Requiem for a Hatchback

I’m new to Delhi and it is new to me. We have shared many firsts together – my first time riding in an auto-rickshaw, my first time being accosted by a well-meaning gentleman asking after my “length” (when he proffered 6 feet as an option, I realised he may not have meant what I thought he did), and the first time I had ever found more than 3 abandoned vehicles within a minute’s walk of my home.

Growing up as I did in small-town Wiltshire, publicly and illicitly discarded vehicles were a bit of a rare event – something to be skulked around, gawped at and, occasionally, pointlessly vandalised or set on fire by the ever-present bored youth. They were certainly not seen with any frequency, generally being the result of theft and ensuing abandonment, and they would invariably find their way to a scrap yard before more than a month had passed.

There are plenty of places in Britain where this is less true than my home turf, yet I doubt any would reach the dizzying heights of Delhi in this regard. Not only are there many such cars, some of them seem to have set up residence, their flat tyres partially buried and their dilapidated frames sheltering little hordes of the omnipresent plastic litter that sweeps the streets.

The proliferation of these vehicles was thus a curiosity to my Western country-boy eyes, and I took it upon myself to perform a little straw-poll of the local strays – stray cars, that is; stray dogs being another prominent feature that are more difficult to count, both due to their sheer numerousness and also their problematic ability to move around at will.

I ended up with a number that surprised me further. Within my local hood – Safdarjung Enclave, should you wish to visit – I have so far counted sixteen vehicles that are confirmed abandoned. For me confirmation consists of them having four flat tyres and an undisturbed coating of fine yellowish dirt, though sometimes it’s more obvious even than that; in one memorable instance I saw a vehicle next to some roadworks almost entirely buried beneath a pile of excavated dirt.

Amongst these vehicles there is also a distinct pattern as to their make and model. Ten of them are one variant or another of the venerable Maruti 800 – the signature car of India’s rise to modernity, and the family hatchback that drove the nation into the future of motoring.

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Flash back to the early 1990s. India was by now firmly in the grip of hatchback fever and the star of the show was Suzuki Maruti’s shiny little number. Released in 1983, its 800cc engine provided enough power to move around at India’s fairly relaxed speed limits (50Kph on major roads) without soaking up costly fuel, while the interior provided shelter for five occupants with further scope for squeezing in the odd cousin, nephew or niece on an available lap.

Judged by European standards of the ‘90s the car was nothing special. Its boxy body looks a little bit like somebody glued the back of an Austin Metro to the front of a MkII Fiesta and then sat on it, giving it nothing on the curves of modern continental competitors like the Peugeot 306. Meanwhile that 800cc, 3-cylinder, 37bhp power-plant would almost certainly be a source of shame to any self-respecting lad-about-town.

Yet considered in its proper context, the Maruti 800 was absolutely a phenomenon – a coming of age of India’s motor industry. This was a car that was becoming eminently attainable to India’s freshly minted middle-class, a car that conferred prestige and modernity upon its owner. No longer was the owner a slave to the elements like the riders of the ubiquitous two-wheelers. No longer would two or three of their passengers have to hug themselves to the rider, clinging on for dear life with whatever luggage they could hold. No longer did you have to be a government employee with access to a driver and a permanent spot in the back seat of a Hindustan Ambassador, that quaint relic mostly unchanged from the late 1950s.

For all of its basic 1980s charms this was still a truly modern vehicle and, crucially, it was cheap enough to be attainable to many and yet not quite cheap enough to have become ubiquitous – a perfect storm of capitalist consumer joy. Its place in the sun seemed absolutely assured and, for nearly three decades, it thrived.

Fast-forward back to the present and the situation has changed. Metropolitan New Delhi plays host to all sorts of imported vehicles. Audis, BMWs and Land Rovers strut their stuff, almost invariably painted in impeccable white and driven by impatient men with a fondness for using their horns. Even in the less affluent areas there are new cars on the block – Suzuki Maruti’s own Swift and Alto have made their own inroads into the market, while home-grown Tata’s Nano fills out the space at the bottom of the barrel with its ultra-affordable, no-frills, 624cc-plus-4-wheels-and-a-box formula.

The poor old 800 has been squeezed out of the market, pushed out homeless and destitute onto the streets. No longer the darling of the middle-class and yet still unattainably expensive to a large proportion of the population, it has no sweet-spot to occupy. Instead it occupies street corners, shady parking spots and the odd bit of pavement outside a local shop.

This is not to overstate its demise. There are still plenty of them up and running, as my own photographs will attest – look for the pictures of cars with the tell-tale signs of new dents, fresh scrapes and tyres that still have air in them. It’s just that they no longer hold that particular cachet they once did; so much so that there doesn’t even seem to be an incentive to drag away the slowly corroding hulks and sell them for parts.

Perhaps that’s just progress.

Perhaps it’s sentimental to mourn the fate of a cheap little car.

Even so, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a legacy being left abandoned at the side of the road.