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Vol. XXXI No. 24, April 1-15, 2022

Standard Motors – Do you remember the Vanguard?

The Way We Were by Sushila Ravindranath

In those days of socialism, only 3 companies were allowed to manufacture automobiles. Chennai based Standard ­Motors was one of them and the smallest. The other two were Fiat and Ambassador. When I wrote about Standard Motors in 1982, the company was coming out of a disastrous 5 years, and had managed a turnaround making a small profit of around 1.5 crore. There was an air of optimism all around.

Standard Motors, was one of those pioneering automobile companies to come up in the pre independent days in ­Madras. It was the brainchild of K. Gopalkrishna, founder and chairman of the Union Group of Companies. It was one of the oldest and largest distributors of cars manufactured by Standard Motors Company, Coventry, UK. This company was part of the British Leyland Group at that time. It was Gopalkrishna ‘ s dream to start manufacturing cars from Madras. He was not to know the kind of restrictions which were going to be imposed on auto industry post ­Independence.

In 1946, with equity ­participation from Standard Motors, Coventry, Gopal­krishna’s Union Company promoted Standard Motors Company of India. Few years down the line, British Leyland was in a financial mess and it sold its shares to the Indian company. The Gopalkrishna family got to own 80 percent of the equity.

The company started assembling Standard Vanguard cars (does anybody remember them?)and Massey Ferguson tractors. The company focused on assembling tractors in the early years. This activity came to an end when Standard Motors of Coventry stopped making tractors for Massey Ferguson.

Around this time the government took a decision to allow manufacturers to continue operations only if they had a specific and approved policy for indigenisation. Make in India was very big then. The Indian company was lucky. The Massey Ferguson tractor and the Standard Vanguard car shared a common engine. The company started focusing on the Vanguard car.

It sounds unbelievable how government controlled every business decision then. It did not believe in market forces. The Jha committee set up in 1960 to study the automobile industry decided that the country did not need two medium sized vehicles. As Hindustan Motors was already making the Ambassador car, Standard Motors was asked to discontinue the Vanguard and concentrate on smaller vehicles. The company had already developed the engine, gearbox and axle for the Vanguard. As luck would have it, it was found that these parts could be used to manufacture a light commercial vehicle (LCV).

However the company was not in a position to make LCVs. The market was not ready for these vehicles. Standard Motors had to concentrate on cars. Although they have faded from our memory the company produced fairly popular cars such as the Standard 8hp, 10hp, Super 10 and Pennant models. Following the Pennant, the company introduced the two door Standard Herald and that’s when the problems started. The company started facing many problems including prolonged labour issues.

Although the Herald was seen as stylish for those times, people did not like the two door concept, the bucket seats and the fact that the bonnet opened away from the driver. The continental model did not suit the Indian conditions or roads.

The early 70’s was also a bad time for industry and particularly the automobile industry. There was lack of finance, lack of a competent machine tool industry and lack of trained personnel. No one could have imagined that Madras which will become Chennai will also become the auto capital of the country.
Standard Motors started rapidly declining. The petrol price crisis led to decline in the demand for cars. No one wanted Standard Motor’s Gazelle. Labour trouble was brewing due to low wages. A lockout was declared which lasted many months.

C.V. Karthik Narayanan, an engineer who had trained in Germany and UK and who had married the founder’s grand daughter, had joined the business then. The chairman who realised that fresh young blood was needed to run the company handed over the management to Karthik Narayanan who started working on turning round the company which was going down the tube

Karthik Narayanan believed that for the company to revive it had to focus on LCVs. It was easier said than done. Standard Motors had already developed a chassis for the LCV, but it had a petrol engine. The company was not manufacturing bodies and the import content was enormous. The entry of Bajaj Matador made it imperative that the company come up with a marketable, price competitive product fast.

Standard Motors did just that. It was able to develop a diesel engine, which is intrinsically better and more economical than a petrol engine. The Standard 20 diesel model was out on the roads by 1975. Karthik Narayanan steered the production away from cars and petrol engines. By 1981-82, the Standard 20 production had gone upto almost 5,000 vehicles. It might seem laughable now, but it was a respectable figure then. It captured the Southern market and started attempting to make its presence felt in the West and the North.

Even during its peak years in the 80’s competition started building up. The government started taking tentative steps in opening up the automotive sector. Although nothing much came out of it competitors and companies like DCM and Eicher tractors were going in for for formidable Jappanese tie ups.

Karthik Narayanan was not particularly troubled by these developments. He just wanted the rules of the game to be the same for every one.

They were not going to be. This was also the time when Karthik started toying with the idea of manufacturing a high end large car.

He wasn’t to know this will eventually bring about the downfall of the company. That is another story for another time.

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