Musings on the Motoring World

The world’s cheapest car is dead

Whether by sheer coincidence or by the mysterious and nefarious machinations of an uncaring universe, production of the world’s cheapest car came to an end right on the first day of the 2018 Goodwood Festival of Speed. It’s a slice of irony so thick and palatable that it could plug the divide in social inequality.

While the motoring world is celebrating the great and the quick at Goodwood, it would be unseemly to let the Tata Nano go to a pauper’s grave without giving a short eulogy.

Introduced in 2008, the Nano was Tata’s ambitious vision of building the world’s cheapest car, a car that would cost 1 Lakh (100,000 rupees) or just under AUD2000. There are motorcycles that cost more than that, and that was Tata’s ultimate goal, to give poor families a chance to own their very first car.

Look past its impoverished looks and interior that redefined the meaning of spartan, the tiny rear-engine Nano was a triumph in cost-cutting that still managed to deliver paying customers a completely usable if a little below bare necessities, car. Sure it had no air-conditioning, boot, or even a fuel door to start with, but what more could you ask for 2000 dollars?

However, for all of Tata’s noble intentions, the Nano was a colossal flop that never quite sold as much as the company had hoped. In fact, it is reported that only one example left the production line last June, just as the Indian car market experienced a boom with passenger vehicles charting a 38 per cent jump in the same month. Nevermind exports which were even more miserable.

While the Nano was hailed as a “milestone in frugal engineering” during its debut, it will be remembered as a case study of the aspirational aspect of cars in its death. Though its price tag reflected its title as the cheapest thing on four wheels, its appeal as “the cheapest thing on four wheels” ultimately sealed its downfall as Indian customers from almost all levels of society, just didn’t want to be seen in a car with such a stigma.

As it turns out car buyers in India, especially those in the growing middle-class, wanted value-for-money rather than outright rock-bottom pricing, as demonstrated by other car companies like Maruti Suzuki growing on a portfolio of cheap, but not too cheap, cars.

What the Nano’s planners didn’t see that even for its affordable price, a car had to be more than just built for utility. It also has to be a status symbol, and Tata’s drive for the lowest price ultimately became a zero-sum game.

In the end, the Nano only proved that price isn’t everything, and perhaps the universe was right in timing its untimely end to coincide with the one event that celebrates that very point.

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