make its own automobiles. A devoted follower of Mahatma Gandhi, Birla noted that even though he believed in a simple way of life, Gandhi depended on his car for travelling.
Interestingly, G D had asked his engineers to design and fabricate a car ground up. Newspaper reports of that era indicate that such a car was indeed built and it ran. Its design was meant to be suitable for the very poor and virtually non-existent road network in India. This car can be seen in the photograph, driven by a professional with G D Birla and one of his grandsons on the back seat. The design of the car – with high wheels and canvas top – was not quite contemporary and may have been slightly outdated for city use even in the 1940s though it appeared to be suited for rural areas.
Studebaker Motors was one of the respected names in the world between 1920s and the 1960s. A favourite among upper class nationalist Indians who refused to buy British goods and yet wanted a powerful car, Studebakers offered prestige – and a Birla backed sales and service network. The photograph in the article showed a large number of Studebaker cars inside a workshop under Indian management. A newspaper report of 1948 pointed out that the Birla conglomerate had signed an agreement with Studebaker to identify suitable models for manufacture.
Hind Motor plant
When the historic Uttarpara/ Hind Motor plant was set up, the Birla company had two choices – make Studebaker cars for top end buyers and Morris cars for the family segment. A photograph shows Studebaker car chassis being prepared at the Hind Motor plant in 1952-53 for finishing. But this major opportunity was ignored and missed. Instead there was quick implementation of the Morris agreement. The outdated Morris 10 was promoted as Hindustan 10 and hit the road. It was followed by the Morris MO as the Hindustan 14 with a puny underpowered engine and then the even more underpowered Landmaster and the first embarrassing side valve engine Ambassador. Only the introduction of the overhead valve 1500cc engine saved the company from closure, along with government restrictions imposed on import of all cars.
The decision of the company to make only one car model at a time led to the regrettable exclusion of Studebaker cars from India. Car companies all over the world followed a business model of having a range of cars from small to family/big cars. This is done even today, by every car company. But our Indian industrialists failed to appreciate or understand this basic wisdom.
The result was sad for both ventures. The Uttarpara plant could not compete with any car company and went bust the moment competition emerged and government protection ended. In the USA, Studebaker also suffered from the loss of market share at home and overseas to companies like GM, Ford and Chrysler and instead became primarily a military equipment contractor.