The Ambassador by Hindustan Motors set the tone, and others followed.
Step out to buy a car in India and you are spoilt for choice. The best of foreign car makers and the finest of Indian manufacturers are there to cater to every segment and price point of the market.
But when it comes to choosing from among the various models by name, there seems to be a clear anti-Indian and pro-Western bias. You have cars with names like Laura, Fortuner, Octavia, Vento, Jazz, Polo, City, Endeavor, Civic and Accent but none called Shobha or Sanjay.
Even the beloved Maruti 800, India’s first car that gave us our first automotive boasting rights, didn’t have a proud Indian name. The same car, equally popular in Pakistan, has been sold there as the Suzuki Mehran since 1984. Indeed many of the same cars sold in India have local names in other markets. The Toyota Innova, for instance, easily India's best-selling MUV, is dubbed Kijang Innova in many of the Southeast Asian markets like Indonesia and Thailand.
This malady or affectation, depending upon how you look at it, continues to affect newer non-Western entrants as well. Thus, when Chinese automotive conglomerate SIAC, now the owners of MG Motors, launched its first car in India, they called it Hector. The same car is sold as the Baojun 530 in China. While most Indians wouldn’t know that baojun in Chinese means treasured horse, it is equally doubtful how many of us are familiar with Hector, the Trojan prince from Greek mythology.
Even that quintessentially Indian car, made by an Indian company in India and for the Indian family, was named the Nano. Shunya would have been so much more Indian and given its fate, appropriate.
Strangely, it was in the pre-liberalization era of Indian automobiles that companies still used Indian names. Thus, in 1974 Premier Automobiles changed the name of its popular Fiat Delight to Premier Padmini in keeping with the spirit of nationalism that had swept the nation. Much later, when Chetan Maini launched the first entirely home-grown Indian electric car in 2004 he called it the Reva after the Hindi name for the goddess Rati. To Maini’s credit, despite the car not doing too well in India, he refused to rename it as the G-Wiz, its UK version which posted much higher sales. Now of course the Reva is part of the M&M group which has an alphanumeric pattern for its vehicles and are called XUV500, TUV300 and KUV100. But once again nothing Indian about those. Another popular Indian vehicle with local antecedents to its name was the Tata Sumo named simply after Sumant Moolgaokar, the legendary leader of Tata Motors.
But these have been aberrations. For the most part, Indian car makers have believed that the aspirational values that come with buying an automobile in India are best addressed by foreign-sounding names. The tone was set by the first car to be built in India, Hindustan Motors’s Ambassador which was based on the Morris Oxford from the UK.
It has been no different in the luxury segment starting with that horribly underpowered faux luxury car of the 1980s launched by Hindustan Motors and grandly called the Contessa. Its rival from Fiat appeared much later and was rather glibly called Standard 2000. Both cars, mercifully had a poor run in the Indian market. Even when Maruti launched its sedans, it chose names like Esteem, Dzire and Estilo. The first big MNC launches in the country all came with names like Opel Astra from GM and the awful Escort from Ford.
Even the wonderful Tall Boy from Hyundai that in many ways revolutionized car design in India was named Santro after the first part of the French phonetics of both words in St Tropez, the idea being to evoke Euro chic.
Marketers, who clearly know more than Shakespeare, say everything is in a name. After all, a Creta by any other name isn't a Creta, is it. Which means if car companies in India choose to give their products Western names, it is because they figure customers in India wouldn't be caught dead driving a car called Vaayu, Vanar or Vajra.