Down memory lane with the Maruti 800

Down memory lane with the Maruti 800

It’s tiny! Really, freaking, tiny. It’s ages since I drove an 800 of any vintage but the SS80 is like a matchbox. Which, incidentally, is what haters used to call it back then. I can’t imagine how four full size adults squeezed into one, or how they put any luggage into the so called boot, through the glass hatch. But also remember what it was like to drive an Amby and can well imagine the 800 feeling light years ahead. Monocoque chassis! Front wheel drive! The engine in the car in these pictures has done over three and a half lakh kilometres, yet it starts at the first crank, the gears slot cleanly, the pedals feel well weighted and the steering has feedback. Arms full of it, in fact.

When new, this SS80 made 39bhp. Surely by now very many have gone to pasture on god’s great greens, yet this car doesn’t feel hopeless. It weighs just about 600kg, so there’s not too much weight to hustle. The four-speeder ain’t bad even by today’s standards. And everything makes you smile. The horn buttons on the extremities of the spindly steering wheel. The lock on the door, that says lock. The glove box, that’s good only for gloves. The laughably tiny 12-inch wheels (still on cross plys!). This car is so old, and these SS80s are so rare, that I can’t find it in myself to cane her. I’d be lying if I said the SS80 left my nerve endings tingling. But one thing’s for sure: in its own way, she is still thrilling to drive!

Rewind back to that day in 1986 when a red 800 pulled into our garage. The engine remained the same – a 796cc triple that slurped through a carburettor to make 37bhp(down on the imported Japanese engine) –and the transmission still had only four gears but with synchromesh on first as well. But the rest of it was all-new. The wheelbase went up by 25mm to 2175mm. It grew wider and taller. It became a five-seater though how three fit in the back, I can’t fathom. Weight was up to 640kg. There was a more sophisticated dashboard, where you could even direct then blower on to your feet. The steering wheel was new. A conventional tailgate appeared. And the locks moved to the doors, so anybody with a stiff wire could slide it through a crack in the window and unlock the doors.

The rear suspension was upgraded to a three link set-up with leaf springs that improved the ride and made it more suitable to the roads of the day, not to mention the frightening overloading our 800s were subject to. I get my love for road trips from mum and dad who used to pile us kids into the 800 and embark on Kerala-Pune round trips thrice a year. In the eighties, when you had to carry your own food and a big flask of water, when you could have breakfast under a banyan tree by the side of the road, when, forget expressways, dual-carriageways did not so much as exist. Contrary to the matchbox impression it conveyed, the 800 was insanely tough and reliable; it never broke down which was a good thing because back then the dealer network isn’t what it is today.

The 800 topped out at 120kmph and didn’t wheeze and cough its way up there. It had disc brakes that didn’t involve sending a telegram to the brakes and hoping for a response in the same week. You could have a conversation in the car at over 100kmph. It went where you pointed it. It gripped and held on at speeds unimaginable in the cars of the day. And after squealing up a ghat road, you didn’t have to pop open the bonnet and top up the radiator.

The term wasn’t coined back then; but what dad was experiencing was the Thrill of Driving. And that’s why we have these 800s gracing the pages of evo India magazine.

Gautam Taode’s white 800 I’m driving, is a ratty old girl now, but its license plate – MA F 3084 – means it has the same provenance as my family’s first 800 (delivered by Sai Service, in Pune, in 1986). It still has the grey rexine seats (everybody put on white towel seat covers) and the perforated black steering wheel wrap. It drives slightly better than the SS80, the wider wheelbase and tracks giving it a more planted feel. But the most amazing thing about the 800 is that it is still running. Unlike Shabbir bhai who is a mechanic himself and takes care of his SS80, Taode’s 800 is usually found transporting his racing cycle up and down dirt tracks. And that’s the thing about the 800. It was everything to everybody. A family car for cross-country road trips. A race car for my dad’s generation. The car in which my generation self-taught ourselves handbrake turns. A beast of burden. (Almost) everybody’s first car. It was the cheapest car you could buy, which no doubt helped it remain the best-selling car till 2004, but nobody viewed it from the narrow prism of price alone. It didn’t feel cheap. I honestly don’t know anybody who didn’t have an 800 in their family – and didn’t love it. And it never broke down.

The Nineties

We Indians don’t throw anything away, and even though Maruti Udyog became Maruti Suzuki in the nineties, that most Indian of traits was soon to become a hallmark. The Zen was the next generation 800, all-new in every respect including the engine, but demand for the 800 was so robust that Maruti was in no mood to throw the baby out with the bathwater. And, to be fair, there was no reason. The Zen was more expensive (cost nearly double the 800), more sophisticated(the first all-aluminium engine), more stylish(remember jellybean styling?) and introduced a new word into our lexicon (the yuppie!).

The Zen became the car to be seen in; to be branded a yuppie. And it was the car for driving enthusiasts, the sports car of its day. That all-aluminium G10B16-valve motor was the sweetest thing ever, so refined that some say Zen stood for Zero Engine Noise. But more than that, it made for a properly quick car: 50bhp was 40 per cent more than the800 and second gear was just shy of 100kmph. Pulling the Zen to the redline in first, second and third gears gave you a buzz like nothing else, made even more pleasurable by a five speed transmission so slick it gave birth to that horrid ‘hot knife slicing through butter’ analogy. The speedo of the Zen was marked till 160kmph but I remember belting down some of the (under-construction) downhill sections of the expressway and watching the speedo go all the way round, past 160kmph. I’m not sure whether the Zen’s speed or our stupidity stands out but, good lord, did we have fun with the Zen. It was the country’s first hot hatch.

It was my ride in college, the car that got me into automotive journalism, our photography tracking car back when I started off at Overdrive, and the car that I did tons of R&D on (I even tested a gas kit on it… journo’s starting salary and all that). It’s still running the sweet-sounding Automech exhaust, though I think the 10bhp boost I claimed was all in my head.

Driving it today, the thing that stands out is the uncorrupted driving experience: no power steering, nothing artificial, a low-slung driving position and proper seat-of-the-pants feel. On 13-inch 155-section rubber, it’s perfectly tyred (as a kid I used to run fatter rubber, a folly I realised quite late) so you can feel the car sliding at its limits, handbrake-induced oversteer is still possible (to my utter surprise!) and at relatively modest speeds it puts a big smile on your face. I’m probably biased, but if I were to crown the best 800 of them all, it would be the Zen.

Meanwhile further South…

KL-7-C-4372, KL-7-D-1839 and KL-7-T-3589. All Maruti 800s, all white and all in the family. I cut my teeth on the 3589 – bought just after the facelift in 1998, which marked the biggest change to the 800 in a decade: wraparound headlamps, bulky rear bumper and ‘snazzy’ new interiors with that two-spoke, Zen-derived steering. God almighty, it even had intermittent wipers! My dad bought it for mom as a birthday present and I still remember the car turning up wrapped in red ribbons.

I owe all my reversing skills to that car, backing it into our narrow compound for mom. At 5pm, I would wait at the gate for her to come back from work and park the car facing outwards in the garage so she wouldn’t have to reverse the next time she went out. It was the highlight of my day! I also owe that car a set of clutch plates – I ruined a set learning its biting point.

When I turned 18, it was the car I took my driving test in. In those days, when bravado ruled over common sense, I used to load up to 11 chaps in the car, after tuitions, to get ‘chaat’ at Panampilly Nagar in Cochin. Or go to the Esplanade mall. Or head to watch local dirt track races at Panangad. Or go to the then newly-built, 10- kilometre unused stretch of road that linked Willingdon Island to mainland Cochin for top speed runs. Mine was the standard, non-AC model, which meant it still had leaf springs at the rear (the DX had coilovers).

Getting so many people to fit into that tiny cabin was a masterclass in sardine-can packaging. With three people up front, I used to call out a gear change to the chap sitting with hishands on the shifter and legs splayed on either side of the lever (usually the long suffering Stephen Thomas). To fit the other eight, the rear seat back was dropped and everyone shoehorned in. It must have been quite a sight to the others on the road – various cheeks and butt cheeks scrunched up against the windows, passing by at a fair lick.

When I left home to attend college in Mumbai, my dad decided that the 3589 had taken enough abuse. He got the remnants of my learning curve patched up at a local garage and lost a little money when he sold it to its next owner.

Strangely, I never took any photographs of that car and I still don’t know why. I guess I never thought those carefree days would end and so, all I have left of it are memories. Very. Happy. Memories.

Medium rare

In the in-between years of driving every possible car that an automotive journalist has the privilege to drive, I’d forgotten how cool the 800 still is. Maybe it was the phata hua (torn) exhaust on Debabrata Sarkar’s car, but I remember smiling through Mumbai’s traffic like I haven’t in ages.

Debu’s car is quite rare – Maruti gave the three-cylinder F8B engine a four-valve head, fuel injection and a five-speed manual. Power was up to 45bhp (from 37) and Maruti made this pocket rocket version for a couple of years, till they realised it was so good that it was stealing sales from the Alto. The 800 promptly went back to the three-valve head, 37bhp and four speeds, to let the Alto breathe. They left the fuel-injection system in though, to meet emission norms.

I remember reading the Autocar India roadtest of the five-speed when it was new – there was a picture of the speedo needle maxing outat 140kmph at VRDE ’s test track, and it blew my young, impressionable mind!

This MPFi feels infinitely more refined than a Nano, its 89,000km engine still feels like its making45bhp (these things run forever, don’t they?) and those twig-like A-pillars make it so easy to place in traffic.

From what I remember, the coil springs make the ride a lot better than my leaf-sprung 800and it’s so easy to get the tyres to squeal! What a hoot this car still is! What totally pulled my strings though was this – Debu has a single-DINPioneer ‘deck’ and the pen drive was full of GnR and the Eagles. Driving into the sunset down the expressway croaking along to Peaceful Easy Feeling in a Maruti 800 – took me straight back to school, to my old car, to the car that introduced me to the Thrill of Driving.

The 2000s

For over two decades, the Maruti 800 was India’s best selling car. Then in 2002 came the Alto that, two years later, toppled the 800 and, in various guises, continues to be the country’s best-selling car.

My memory of the Alto – strangely I admit – is connected with motorsport. It was our first rally and apart from photocopying the pages of Larry Reid’s Rally Tables, we had no experience whatsoever. We had no technique, no finesse; our driving style was flat-bloody-out-everywhere, no matter what the stage condition. On day one, the stages were so rough and demanding, and we were so worried about preserving a reputation that was only in our heads, that we didn’t slow down for anything – preferring to break the car than come last. She refused to break down. Which was nice because at the end of the day we found ourselves at the top of the leaderboard, and for the next five days, battled a team driving a Scorpio to win the rally.

While others were breaking down and sputtering at sickening altitudes, the little Alto was like a mountain goat, jumping, hopping and scrambling up high-altitude passes and boulder- strewn tracks without so much as bending a rim. To put things into perspective a year later, on the same stages, the Esteem we drove came back duct-taped and badly bent, while the following year we blew two sets of dampers on our Swift. The Alto, despite our amateur ham handed wheelsmanship, was incredible.

And, in a strangely roundabout way, that’s why the Alto was so popular. The basics were right: with the fuel-injected 45bhp engine and 5-speed gearbox from the limited edition 800, she was quick(ish), the new platform resulted in better space (though hardly comparable against the new tall-boys) and the dashboard was more modern. But most of all, as we discovered on the Raid, she was properly engineered. Unlike the Altos of today, the ride quality wasn’t jacked up way beyond what’s sensible within the wheelbase; the suspension wasn’t softened to make it a pogo stick. Its size and visual daintiness belied an immense toughness to handle seriously unforgiving terrain. That’s why, even today, you will see locals driving Altos up in Ladakh.

They say motorsport is the toughest test for man and machine. I don’t know about the former, but having rallied bog-stock Altos on the toughest terrain possible I can say the Alto was one helluva car. Respect.


A smidgen of sophistication crept in with the new decade. The coil springs were refined, the styling sharper, the interiors more upmarket in appeal and the end result was the Alto 800 in 2012 (which was different from the Alto, and different from the 800). It was designed for the same person who would have bought the 800 (which was discontinued in metros in 2000, finally given a state burial in January 2014), but it had a safer chassis and was low cost and fuel efficient. In my eyes though, the Alto 800 wasn’t as appealing as the original Maruti 800, but it was surely better built. Maruti still has no problems shifting a gazillion of these and it’s not hard to see why. Like the 800, the Alto belies its light build and is the workhorse for a whole new generation of first time drivers.

Like the 800 and Alto before it, this car too is nimble, can dart through traffic like a hamster through a maze and will run to the end of the world on a tank of gas. The gearshift is crisper than the 800’s, the brakes are better and the seats seem to have more substance, which makes the Alto 800 feel more mature and tougher than the original. Which, is a good thing.

Two years later, in 2014, Maruti brought in the Celerio. It’s never going to be my favourite Maruti, but it definitely an interesting car. It was the car that debuted the Automated Manual Transmission (AMT) in the country, but I’ve always found it a boring car to drive – it simply didn’t make me smile as much as the five-speed MPFi did and that, I think, is very telling. I think the new Marutis are designed to be more wholesome cars and in the process, have lost some of their raw appeal. Somewhere along the electric power steering and jack-up the ride-height way, the cars lost some of that thrummy three-cylinder excitement that set my generation on wheels.

The Alto K10 brought some fun back when it was launched with a brand new K-series, 998cc engine that made it a proper 67bhp terrier. The car we have here is the latest version of the K10, based on the chassis of the new Alto 800. It works great in traffic and I imagine a lot of women drivers will appreciate the convenience of the AMT gearbox. But, this gearbox is the poor cousin of the torque converter and it betrays its roots every time it shifts gear. The robotised clutch probably needs to go to a driving school and learn a thing or two about smooth shifts. Each gearshift is accompanied by a pause and a jerk as the clutch engages and disengages and this completely kills all the fun that the peppy engine brings to the car. The biggest difference from the old Marutis, however, is with the dashboard. Somebody at Maruti is seriously trying to move things up – there’s piano black surfaces, silver accents, angular shapes – it’s a far cry from the flimsy, paper-like glovebox lid and slider switches on old 800s which again, is a good thing.

In the end, it’s easy to look back with rose tinted glasses at the old 800s, because we lived so much through their quirks; experienced so much sitting behind their thin-rimmed steering wheels. Fact is, competition improves the breed and the old 800s didn’t have much to compete with – which is why they were the way they were. It isn’t the same with the new generation of Marutis. There’s plenty of competition and they are undoubtedly better and safer cars as a result. I doubt if they will inspire a whole new generation of drivers the way the old 800 did though.

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