These days there are plenty of cars on the road, with over 24 big brands and over 200 models to choose from. But back in the day, there were only a handful of cars to choose from. The only way one could differentiate one’s own car from the neighbors was to customize it with a few decals and accessories or choose a color that stood out.
CarToq lists 10 cars that have probably been part of your childhood across generations. We’re sure one of these cars would have been a car that you learned to drive on. Tell us which one after you see this list.
Hindustan Ambassador (Mark I to IV)
The Hindustan Ambassador has been in production in India since 1957, starting off as the LandMaster, then evolving into the Mark 1, Mark II in 1962, Mark III in 1974 and then Mark IV in 1982. All these cars only had cosmetic changes to the grille, headlamp surround, parking lamps and bumpers. All these were petrol powered with a 1.5 litre petrol engine that put out 54 bhp of power with a four-speed manual transmission with a steering-column mounted gear shift.
In 1989, a 37-bhp 1.5 litre diesel engine was also introduced on the Mark IV. The car got its major makeover in 1992, when it got a heart-transplant with a 1.8 litre Isuzu engine that put out 77 bhp and 5-speed gearbox, with a floor-shift gear lever. In 2000, the car finally got multi-point fuel injection, and a 2-litre Isuzu diesel engine that put out 50 bhp was added to the line-up. The car is still in production as the Ambassador Classic.
This Fiat 1100-103 was quite a head-turner for its time. It was unique in design and had “suicide” doors in the front – the front doors were hinged to the B-pillar and opened backwards, making this quite a unique car. It was powered by a 1089 cc petrol engine that put out 40 bhp of power, with a four-speed manual transmission. The Fiat 1100-103 was more popular with city dwellers and younger buyers. The Fiat 1100 existed from 1957 to 1964 in India, after which it was replaced by the Premier Padmini.
The Premier Padmini is what popularized the “Fiat” brand name in India. In fact, the car was mostly referred to as a “Fiat”, and not by a particular model name. It succeeded the 1100-103 as the 1100D in 1964 and was later badged as Premier Padmini, all the way up to 1999, when it was discontinued. It had the same 1089 cc carbureted engine with a four-speed column-mounted manual transmission. Some later model years also had a floor shift option. Premier also introduced a 1370 cc diesel engine in 1992, but it wasn’t that successful.
Premier 118 NE
Premier also launched a more modern car, after the Padmini, which was seen as a luxury car in 1985 – the Premier 118NE. This car was based on the 1960’s Fiat-124, which was also the Lada Riva in the USSR. The car was literally a proper “three-box”. The bonnet was hinged at the front and flipped forward. It came with bucket seats and a four-speed floor shift transmission. Air-conditioning was also an option. The car was powered by a 1180 cc Nissan petrol engine (and hence the name 118 NE). It drove very well on the highway, but because of its low ground clearance it was notorious for stalling in rainy weather, if the car went through a puddle.
The Standard Herald was a car that appealed to the young at heart. It was the “sportscar” of the time. It came with different body styles, again following a Mark 1, Mark II, Mark III nomenclature and the Standard Gazel, built between 1950 to 1978. The Herald was notorious for being a car that was “all gas and no go”. It made a lot of noise and had a sporty exhaust note, but hardly moved. That was because it was powered by a 948 cc 4-cylinder engine that put out 35 bhp of power, with a floor-shift 4-speed gearbox.
The Hindustan Trekker was probably India’s original people mover. It was built by Hindustan Motors using the same Ambassador parts bin, but shaped like a Jeep, and using a proper ladder-frame chassis instead of the separate sub-frames that the Ambassador had. It had bench seats and could seat between 5 to 9 people depending on the configuration. It came with a soft-top and no doors. The Trekker was introduced in 1981 with a 1.5 litre diesel engine that put out 37 bhp of power with a four-speed floor-shift transmission. The same engine was later used in the diesel Ambassador.
The Hindustan Contessa was first introduced in 1984, and had the potential to be a runaway hit as a luxury car, except it just could not run away! The first version of the Contessa had the same 1.5 litre petrol engine from the Ambassador with a 4-speed gearbox, which just could not pull its weight. In 1988, the car got a new lease of life with the 1.8-litre Isuzu engine that put out 88 bhp of power with a 5-speed manual transmission, but later had to be detuned to 77 bhp in the interest of fuel economy and emissions. The Contessa was phased out in 2002, although the last variants did get MPFI technology, but more modern cars meant it saw very few sales.
The Standard 2000 was India’s first luxury car in the true sense of the word. Built on a Rover SD1 design, the car was the first Indian car to feature power-steering, power-windows and central locking. It had plush seats and plenty of space, and looked great. The Standard 2000’s biggest failing was its engine. It was powered by a 2-litre 4-cylinder engine that put out 83 bhp of power with a four-speed manual transmission. This engine was noisy and underpowered, and most of all it was very thirsty, giving about 6 kmpl. The car was short-lived between 1985 and 1988 and it was a treat to see one on the road.
Maruti 800 DX
In 1984, came the car that changed the Indian automobile landscape forever. The Maruti 800 (the SS80 boxy variant) was launched in collaboration with Suzuki. This car was tiny in comparison to the Ambassadors and Premier Padminis that were in the market, but it was years ahead in terms of technology, reliability and refinement. It came with a 796 cc three-cylinder petrol engine that put out 39 bhp of power and a four-speed manual transmission driving the front wheels (it got a five-speed briefly between 2002-2005). It was the first front-wheel drive car in the Indian market and the first hatchback. It was compact and lightweight and most of all, it gave nearly 20 kmpl, more than twice the mileage of other cars in the market. The rest, as they say, is history. The 800 was replaced in 1986 with a newer body style which continues till date.
The Maruti 1000 was Maruti’s first attempt at a sedan after the success of the 800 hatchback. The Maruti 1000 was launched in 1990 using the Maruti Gypsy’s 970 cc four-cylinder petrol engine with a five-speed manual transmission. However, this engine could not handle the load of the airconditioner in the car, making it underpowered. The Maruti 1000 was replaced in 1994 by the Maruti Esteem, that had the same body style, but with a more powerful 1.3 litre petrol engine. This car again went on to become a favorite in India.
These are some of the cars you would recall from your early days in India. Other cars include the Mahindra CJ3B, which was preceded by the Willys jeep. School goers in India would also fondly remember the Matador van made by Bajaj Tempo (and gave rise to the generic use of tempo for parcel vans). Then came the first Maruti Omni in 1986 which had both a flat-roof and a “bread-loaf” high roof version. The Gypsy followed in 1986.
Many of us have learned to drive on some of the vehicles listed above. What was the first car you drove? Tell us.