Arrival, rise and fall of Premier Automobiles and its enduring vehicles in India

Arrival, rise and fall of Premier Automobiles and its enduring vehicles in India
A Fargo truck
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Childhood memories about the truck are vivid - light blue (baby blue) colour, big, round headlamps, an extended grille that looks like an open mouth and a squarish body frame. Fargo was a station wagon, which means there are no similar car in the market now to compare with.

Arrival, rise and fall of Premier Automobiles and its enduring vehicles in India
A Fargo station wagon

The load carrier of the Fargo was almost the size of a Tata 407. Side-facing rear seats akin to the Jeep also doubled up as luggage space and had curtains on the sides. The half door in the rear with the Fargo logo imposed on it can be pulled down. During that time, it was a big puzzle how the Fargo logo of the vehicle became Dodge after an accident repair! The reason was known later; keep reading to know that.

If the 407 had a half-hut nose appearance, the Fargo had a long nose in the form of a long bonnet. The Fargo was longer too. It was mostly squarish. The cabin had a steel roof, door, window glasses with winder and quarter glasses. The bench-style seat in the cabin could easily accommodate four people comfortably. The side-facing seats in the rear could take in at least 16 people. The platform in the middle could hold luggage. The rear side had canvas soft-top, though there were models that came with hard tops.

KSEB Vehicles

In Kerala, these trucks were mostly owned by the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB). Apart from its monopoly over power distribution in the state, the KSEB owned an exclusive fleet of vehicles of varied makes, including some rare ones. It included left-hand drive Willys Jeeps, which had the original Hurricane engine, until they were auctioned off recently. Other vehicles included extremely rare Ambassador station wagons, Fargo, Dodge, Bedford, British Leyland tractor-trailer, the massive Mak tractor trailer, and later Premier and Ambassador, and many more. During the construction of the Idukki dam, according to an agreement entered with Canada, a lot of vehicles reached Kerala. After the work, many of them were dumped in Idukki itself, where they were left to rust and disintegrate. Some of them were sold as scrap.

Arrival, rise and fall of Premier Automobiles and its enduring vehicles in India
Fargo

Over the years, if it didn't auction or dump them, the KSEB would have had enough vehicles to open an auto museum. Nobody had the foresight to even think about retaining at least one model from each vehicle make. If that had materialized, not just the KSEB, departments like health, police and KSRTC would have had world-class automobile museums today.

Arrival, rise and fall of Premier Automobiles and its enduring vehicles in India
Fargo Truck

Moving’ History

Though our hero, the KSEB Fargo, vanished from the roads along with several other Dodges and Fargos, they were milestones in the history of Indian automobile industry. These vehicles occupied the roads until the 1990s, as moving symbols of the automobile industry's history and as a tribute to some individuals who played an integral role in the industry’s establishment and growth.

Premier Automobiles Ltd (PAL) was among the last of the automobile manufacturers who folded up in the recent past. It is difficult to forget the silver coloured TVS Parcel Service lorries. Until the beginning of this century, mint-condition Premier lorries were used for TVS Parcel Service. If my memory serves me right, ABT Parcel Service, which had a picture of Hanuman carrying the Maruthua mountain, too used the Premier lorries before they shifted to Tata.

During school days, some private buses in Kottayam were Fargos. They were smaller than Tata and Leyland. Long-nosed Tamil Nadu lorries came after that. Such lorries are used in film stunt scenes even today. One such Premier lorry, which was in great condition, was spotted in Madurai recently. Unlike the diesel clatter of modern engines, such lorries had a peculiar hissing sound.

Arrival, rise and fall of Premier Automobiles and its enduring vehicles in India

Father of Indian Transportation Industry

With the industrial landscape of the country currently being occupied by the mighty Tatas, Birlas and Mahindras, the name of Seth Walchand Hirachand Doshi has been long lost in the sands of time. An industrialist during British India, his name has been forgotten perhaps because there is no company that bears his name today. But Seth Walchand had left a legacy that the nation will never forget.

Arrival, rise and fall of Premier Automobiles and its enduring vehicles in India

The country's first shipyard, airline manufacturing factory and automobile manufacturing unit were all built by Seth Walchand, the founder of the Walchand Group. The Midas touch of this Gujarati businessman led to the setting up of the shipyard at Visakhapatnam and Hindustan Aircraft Company (now Hindustan Aeronautics) in Bengaluru. Starting off with sugarcane business, he extended his footprint to candy making and insurance business. After laying the foundation stone for the car manufacturing factory, he suffered a stroke at the age of 67 and died three years later in 1953.

Two failures and then success

Everything started with a US visit of Seth Walchand. Seth Walchand and his associate Advani embarked on a visit to the US in 1939 with the plans to begin vehicle manufacturing in India. They wanted to set up an establishment that could build all types of vehicles, right from cars to trucks. Those days, even Tatas had not ventured into this field. The Tatas were concentrating on locomotives then – through Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company, Telco. It became Tata Motors not long ago.

Arrival, rise and fall of Premier Automobiles and its enduring vehicles in India

The duo planned to meet automobile majors like General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, bring their vehicles to India and later start production on their own here. That was their aim, with primary focus on cars and then other vehicles.

First, they approached GM; in Detroit, several marathon meetings were held. The talks did not succeed mainly because GM itself was planning to set up a manufacturing and distribution setup in India. Decades have gone by, and GM could not succeed, leaving behind its project halfway through.

Arrival, rise and fall of Premier Automobiles and its enduring vehicles in India
Dodge Kingsway

Next, they met the one and only Henry Ford. Those days, GM was the market leader, while Ford was second. Ford, who understood business, agreed. But Ford also understood that his idea of mass production won't find traction in a market like India. Since India only had scope for small-scale production, he advised them to speak to Ford's subsidiary in Canada. He didn't forget to tell his Canadian partners to offer all the support to the Indian duo. But the deal didn't materialise mainly because Ford thought that the limited demand in India could be met by a few dealerships.

They didn't give up. After the failure of the first two talks, they tasted success in their third attempt when Chrysler agreed to a deal. In 1940, an agreement was signed in the then Bombay, creating history. For the first time in the history of automobile manufacturing in India, a company was going to make a car, a van and a lorry here.

Plane’ Car

There were delays. Since it was the first time such an endeavour was being made, there were several hurdles to be cleared. Finally, in 1944, Premier Automobiles Ltd was set up. The project struggled during the World War II and the last leg of India's Independence movement. But it withstood the turbulence and started production at Kurla in 1947, a little ahead of India's Independence.

Arrival, rise and fall of Premier Automobiles and its enduring vehicles in India
Plymouth Savoy

The company had a humble beginning. It started with two vehicles. There was nothing much of manufacturing in the beginning but simple assembly. Initially, a Plymouth car and a Dodge lorry were assembled here. The cars were then sold as both Dodge and Plymouth. Trucks were badged as both Dodge and Fargo. During that period, imported vehicles were sold in the brand name of De Soto too. But it was not noticed much. De Soto was a Chrysler brand that was in production from 1928 to 1961. Though most of the 20 lakh units of De Sotos manufactured were sold in the US and Canada, it is unknown to many that trucks and buses carrying the brand name ran on Indian roads too.

Arrival, rise and fall of Premier Automobiles and its enduring vehicles in India

The hallmark of these vehicles was their robust build quality. The quality of these cars was so good that even for their upgrades, the mighty American manufacturers could not add much. Called a plane car, its fins in the rear looked like a jet airplane. It had a six-cylinder engine, tubeless tyres, a luxury interior and space as good as a mini bus. The enthusiasm over these cars was so high that they were star attractions in the Bollywood films of that time. The cars were big and luxurious. The reason? These vehicles were imported to India from the US as completely built units. If you wanted to display your wealth and status, the petrol-guzzling American cars were the best choice.

US link via Britain

After the Independence, manufacturing of spare parts started in India. Starting off with simpler components, it grew to make complicated engine, gearbox and transmission parts. At that time, there was one more company functioning in the same field other than the Bombay-based Premier - Hindustan Motors in Calcutta. Under an agreement with Britain, it was producing Morris 10 cars as Hindustan 10. During the same time, Mahindra Willys Jeep production also started in 1949. Mahindra had tied up with US-based Willys Overland to manufacture the vehicle in India.

Though an American, the Dodge in India had a British connection too. India had got an automobile assembly line from Britain. It was meant to make cars that were failures in Britain and slightly outdated models.

Initially, sales were slack. Both Premier and Hindustan could together sell 20,000 vehicles in a year then. Among these, more than 60 models were imported. One could also import any model from the Chrysler line-up and register them in their name. Bigger cities had facilities to provide regular service and maintenance to these cars. The imposition of import curbs and the arrival of the stifling licence raj put an end to those good times. Surprisingly, imported vehicles were cheaper than those built in India then. When this became a big hurdle for Premier and Hindustan, the government intervened and imposed an import levy.

Shift To Millecento

A new challenge during those times was to find cars that suit India. Premier realised that the large and luxurious American cars find few takers in India and started looking at Europe for better options. In 1950s, it entered into a tie-up with Fiat and this heralded a new beginning with cars like Millecento, popular Premier Padmini and S1 entering India. They became popular in India with their compact size, fuel efficiency and low maintenance costs. And this spelt doom for the Plymouths and other Dodge models. Premier made American cars until the 1960s and Fargo and Dodge trucks and buses till they wound up. The last Premier truck rolled out in the beginning of this century. In 1957, when Premier was at its peak in truck manufacturing, it had built more than half a lakh vehicles. More than 60 per cent of the components were built in India itself. It had a daily capacity to produce 40 trucks. While the initial models had petrol engines, diesel engines with their hissing sound soon followed.

Arrival, rise and fall of Premier Automobiles and its enduring vehicles in India
Fiat Millecento

Hindustan Motors, however, continued to piggy ride on Morris, to bring out Morris 10 in 1949, followed by Morris 14, Hindustan 14, Land Master and Ambassador. It deserves a separate report.

Premier Story Continues

There is a little more to the Premier story. Fiat's different models were introduced as different Padminis, including a station wagon. In the 1980s, a new model was launched using the old body and engine of Fiat 124 along with Nissan's four-speed gearbox - 118 NE. This car also got a diesel version - 138 D. This engine was used in the last versions of Padmini as 137 D. During the same time, a petrol Padmini - S 1 - was also launched.

Arrival, rise and fall of Premier Automobiles and its enduring vehicles in India
Fiat 1100

It launched the Peugeot 309 model in India in 1998 in association with French carmaker Peugeot. Premier diluted the idea of bringing a modern car and manufactured an out-of-production Peugeot model by importing dyes and components at a low cost. But technologically, it was not a bad car. Specially, the TUD5 diesel engine. It changed the course for small diesel engines in India, with several manufacturers, including Maruti, using it in their cars.

Along with Peugeot, Premier continued its association with its old partner Fiat too. The French carmaker was not happy with this, and the last straw for them were labour issues in the factory, forcing Peugeot to split with Premier. Peugeot was also cut up with Premier for providing them with the wrong information regarding the Indian market, that it needed old models. Peugeot thus got discredited as a manufacturer of outdated cars in India. Actually, Peugeot was planning to introduce several new cars for India.

Arrival, rise and fall of Premier Automobiles and its enduring vehicles in India
Premier Padmini

Fiat Also Miffed

Premier's association with Fiat had also riled Peugeot. However, Premier gave the same information to Fiat too - India does not need any new vehicle now. Thus, Fiat managed to dust off an outdated model - Uno - for the Indian market. Uno did decent numbers in India and made way for Palio. During this time, a sedan called Sienna, was also launched. It had both diesel and petrol models and even got an estate variant. These cars were clocking good sales when Fiat decided to pull the rug from under Premier.

Globally known models like Punto hatchback and Linea sedan were the first and last Fiat cars in India. Before abruptly deciding to quit the market, it brought the Abarth and Fiat 500 cars to India. For some time, Fiat used to sell its cars through Tata dealerships under an agreement. Servicing too was provided by Tata. It was one of the golden times of Fiat cars in India.

Arrival, rise and fall of Premier Automobiles and its enduring vehicles in India
Peugot 309

Though Fiat was to make a comeback along with Jeep that is owned by their parent company, it did not happen. Lack of firm decision-making, long-term plans, and lack of leadership led to the failure of Fiat in India. The Italian company was a big failure in taking forward its years-old legacy in the country.

Fiat Models In India

Plymouth Savoy 1956: Made by Chrysler from 1954 to 1964. Initially, a station wagon named 1951 Savoy was introduced and a coupe - 1954 Savoy - later. The second-generation cars were produced until 1955-56, the third generation till 1957-59 and the fourth generation till 1960-61. India got the second-generation Savoy.

Arrival, rise and fall of Premier Automobiles and its enduring vehicles in India
Fiat 118 NE

Dodge Kingsway 1956: Based on Plymouth Plaza, Dodge Kingsway was available from 1954 to 1958.

Plymouth Belvedere: The Plymouth Belvedere was produced from 1954 to 1970.

Fiat 1100 (Premier Padmini) 1954: Was made by Fiat from 1953 to 1969. Apart from India, the car was available in Italy, Argentina, Australia, Iran, Curaçao, Yugoslavia, Taiwan and West Germany.

Fiat Uno: It was sold in international markets as Fiat Mille. It was launched in 1983. Instead of the first generation, it was the second generation that was introduced in 1989 that came to India.

Fiat 118 NE: Based on Fiat 124, the 118 NE came to India in 1985.

Arrival, rise and fall of Premier Automobiles and its enduring vehicles in India
Fiat Uno

Premier Rio: The car was based on the small SUV Daihatsu Terios. It was India's first compact SUV. Initially, it had Peugeot's diesel engine and later Fiat's Multijet unit.

Premier Sigma: Premier introduced the Sigma in 2004 to take on Maruti Omni. Built in association with Mitsubishi, the van had a 1.4-litre diesel engine. It also had a CNG variant.

Premier Roadster & Roadster Tipper: The Roadster was Premier's small commercial vehicle. With a capacity to carry 1.5 tonnes, the van had a 1.5-litre diesel engine. The Roadster's small tipper model also launched. It had a 1527 cc diesel engine and a CNG variant too.

Rear View

Now you would know why KSEB's Fargo station wagon had a Dodge rear door after repair. Instead of buying a new rear door to change the damaged one, a door bought from the scrap dealer was fitted on the vehicle. The change in brand name was not a big issue then; they would have simply opted for a low-cost option. Since both these vehicles were from the same manufacturer, even the hinges were not changed!

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