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The Making of Nano

Ratan Tata interviewed by Christabelle Noronha

"I enjoy thinking about impossible things, and how I can perhaps actually make them possible." – Ratan Tata


CN: The Tatas and you, in particular, are on the brink of realising a long-cherished ambition. What does it mean to you?

RT: There has always been some sort of unconscious urge to do something for the people of India and transport has been an area of interest. As urbanisation gathers pace, personal transport has become a big issue, especially since mass transport is often not available or is of poor quality. Two-wheelers — with the father driving, the elder child standing in front and the wife behind holding a baby — is very much the norm in this country. In that form two-wheelers are a relatively unsafe mode of transporting a family. The two-wheeler image is what got me thinking that we needed to create a safer form of transport.

My first doodle was to rebuild cars around the scooter, so that those using them could be safer if it fell. Could there be a four-wheel vehicle made of scooter parts? I got in touch with an industry association and suggested that we join forces and produce what, at that point, I called an Asian car: large volumes, many nations involved, maybe with different countries producing different sets of parts… Nobody took the idea seriously, nobody responded.

This was similar to what happened when we wanted to get going on the Indica. I had proposed a partnership with an industry body to create an Indian car, designed, developed and produced in India, something that could be conceptualised and executed as an Indian enterprise. Everybody scoffed at the concept. I remember people saying, "Why doesn't Mr Tata produce a car that works before he talks about an Indian car." My confidence got a boost when we finally succeeded with the Indica. Willy-nilly, we decided to look at [the low-cost car] project within Tata Motors.

It was never meant to be a Rs1-lakh car; that happened by circumstance. I was interviewed by the [British newspaper] Financial Times at the Geneva Motor Show and I talked about this future product as a low-cost car. I was asked how much it would cost and I said about Rs1 lakh. The next day the Financial Times had a headline to the effect that the Tatas are to produce a Rs100,000 car. My immediate reaction was to issue a rebuttal, to clarify that that was not exactly what I had said. Then I thought, I did say it would be around that figure, so why don't we just take that as a target. When I came back our people were aghast, but we had our goal.

Today, we are close to the target in terms of costs. We are not there as yet, but by the time we go into production we will be. This project has proven to everyone that if you really set yourself to doing something, you actually can do it.

Two-three important events have influenced the development of the car; inflation, for one. The cost statement was made three-four years back but we are holding on to that price barrier. This will definitely diminish our margins. The price of steel, in particular, has gone up during the intervening period.

A second point is that we initially conceived this as a low-end 'rural car,' probably without doors or windows and with plastic curtains that rolled down, a four-wheel version of the auto-rickshaw, in a manner of speaking. But as the development cycle progressed we realised that we could — and needed to — do a whole lot better. And so we slowly gravitated towards a car like everyone expects a car to be. The challenge increased exponentially; there was the low-price barrier, inflation, adding more features and parts to the vehicle, substantial changes in basic raw materials… What the team has been able to achieve, in the face of all these constraints, is truly outstanding.

What does it mean to me? It means that we have in us the capability to undertake a challenge that many car companies have chosen not to address or have been unable to address.

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