The luxury before Benz and Audi - our own Contessa

The luxury before Benz and Audi - our own Contessa

The Contessa was probably the first and one of the few India manufactured luxury cars in the market when it was launched in the 1980s. It was the king among the cars on the road. The heroes in rags-to-riches stories on the silver screen, villains and businessmen all travelled in a Contessa. The speeding cars of ministers then were Contessas with red beacon lights on their top. For the rich and influential, a Contessa was a status symbol.

Before the launch of the Contessa, the roads were ruled by Ambassadors. Hindustan Motors, the manufacturer of Ambassador, wanted to launch a new car; the company had been thinking for long about having one more car in their line-up other than Ambassador which had become the face of the company since 1958.

Their search ended in Scottish company Vauxhall’s Victor VX in 1970. They obtained the manufacturing rights of the car Vauxhall made from 1976 to 1978 for India.

The muscle car took birth at the manufacturing unit of HM in Kolkata. After bringing out the test cars in 1982, the company unveiled the production version in 1984. Soon it became one of the first luxury cars in the market that was used to the likes of Ambassadors and Premier Padminis.

Since there were no luxury cars then, the Contessa gave a new definition to indulgence. Initially, it had a 1.5-litre 50 bhp engine. Mated to a four-speed gearbox, the engine could reach a maximum speed of 125 kmph. At launch, the price tag of the Contessa was Rs 83,500.

The luxury before Benz and Audi - our own Contessa
Former Finance Minister K M Mani arrives in a Contessa to present the budget in 1999.

Though the premium features bowled over the customers, the low output engine was a big let down for the Contessa. By the end of the 1980s, in collaboration with Japan's Isuzu, HM introduced the Contessa Classic with a 1.8-litre engine and a five-speed gearbox. Since then, it was the golden period of the Contessa. It became the favourite car of the rich and the influential.

The 1.8-litre engine could churn out 85 bhp of peak power at 5,000 rpm and 13.8 kgm of torque at 3,000 rpm. Later, in 2000, HM introduced a 2-litre diesel engine and 2-litre turbo diesel engine.

The Contessa remained the king of luxury vehicles for a quarter of a century. However, the arrival of foreign cars by the end of 1990s did not augur well for the Contessa.

While foreign cars with their latest features easily conquered Indian roads and hearts of auto lovers, the Contessa struggled to stay afloat. Subsequently, when HM stopped production of the Contessa in 2002, it had 1.8-litre petrol, 2-litre diesel and 2-litre turbo diesel engine models.

At lightning speed, film heroes and underworld dons dumped the Contessa. The ministers and the super-rich started opting for the Skodas, Mercedes', Audis and BMWs for their better safety standards and social status. However, every auto lover has a nostalgic corner reserved for that long car, in memory of a king who is no more.