Today Tata Motors officially announced that they’ll be pulling the plug on the Indica and Indigo range of models. I’m sure most of us are delighted to know that they have finally axed such crappy cars, but when we try to understand how the scenario was 20 years ago, things become very surprising. On December 30th, 1998 Tata Motors put out a full-page Advertisement on the newspapers, quoting “You will never have to suffer a small car again”. While it may sound laughable today, back in the day it made a lot of sense. Let’s rewind the clock 20 years backwards and see what the fuss was about and why the new Tata Indica is a revolutionary car for the Indian Market.

Ratan Tata pictured in the assembly line of the Indica - 1998
Ratan Tata pictured in the assembly line of the Indica – 1998
Tata Indica Newspaper advert 1998
Tata Indica Newspaper advert 1998

What is this new car?

Okay since we are in 1998, Tata Motors was previously named as TELCO and if we could remember better, it’s the time when we could find a Maruti 800 or an Ambassador bubbling along with more than 4 adults and a couple of kids stuffed in like a Frankie roll. The situation is clear. The market is in dire need of a new economical car that was bigger than the existing Maruti 800 but should be priced competitively to the 800. Ratan Tata took the matter into his own hands and wanted to build a true 5 seater car. TELCO (Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company) decided to outsource the design and several leading Automotive design companies such as ItalDesign, Ghia Design, Turin and I.D.E.A were approached and the Italian Design House I.D.E.A sealed the job of designing the new Indica. In two years, TELCO was ready to showcase their new car. The Indica was unveiled at the 1998 Auto Expo and it looked stunning with its beautiful aerodynamic shape and large glass house. The interiors were also radical with a neatly designed dashboard with ergonomically placed switches(1990s ergonomics) and the car was supremely spacious, 5 people could easily be accommodated. The icing on the cake was the pricing of the new Indica. The Non-Ac Petrol model was 25,000 Rs cheaper than its direct rival, the Maruti 800. Even a price difference of Rs 5000 meant a lot for the Indian buyer and it’s no surprise that the Indica was flooded with bookings.

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Ratan Tata’s Famed Quote

Indica = Indian + Car or Indigenous Car 

The visionary Ratan Tata on the launch of the Indica said “We present the Indian public a car which we can proudly call it our own, with the external dimensions of the zen, the internal dimensions of the ambassador, because that’s what the Indian car buying public needs, to have the economies of a diesel car and which can be priced about that of a Maruti 800.” Guess what? 1,15,000 bookings were recorded within a year of its launch!

Ratan Tata driving off in the very first Indica
Ratan Tata driving off in the very first Indica
Tata Indica RHD Export
Tata Indica RHD Export to Europe with Abs and Airbags

Pricing and Specs of the Tata Indica – 1998*

  • GL Petrol,1405 cc, 60 bhp 4 speed, 10.7 kg-m torque,Rs 2,59,000 ex-showroom OMG
  • DL Diesel non-AC (highest selling), 1405 cc 4 speed, 53.5 bhp, 8.7 kg-m,priced at Rs 2,85,000 ex-showroom.
  • DLE diesel with AC, just Rs 2,95,000 ex-showroom
  • DLX, fully loaded with Power steering, power windows on all 4 doors (first in class), central locking with remote, rear wiper/ washer/ defogger, parcel tray, digital clock, tachometer, 5-speed gearbox etc, 3,90,000 ex-showroom.

90’s Exteriors of the Indica 

The Tata Indica just looks fantabulous as previously mentioned and it is miles ahead of the 800/Zen/Fiat Uno/Daewoo Matiz, but hey we just had the launch of the new tall-boy Hyundai Santro which looks super funky and we are already getting news of Maruti preparing its tall-boy the WagonR. Oops now began the spell of trouble for Tata. While the Indica is a good looking car, the Santro looks more youthful and “cool” thus making the Indica look like a design of yesterday. With the onset of the WagonR and the gorgeous Fiat Palio in 2001, things really started going against the Indica. What was once being conceived as a neat and modern design started drifting slowly towards “bland” side.

With every update that the Indica received, it only got worse as the lack of creativity became apparent and we Indians were no longer interested in buying base model cars with black bumpers and steel wheels. With the onset of cars like the Hyundai i10 and the Chevrolet Beat in the mid-2000’s, Tata knew their Indica was in big trouble.

First Generation Tata Indica in Europe
Base model Tata Indica
Base model Tata Indica

These 1990s newspaper adverts show the kind of new competition the Indica had to face within months of its launch.

Interiors

The interiors of the Indica were as radical as the exteriors. While it was a sea of grey plastic, the design of the cabin was well thought out. The biggest complaint with the 800 was its small glovebox and lack of storage spaces, TELCO has properly dealt this issue as the interior was designed with a large lockable glovebox, storage compartment under the steering wheel, huge door pockets, a huge sweeping dashboard with the neatly mounted speakers and a huge storage space atop of it. Ergonomics? Well the driving position of the Indica is spot-on and all the switchgear and controls are easy to reach for the driver, should I say a “Driver-focused” cockpit? (Remember this is the 90s). The big AC vents help in making the dashboard look busy and are equipped with air volume adjustment for optimum airflow towards the huge glass house. Fit and finish of the panels are good, Overall it’s a great cabin and maybe it can be the best in its class.

Tata Indica 1998 Interiors
Tata Indica 1998 Interiors

Enter the interiors of the WagonR and Santro

The Santro and the WagonR had the best interiors for their segment. The dashboard of the Santro felt very sold and again funky(only in the 90s) and every switch you touch felt very tactile. Storage spaces were plenty and the car could easily accommodate 5 passengers. The WagonR had a 50-50 split folding rear seat, adjustable headrests for front and rear occupants, huge dashboard with ample storage spaces and an SUV like seating position. These tall-boy hatchbacks had loads of headroom to the extent that you could even wear a party hat while driving them. We’ve never had small hatchbacks with practicality features like these and you realise one thing, “Did I just appreciate the interiors of the Indica for its ergonomics and fit and finish and even mentioned it as best-in-class” :/  The Indica sure does beat its rival the Maruti 800 but the Diesel variants are in the pricing territory of the WagonR and Santro so it has to deal with the new competition.

Equipment and Engines

The base model of the Indica is sparsely equipped and to keep the costs low there are quite a lot of cost-cutting starting from the rubber beadings to sound-proofing but this was acceptable for two reasons. Firstly it was the 90s and none of the entry model cars were well equipped. Secondly, the space inside the Indica was palatial, just enough to please any buyer. The models which come equipped with air-conditioning are a bit more expensive but are still cheaper than the Santro/WagonR and the Daewoo Matiz. The only way you could get a power steering on the Indica was by choosing the top DLX model which costs a whopping 3.95 Lakh!

The Lxi WagonR priced at 3.2 Lakh Rs came with AC and power steering and the Dx1 Santro had many essential features such as power steering, front power windows, central locking, high-quality fabric upholstery, fabric inserts on door trims, body colored bumpers, rear wiper/washer/defogger, front fog lamps, waistline moulding and full wheel covers and was priced at Rs 3.4 Lakh. Anyways if you still persevered and went for the DLX Indica then you do get to enjoy features such as Power steering, power windows on all 4 doors (first in class), central locking, rear wiper/ washer/ defogger, parcel tray, clock, tachometer, 5-speed gearbox etc. Sure it does come with a lot of kit but the value for money factor was missing at this price point. All the three cars offer ventilated disc brakes at the front and drums for the rear.

Engines

The Indica came in two drivetrains. A 1.4L carburetted petrol unit that produces 60 Bhp at 5000rpm and a healthy 105 Nm of torque. This should appeal to those who drive their cars once in two weeks.

For those of you who commute regularly, there is a 1.4-L diesel which is naturally aspirated in the DLE producing 53 bhp and 85 Nm of torque. A turbocharged engine for the DLS and DLX. The DLX also has an intercooler equipped. The turbocharged unit produces 65 Bhp and 140Nm of torque. This was a time when engine smoothness and refinement was the top priority.

90’s Verdict?

The Indica is such a great car and is a huge leap forward from the Maruti 800 and the Fiat Uno. It’s supremely spacious, pleasing styling and has a good range of engine options to choose from at a very tempting price point. Thus for the year 1998 anyone would vote it as the “Indian Car of the Year“. Its got all the convenience and it fits the budget! So what could possibly go wrong? The Indica has many flaws but when seen in isolation, it wasn’t all that bad and it had a lot of character as it was a fully indigenous product and is a true homegrown car.

Yet today 20 years later when we think of the Indica, we’d come up with terms like Taxi-cab, Un-reliable, Ugly, Poor-resale value, Long-term ownership issues, Pathetic interior quality, Lack of equipment, Lack of safety features. The biggest problem with the Indica can be summed up in one word – COMPETITON. With the liberalisation of the trade market in 1994, we had several foreign manufacturers like Fiat and Ford pitching in their sophisticated offerings like the Uno and Escort but in the late 90s things really changed as foreign manufacturers realised the potential for small hatchbacks in India upon seeing the success of the Maruti 800. Thus throughout the course of its production, the Indica had to engage in a constant battle with Korean and Japanese cars and sadly it just couldn’t keep up.

Tata Motors(then TELCO) was in its infancy when the Indica was launched and this led to huge issues in quality control and the Indica was riddled with faults. Tata managed to smoothen it with the update to V2 Indica in 2003 and hoped to turn things around but it was too late. The Santro and WagonR dominated the hatchback market with their economical engines and superb reliability. Tata learned a lot of lessons after venturing into the automotive industry with the Indica. The introduction of the Maruti Alto in 2002 ensured that people lay their hard earned cash to buy a Maruti product and would stay far away from any other manufacturer.

Tata Indica V2
Tata Indica V2

The low-cost Diesel offering on the Indica made it a hit amongst the Taxi segment and these cars were purchased in fleets to replace the ageing Hindustan Ambassador. This did help a lot in boosting the financial situation for Tata but it took a heavy toll on its image. What was once seen as a visionary’s car turned into a Bullock-cart that littered the roads in a poorly maintained lack-lustre form.

Tata Indica Tourist Cab
Tata Indica Tourist Cab from 2001

While the Indica might have been a commercial failure when compared to its rivals, it isn’t all that dreary when you consider that the Indica earned the bread and butter for amass of Taxi drivers and even today several lakh Indicas live on the roads serving their masters with a wholesome loyalty. Since the inception of the V2 model, the Indica gained a huge fanfare from the Patriots and that kept sales going strong with every iteration. Tata in fact made India’s first compact sedan – the Indigo CS which was a huge success until it was strangled by the competition. The Indica took one last shot with the EV2 model which had an upgraded cr4 engine and refreshed interiors. While this model would again be considered a letdown, it still represented excellent value for money. Who would offer a brand new diesel car at Rs 4.5 Lakh?

Tata tried everything in the book to attract buyers for the Indica. They made an estate version, they made a sedan, a compact sedan. They even went to the extent of making a whole new line-up called the “Indica Vista” to let go of its taxicab image and offered a 90bhp Turbo petrol Vista which competed with rivals such as the i20 and Swift.

Well, let’s conclude by saying that despite all its flaws, India will definitely miss the Indica.

Tata Indigo Marina
Tata Indigo Marina – Estate
Tata Indica Vista
Tata Indica Vista

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Santosh is Founder member of WheelBHP, an MBA Professional and automotive nut, a biker by heart. He is easily attracted towards cars and bikes and he has passion for these since he was too young (a school boy). His passion went so strong that he finally ended up writing blog about auto world and this led him to WheelBHP. Well, he likes to keep things shorted well and this makes him manage his work and blogging life together without any miss. The journey to WheelBHP was although not easy for him considering his professional and love life (which he referes to auto blogging) yet the enthusiasm and support from his friends and family made him stand and go ahead with what he likes the most.. 

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