India at 75: When Padmini ruled the roost

by Murali Gopalan 14 Aug 2022


Mumbai’s taxi drivers still swear by the brand even though it is a rarity on the roads. The Premier Padmini is today only a fond memory of an era gone by. Memories come flooding back when you see it in old Hindi films that are telecast on television from time to time. 

The Padmini may not strike an emotional chord with India’s GenNext but for old-timers it revives memories of a beautiful Bombay in which the model was a status symbol for the upwardly mobile of the 1970s. Even today, cabbies refer to it as Fiat which is tribute to the Italian automaker’s decades-long association with Premier Automobiles. It is irrelevant that the Fiat brand has also been buried in India while Premier has likewise been consigned to the archives.

However, what cannot be denied is that the Padmini was an integral part of the country’s automobile growth story. The alliance with Fiat was a tribute to entrepreneurship and foresight where a desire for mobility was put to action many decades earlier. Kurla near Mumbai was synonymous with Premier/Fiat way back in the times when the company was a force to reckon with. 

All that changed when Maruti Udyog entered in the market in the ‘80s and elbowed out the Padmini and Ambassador -- the other legacy brand. The new generation of buyers went in for the more upmarket 800 and it was the beginning of the end for Premier.

In all fairness, the company was quick to perceive this transition and took remedial action as part of an effort to stay afloat. It spun off one of its facilities near Mumbai as a joint venture with Automobiles Peugeot when India opened its gates to MNC carmakers. The new entity also took charge of the 188 NE which was later rechristened Viceroy as part of the PAL-Peugeot kitty which includes the French company’s own 309.

Premier then spun off its auto business at the Kurla plant as a joint venture with old-time ally, Fiat, clearly sending out a signal that the future was not so bright for the company. It also had to face a labour strife at both facilities which only increased the pressure on working capital and aggravated issues. In fact, it was this strike by the workforce which was the catalyst for Peugeot to call it a day in India. 

Fiat took charge of Kurla and the Padmini was now a shadow of its former self now with Maruti firmly on top with other international brands set to make an entry. By this time, its only customers were Mumbai’s cabbies but clearly the story was coming to an end simply because it did not make business sense to continue producing small numbers. 

When the curtains came down at Kurla, taxi operators were incensed and even felt shortchanged.  After all, this was the car that fed their families for decades and now they were left high and dry. Some even felt orphaned as a result and conversations with cabbies over the years only revealed an enormous sense of sadness akin to the loss of a child. 

Many drivers continued to use their old Padminis even while fancier options like Hyundai’s Santro had taken over Mumbai’s cab fleet. Eventually, they had to part ways simply because the old machine was polluting and just did not have the strength to carry on.

The other sad part of this narrative is that Fiat could not capitalise on this brand recall it had enjoyed over the decades in India. The company made a mess of its product lineup even after it had hit pay dirt with models like the Uno and Palio. Finally, its manufacturer decided enough was enough and with the global acquisition of Chrysler, Jeep now became its calling card.

Fiat and Padmini will only remain memories and debates will continue if these brands could have been salvaged instead of being cast aside as they eventually were. To those who were fortunate to have been part of the heady period of Padmini, they will have happy stories to narrate to their grandchildren about an era that once defined India and a city called Bombay. 

Also read
India at 75: The Fiat duo that lost their way
 


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