Emblematic of economic enterprise during an era of strict state regulation and control, Premier Padmini dominated the streets of Indian cities from the 1960s till nearly a decade ago.
Manufactured by Premier Automobiles Limited for four decades, up until 2000, this iconic car is one of the last vestiges of the License Raj era and stood on firm ground even as many institutions that marked pre-liberalisation India declined after the economic reforms of 1991.
But with the Maharashtra government in August 2013 ordaining that vehicles more than 20 years old would not be allowed to run, Premier Padmini, like other remnants of a vastly different economic climate, is on its way out.
At one time, the Padmini – fondly referred to as ‘Pad’ – was almost ubiquitous. In the late ’70s, it held 99% of the market share; 38,000 of them were plying in Mumbai alone.
Over the years, the Padmini lived two distinct lives: as a mode of public conveyance and as a symbol of individual affluence.
The birth of Padmini
Rechristened in the ’70s, after Rani Padmini of Chittor, the car was earlier called the Fiat 1100.
In the early 1950s, when the car was conceptualised, vehicles, especially privately owned ones, were considered a luxury and were a low-priority good on the government’s roster. Moreover, a variety of restrictions on price, volume control and a ban on model upgrades were discouraging for manufacturers. Premier Automobiles Limited resolved this dilemma by visualising a compact and low-frills car. The resulting car became a strong alternative to the ‘Amby’ or the Ambassador, which was symbolic of the government and social power. The launch of Fiat 1100 thus captured the aspirational zeal of the Indian middle class and grew to epitomise a different kind of power – that of modernity and personal wealth.
In 1972, the agreement between Italian manufacturer Fiat and Premier Automobiles Limited was terminated and the car was produced indigenously, and renamed Premier President. In 1974, however, the name President gave way to Padmini – either due to displeasure on part of the government, as is widely believed, or clever foresight by the company – a name that symbolised beauty and desirability.
A new look
With price controls on the automobile industry lifted in 1985, Premier Automobiles Limited was allowed to make upgrades to the car and the Padmini went on to offer air-conditioning, tinted windows, leather upholstery and vanity mirrors as seen in vintage advertisements.
These upgrades were much needed as the luxury car Contessa by Hindustan Motors was introduced into the market in 1983.
Before 1991, Premier Padmini was a notoriously difficult car to procure and its homecoming was nothing short of momentous. The wait list was long, owing to controls on production capacity. Increasing demand and limitations on supply created a scarcity and families would, at times, have to wait two to five years for their car to arrive. For government officials, the wait was up to a year.
As journalist Swaminathan Aiyar, in an excerpt from his upcoming book 25 Years of Swaminomics that he shared with IndiaBefore91 – a project that documents life before liberalisation in 1991 – said that in the ’80s, because of the wait list, second-hand cars often sold for double the price of the original.
Entrepreneur Mohit Satyanand, in a video interview with IndiaBefore91, recalled how second-hand cars were sold for a hike of up to 60% – a far cry from the scenario today, where cars lose up to 25% value when being driven out of the dealership.
But even as it became a symbol of exclusivity, it also simultaneously captured the market for public transport. In the late ’60s, Premier Automobiles Limited convinced the Maharashtra government to use its model as taxicabs. The company purportedly did not make any profits from these taxis, but the car was imprinted in the imaginations and lives of Mumbaiites. The kaali peeli (yellow and black) Premier Padmini became a staple sight on the city roads and was immortalised in movies, posters and the iconography of the city.
A different reign
Though its use as a private car was on the wane in post-1991 India as international models entered the market, the Padmini continued to dominate public transport, especially in Mumbai, till at least a decade ago. On the sidelines grew a subsidiary economy of taxi stickers, radium stickers, painters, mechanics and other paraphernalia that came to adorn Mumbai’s taxis.
What made the vehicle click was that it was spacious and strong, with a carrying capacity for people as well as goods. Built to withstand damage, the vehicle was low-maintenance, thereby endearing many generations of taxi drivers in Mumbai. The documentary Padmini My Love captures the interstices of migration, labour and mobility that shape the lives of Padmini taxi drivers.
With the 2013 ruling, however, most of the city’s beloved Padmini taxis are now ending up at scrap graveyards. On the contrary, however, the value of the Padmini for private use has escalated once again – this time, in vintage car dealerships.
Mobility drives economy. Padmini’s everlasting contribution to India is perhaps emblematic of this.
This article has been contributed by IndiaBefore91, a crowd-sourced initiative to document and discuss life in a pre-liberalised economy.