Fiat: Best buy in Mumbai

Fiat's 1100 stopped production 35 years ago. Not so its Indian offspring, says Andrew Roberts

Tuesday 12 December 2006 01:00 GMT

Fiat's involvement with India's motor industry started with Premier Automobiles Ltd of Mumbai, a firm that was formed in 1944 to assemble Plymouths and De Sotos for the local Raj. By the early Fifties the Indian government had started to provide incentives to encourage a local motor industry, and imported cars began to attract severe duties. A partnership with a European manufacturer seemed the only way forward and the 1953 Fiat 1100-103 was deemed ideal as it would be better suited to expensive fuel of Fifties India than the Plymouth, in addition to giving Premier an up-to-the-minute product. In true early-Fifties fashion the Fiat's interior boasted a bench front seat with a steering column gear-lever. The only old-fashioned touch seemed to be the "suicide" front doors that had a slightly unfortunate tendency to blow open at high speeds.

A few models were exported to the UK but, although Fiat offered its entire model line-up - very unusual for an imported marque in the Fifties - and despite a warm reception by the motoring press, the high prices meant that British sales were limited.

Mumbai (then Bombay) production of the 1100 began in 1954 where it instantly gained attention thanks to the transatlantic glamour of its coachwork and its central fog-lamp - utterly useless in most Indian climes but undeniably eye-catching - combined with mechanical simplicity that made it repairable by the remotest of rural mechanics.

Within a few years the Fiat 1100 had achieved its own niche with both India's middle-class business community and with the all-important fleet market in the form of taxi drivers. At one point, the state of the Indian motor industry was such that there was an 18-year waiting list for a new model, leading to the popular joke along the lines of: "Book a new Fiat now - and let your kids take delivery!"

There are now very few 1100s of any type remaining in Italy, despite its lengthy production run. The 1100 range was finally replaced for 1970 by the 128 in Italy but in India it lasted into the 21st century due to a 1968 agreement between Premier Automobiles Limited and Fiat to manufacture a facelifted 1100 under licence as the Premier Padmini.

Long after fellow European hybrids such as the Standard Gazel (from the Triumph Herald) had vanished from the Indian motoring scene, tens of thousands of Padminis were still being sold as recently as the early Nineties. One principal reason behind the Padmini's success was that it was still the ideal Indian taxi, being usefully cheaper than the Ambassador, but still able to carry anything between (officially) five and (unofficially) 10 passengers. From the early Seventies onwards, it also enjoyed a fair measure of success on India's rally circuits. At a time when original 1100s were fast vanishing from Europe's roads, the black and yellow Premier Padmini taxi seemed set to be a fixed part of the Indian urban landscape for decades to come.

But by the mid-Nineties the restrictions on imported cars were finally being eased, bringing radical change to the Indian motoring landscape that had virtually been "frozen in time" since the mid-Fifties.

By the time of the Padmini's demise in 2001 only a few were still being made. It was also far from popular with a new generation of Indian motoring writers, who bemoaned the lack of synchromesh on bottom gear, the poor brakes and handling that certainly kept the driver alert. At a time of restricted imports, automotive criticism might be limited to the odd quibble about inadequate glovebox technology but, when the Premier was compared with European and Japanese rivals that were two generations younger, the comments were understandably sharper.

"The Padmini's steering wheel is outsize and you are propped up as if you have just woken up from a bad dream of being run down by this car", was a typical moan from BS Motoring Monthly when it tested a last-of-the-line model.

Still, even the Padmini's most fervent critics appreciated its historic role in the country's motor industry and, compared with a new generation of Euro-Indian cars, its price remained very low. When the final Padmini Diesel, still equipped with a four-on-the-column gear change and bench front seat, left the production line its asking price was less than half of that of a new Fiat Siena, the latest of Fiat's cars for emerging markets.

Today, countless Padminis are still in use as taxis. Travellers to Mumbai are strongly advised to hail one of the rare, but very welcome, "Cool Cabs" whenever possible as they're the ones fitted with air-conditioning.

From a 2006 perspective the 1100's compact dimensions makes the observer realise just how bloated many modern cars have become, while its front doors restrict occupancy on the front bench to the slim and agile. The dashboard is a masterpiece of simplicity with no room for frivolities such as a sound system and to many younger readers the thought of crossing continents in a 1954 1100 may seem completely outlandish. But the combination of durability and fine engineering established the 1100 as the first "international" Fiat.

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