Love it or hate it, the Tata Nano made a large impact on the world. Ratan Tata, the ex-chairman of Tata Motors, envisioned a car that would mobilise Indians in the same way that the Fiat 500 did for the Italians or the Mini did for the British. Named rather aptly, the Nano was going to the most affordable car ever made and would offer relative safety to Indian families who would otherwise seat three or more on a 100cc motorcycle.
Auto journalists from around the world flocked to Pune, India to test the tiny little hatchback in 2008 and reviews weren’t too bad. In fact, after driving it, Steve Cropley, Editor-in-chief, Autocar, said, “Sadly you can’t buy a Nano, at least not outside India. But were you in the market, the Nano would be nothing less than a motoring New Deal.”
Ben Oliver, contributing editor at Car Magazine UK commented, “CAR’s first ride in the Tata Nano felt far more significant and exciting than a first drive in a Ferrari or Lamborghini, because this car’s importance is immeasurably greater. After experiencing it in action, we’re more convinced than ever of the transformational effect the Tata Nano could have on this industry. And in times like these, we find that strangely comforting.”
The hype for the hatchback was tremendous and the car did deliver nearly everything Ratan Tata had promised. The chink in the armour was its abysmal marketing. No one wanted to buy a car that was cheap, and that is essentially what hurt the car’s sales. The then Tata patriarch admitted to an Indian newspaper, “It became termed as a cheapest car by the public and, I am sorry to say, by ourselves, not by me, but the company when it was marketing it. I think that is unfortunate.”
My family was one of the first to buy this car in the country. The day the 2009 model rolled into our garage, I immediately went for a drive. A more than decent urban vehicle, its rear-mounted 624cc engine (making 37bhp), rear wheel drive and dinky dimensions made it feel like a top-heavy go-kart. It wasn’t the most refined, nor was it particularly comfortable, it was literally a different looking quadricycle. Which was beneficial in a city like Mumbai where traffic is a perennial problem.
When reports of Nano’s catching on fire surfaced, there was some paranoia that our car would suffer the same. It turned out that most owners had fitted complex aftermarket devices onto their cars causing the fires. For the longest time, our car was utterly stock. Once some of the fears subsided, we got a trusted engineer to fit a stereo system and a single speaker, so as not to overload the wiring and suffer the same fate.
Five years and nearly 20,000 miles later, our little Nano was still running more or less smoothly. A few issues with rusting were the most we had to deal with. The car had been driven in all sorts of terrain, on potholed city roads, on smooth expressways, and even on a rally-cross stage (which loosened a few bolts). It goes to show that Tata had made the Nano a capable little car.
I will admit that nostalgia has coloured my view about the car. The rear seats used to get quite hot thanks to the engine, the lack of a closed glovebox was irksome, panel gaps annoying, and shifting down to third gear at anything below 50mph was irritating while performing an overtaking manoeuvre.
Still, when we did finally sell the car at the end of 2015, I had to commemorate the Nano with an ode:
A purer concept seldom seen,
Flawed in conception it may have been,
Still did what it was meant to pottering around town,
Albeit in a noisy-ish manner, the cause of some frowns,
Dinky proportions that made parking and squeezing through traffic a breeze,
Though with five sitting in the car, they would be a little ill at ease,
The cheapest rear-wheel hatch ever made, first sold for about a thousand quid,
I will really miss driving the pants off it!