I had a fascinating night last night at the Autocar India awards here in Mumbai.
Our Indian sister magazine gave out 15 awards in all, for categories such as best luxury car (Merc E-class), best driver’s car (BMW Z4), best value for money (Tata Manza) and the premium hatch of the year (the Maruti Ritz - or the Suzuki Splash to you and me).
No-one was too shocked by the overall car of the year. It was the Tata Nano, a car that’s caused huge ripples here, and after production delays it is now finally starting to be seen in numbers on the streets.
Company boss Ratan Tata picked up the gong. He’s renowned for not appearing in public too often so he got a Bollywood star welcome - until last night I didn’t even have a clue just how famous and how admired he is here. No surprise really. Tata’s influence pervades everywhere. I’m currently sitting in one of his hotels, drinking bottled water made by one of his companies and will be sending this blog via his IT company.
But the most fascinating thing for me last night was the opportunity to talk to the bosses of both the domestic car makers and the raft of importers now selling cars here. They all had one thing in common too; none of them quite knows just how big the Indian car market is going to get. Last year just over two million cars were sold here, making it almost exactly the same size as our car market, but the potential is enormous.
Putting things into perspective, 900 out of 1000 people in the US who could own a car have one. Here in India it’s less than 10 out of 1000. Even more amazing are the demographics. There are currently half a billion people here under the age of 25 - a good proportion of whom are likely to be richer, better educated and more likely to want mechanised transport than their parents. Meanwhile, roads minister RPN Singh told me last night that by April the government would be building 20kms of roads a day to get India moving.
Most car companies are not comparing India to China either. India, they reckon, won’t have the explosion of car ownership like there has been there amongst the expanding middle classes. Instead it will be a ‘bottom up’ growth where the eight million people buying motorbikes every year get the wherewithal to graduate to cars. Which is the thinking behind the Tata Nano too.
Despite all that you can’t pretend that owning a car for most people is anything more than an impossible dream right now though. I’ve only been here for 24 hours and have already seen enough examples of shocking poverty to last me a lifetime.
But there’s no doubt that amazing things are happening here and it’s going to get even more amazing. I’m going to be watching the Indian car market with a lot more interest from now on.