Tata Motors have acquired the 50% held by Jayem Automotives in JT Special Vehicles, and have discontinued the brand. Here's an analysis of what went wrong.
I am sad. Yesterday came news that Tata Motors have acquired the 50 per cent held by Jayem Automotives in the performance focussed JT Special Vehicles (JTSV) and, “in light of the challenging conditions… found it prudent to discontinue the venture.” It’s a story that had so much potential, especially with the growing tribe of driving enthusiasts in this country (and it is sizeable, make no mistake about it!) but has now come to a premature end. I’ll come out and say it. THIS IS A CRYING SHAME!
I’ll start with a reaction on my twitter that knowledgeable enthusiasts would buy the Polo GT instead. I do not agree primarily because the Polo GT was Rs 3.5 lakh more expensive. 40 per cent is a lot of money putting the two cars in two different segments. But we did compare them, and the JTP nearly won the comparison. We loved its handling on the go kart track, check out the video of Tiago JTP lifting its inside rear wheel as I hustle it. So what could JTSV have done differently? With all due respect to the brilliant minds at Tata Motors and Jayem, here are my thoughts.
B Jayachandran made his name with the indigenously developed 2-litre and 1.8-litre diesel engines, a popular retrofit for the Ambassador and Matador. In 1986 he showcased the Mayura 1500 among India’s first indigenously developed cars, but obviously in the license raj era he couldn’t put it into production. His son, J Anand first made his name as one of the fastest and most fearless race car drivers, the corner after the back straight at the MMRT is informally called Anand’s as he was the first to crash there. Anand built up Jayem Automotives into India’s largest independent testing and verification facility and, on site, has the most number of engine dynos outside of a manufacturer. They do work for OEMs across the globe and their biggest client is Tata Motors. All the test cars running around with TN 37 number plates are being tested by Jayem. The sister concern, JA Motorsport, is India’s largest motorsport facility. They used to run the MRF rally team, have built and run the MRF F1600 single-seaters, and run the F2000 MRF Challenge cars. I give you this background so you can place into context what I have to say next.
JTSV was as much a marketing idea as an engineers project. J Anand always dreamt of making go faster cars, putting his motorsport knowledge into road cars. I first met him 19 years ago where, in formal pants, a crisp and neatly tucked in full sleeve shirt, and polished leather shoes he demonstrated his twin cam Rally Indica by throwing it massively sideways on a dirt track. He scared the shit out of me. And his enthusiasm earned my lifelong respect. Over the years I’ve driven dozens of souped-up Tata cars at his facility, which I cannot tell you about but it was both front and rear-wheel drive so guess away. That dream came to fruition in 2016 with the 50:50 joint venture which wasn’t a Tata Motors sub-brand but an independent manufacturer in their own right. Tata Motors would put their manufacturing, distribution and marketing might into the project, Jayem their engineering and enthusiast chops. It meant JTSV would be more nimble, agile and quicker to react than the behemoth that is Tata Motors exactly what their cars turned out to be.
JTSV did their first media drives at their home Coimbatore. Weirdly we didn’t go to the Kari Speedway despite the track inscribed on the engine cover. The semi knowledgeable automotive journalists (of which we have far too many) would have really understood what the JTP cars were capable of had J Anand taken them for passenger laps round the track. First missed opportunity, if you ask me. Yet, reports were glowing. I loved the way small tweaks to the suspension transformed the handling of both the Tiago JTP and Tigor JTP. Some journalists said the Tigor handled better, that was all rubbish, the two-handled the same. Unfortunately, the cars were too conservative. Somebody had scared J Anand so much about liability issues (and now he had his own money pumped into the venture) that his crazy streak was dialled all the way back. Warranty worries and what not resulted in an engine that wasn’t massaged. The ride height was too high. There were no fruity sounds from the exhaust. It did not even have a shouty body kit. What they should have done, at the start itself, was a full range of aftermarket parts. An engine remap. Sport exhaust. A noisy blow-off valve for the turbo engine. JA motorsport dampers and a lowering kit. Bigger wheels and sticky MRF tyres, building on the latter’s motorsport reputation. Sure, every single thing would make it non-road legal. But slap on not for road use” on all the parts, make it clear these were only for race track use and you had no liability. In fact, get customers to sign a waiver before selling them the go faster kit so there’s no legal drama. Surely the whole point of spinning this project off into another company (listed separately with the SIAM) was to shield the mother brand from any liabilities and also be brave. Push the envelope. We journos should have driven the Tigor JTP half way to Ooty and then come to the race track where a fleet of track only Tiago JTPs should have been waiting for us to throw around. JTSV could also have put two stripped-down race-spec Tiagos for us to fling around, and say they’re evaluating (not committing to, just evaluating) a single make racing championship. We’d have gone nuts! Jayem has enough experience of building race cars to knock up a couple in no time. As for the race series either JK or MRF would have been more than happy to fund a sizeable portion of the championship (this is Tata Motors you’re talking about!), with the rest coming from Tata Motors’ vast supplier base. With a caveat of course, a championship to be run on a sensible scale not the OTT extravaganza that was the Tata Prima T1 truck racing series. We drove the car to Ooty and back, wrote positive things about it. And then what? Noth-ing!
The shocking part was post the media drives there was nothing. I had to bang my head against the phone to get a test car in Pune post the media drives. There were no ads for JTP which sounds like me drumming up business for my magazine but truth is evo India and other automotive magazines reach out to the precise target audience that JTSV needed. With no communication post, our first drive people forgot about JTP. And you have to remember JTP needed to not only build a brand identity but also shed the Tata Motors baggage. They said they don’t have a budget. But that’s a classic case of leaving things to their media buying agency who crunched numbers the conventional Tata Motors way without a clue about the target audience and how to reach them via the specialist automotive media. And magazine advertising is very, very reasonable, costing next to nothing compared to newspaper or TV ads. Heck, it’s a rounding off error compared to Tata Motors’ IPL sponsorship! More missed opportunities.
I remember I was going to Coimbatore for a race weekend and called the JTP guys asking if we do a story of their cars at the Kari track, even go down to Jayem’s facilities and spin-off a feature on the home of JTP. I was traveling on my own, staying on my own, I only needed JTP to get me access. Nothing happened.
To be fair JTP launched just when the market collapsed and the whole BS6 change over started gathering steam and Tata Motors has to devote time and energy into sorting out those massive challenges while also gearing up for mass market products.
Months after the JTP drives I went to the Tata Motors dealership in Pune to collect the Harrier test car. The dealership was a mess. Cars were parked haphazardly outside the dealership. Banners were sellotaped to the roof. An office boy walked past me with bags filled with what I can only presume to be biryani leaving me, and everybody in that dealership, with massive hunger pangs. Parked outside, among a whole bunch of cars was one red Tiago JTP. Inside the dealership was one JTP standee. And that was that. No way I would have bought a JTP from that dealership. What would I have done? Start JTP with only one dealership in every city and have one small, dedicated corner in the dealership for JTSV. Train one young person from the dealership on what JTP is about and let him/her stand out from the others in a JTP t-shirt, jeans and sports shoes. More than that, have a track test once every month at Coimbatore. Enthusiasts book a slot, get picked up at Coimbatore airport, and attend a half-day track session with JTSV engineers who demonstrate what the car can do. You can do 200 customers over a weekend and at least half would convert, if not more. And those customers would ensure a cascading word of mouth. And imagine the social media content you’d get out of this.
As much as magazines are important so too is social media, Instagram in particular. Check out the JT Performance Cars here. A classic case of an agency running an account without knowing anything about the brand. There’s not one post that connects with the enthusiast. There’s no human element. Nothing to enthuse the enthusiast. I cannot see the purpose of this account.
After all good cars sell, poor cars do not. The JTP cars were good. Not as good as the Polo GT and it’d struggle even more compared to the new Polo 1.0 TSI but for the Rs 6.4 lakh price it offered great value for money. And it was a hoot to drive. We did a comparison test on the Indi-karting go kart track in Mumbai and the Tiago JTP handled brilliantly. There was so much front end bite the inside rear wheel lifted big time, like a stiff and rigid hot hatch should. The engine spun up with a raw enthusiasm that got our enthusiast juices going. Pratap Bose and his team did a good job in upgrading the styling of the JTP cars (I say this about the Tiago, I never liked the Tigor compact sedan to start with). It was definitely worth the money, a great start to the brand story. And it also spat fuel from the fuel filler, the dealer that gave us the car forgot to screw the fuel cap properly.
That was the JTP story. A great idea that didn’t get the love, the push and the passion it deserved to succeed. It needed a racer with a marketing brain to run the project, a 35-40-year-old with fire in their belly. And it needed investment to stand on its own two feet. What it ended up being was a gentle poke in the belly of the enthusiast. The conservatism in the entire project was evident right at the start when they kept insisting that they weren’t targeting only the enthusiast but also the general car buyer who would be swayed by the extra equipment and styling kit at the attractive price point. Which was of course smart thinking, broad basing their customer base, but that also meant they didn’t go after the enthusiast with a hammer, tong and vengeance. Which meant no rabid fans to bang the JTP drum. And now JTP is no more. So much potential. Left unrealised.