Shove over a bit Henry Ford, Ferry Porsche and Alec Issigonis, because as of this morning there's a new entrant for the People's Car Hall of Fame.
The first day of the Indian Auto Expo 2008 in Delhi, saw Ratan N Tata (yes, the fella who's leading the bid for Jaguar and Land Rover) reveal his much vaunted 'one lakh' car (that's 100,000 rupees or a measly £1300).
Despite being the Chairman and CEO of one of the world's biggest corporations, Ratan Tata admits to being a nervous presenter, so much so, that the initial information was presented by his hologram! When he did appear, it was behind the wheel of one of three 'one lakh' cars being driven onto the stage. The 3000-strong audience of press and VIPs went beserk amid scenes of euphoria last witnessed at the Clinton comeback in New Hampshire. With no spy shots to whet our tastebuds, this was the first time anyone outside Tata had seen the car, and the crowd was loving it.
Tata Nano: the inspiration
Tata has christened his baby Nano, and revealed that his company has been working on the project for four years, after he saw a family of four travelling in the rain on a single moped. 'I wanted to provide Indian families with an all-weather means of safe transport,' he says, and you get the sense that he really did build this car for the people. To be fair, at £1300, it's unlikely to be for the profit.
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Tata's detractors were expecting a canvas roof and three wheels, but what the Indian company has achieved for the money is quite spectacular. With steel chassis, mostly metal body panels and glass windows, the Nano meets India's frontal and off-set crash test regulations. The rear-mounted 623cc two-cylinder petrol engine produces 33bhp with a single balancer shaft, oxidation catalytic converter, Bosch multi-point fuel injection. A four-speed manual transmission (not the CVT rumoured) delivers 50mpg and meets Euro III and (with a few tweaks) IV emissions regulations. 'It's been driven the length and breadth of India,' adds Tata, 'and we've had it up to 105km/h (65mph).'
Small on the outside (3.1m long x 1.5m wide x 1.6m high), but big on the inside, the Nano is nowhere near as ugly as the price might suggest, and some might even consider it cute. A deluxe model is planned which will feature air-conditioning and more luxurious interiors. These of course will cost more, and Tata hints that profit will only come from these more expensive variants. Of the one-lakh price point he says: 'I made a promise and the challenge has been to keep that promise amid rising steel and oil prices.'
Tata Nano: how they'll build it
Production of the Nano will begin in the second half of the year at a purpose-built facility in West Bengal. Until recently the site was underwater, following a flood, but construction has recommenced and Tata believes the plant will churn out 250,000-350,000 units a year. As part of the cost-cutting exercise, 35 parts suppliers have moved into the same complex, reducing transport costs and time delays dramatically.
The car, which has 34 patents registered on it, will be sold in India for two or three years before Tata look at selling it in Africa, Latin America and S.E Asia. The possibility of a global distribution tie-up with Fiat seems strong. However, the market for ultra-cheap bargain people's cars is about to explode, with numerous big names - from Europe, Japan and the Indian subcontinent - about to launch rivals to the Nano. Tata won't have this market to itself for long.
Ratan Tata admits the one lakh price point is the dealer cost, and VAT and delivery charges have to be added. But at under £1500 on your drive, Tata and co. have created the world's lowest-cost car and for good or bad that could change the transport choice for millions of people worldwide.