When Sanjay Gandhi had a dream for India's small car

An old-timer who was associated with the controversial politician tells P Tharyan how the Maruti dream actually began in a small shop.

Autocar Pro News DeskBy Autocar Pro News Desk calendar 04 Sep 2007 Views icon8760 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp
When Sanjay Gandhi had a dream for India's small car
Years before Suzuki even dreamt of coming into India, Sanjay Gandhi, the younger son of India’s then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had begun making a small car in a makeshift shop in Delhi’s Gulabi Bagh area. In the congested and dingy first floor shop of Khalsa Engineering, he got together with a handful of trusted lieutenants and made this car. When it was ready, it was brought down with the help of wooden planks and driven around.

A few years ago, I met up with the then 66-year-old ND Joshi, who worked as a welder with Sanjay Gandhi in this shop to make India’s first small car. He was then perhaps the only surviving worker among the handful associated with the young politician-to-be. Sanjay’s car building exercise began when he was introduced by a friend of his at the Delhi Flying Club to late Mohinder Singh, owner of Khalsa Engineering.

The first floor shop of Khalsa was lying vacant then in Gulabi Bagh. The year was 1966 but Joshi did not remember the month correctly. “It was either September or October. This was a garage here and we used to repair trucks here,” he recalled. A few dies for the car were made here. Some parts were sourced from the Jama Masjid area. A motorcycle engine was initially put in. Sanjay made the chassis all by himself. First he installed a Triumph motorcycle engine with a chain.

By 1973, he had carried out improvements on the engine front. He also took the car to Ahmednagar for testing, claimed Joshi. Since there was not much space at the garage, Sanjay could not make too many cars. After he made three, he shifted his base to the Sylvania Laxman factory in Motinagar where he spent 18 months. A separate shed was made here.

LAND IN GURGAON

After Sanjay got formal approval from the government, he procured land in Gurgaon. A small portion was used to set up the plant. A large hall accommodated machinery for engines and other parts. Later, a separate building came up and everything was shifted there. That was also the time when he began taking greater interest in politics and the car project took a backseat as a result.

“There was a lot of criticism and people would taunt us saying that the car had failed. I brought this to the notice of Sanjay Gandhi who gave me a book on Ford. He told me that Ford too had got adverse reports when he started building his cars but was able to convince critics by urging them to drive them. Gandhi said his project was being delayed because he was ensuring that every part fitted in it was Indian,” recalled Joshi.

Sanjay used to work with his own hands. Once when he was under the car, the petrol pipe leaked and a bit of fuel flowed on to his shirt which later caught fire only to be quickly doused. “He had no qualms working with his own hands. He was also a very fast driver and whenever I got the opportunity to sit beside him, I was really scared. We used to drive long distances,” said Joshi.

The car, he reiterated, could have been a success but for the change in government at the Centre soon after the Emergency. Immediately thereafter, the factory was shut down. The company was resurrected when Indira Gandhi came back to power and Maruti was nationalised. By this time, though, Sanjay’s life had been abruptly ended in an air crash. Joshi, equally tragically, did not get a job at Maruti because he did not have the right academic qualifications. What he did get, though, was Rs 3,000 as part of his severance allowance.
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