The asli car capital

May 3rd, 2011

Skoda Superb: invisible in DelhiDelhi used to be the car capital of India. Long years ago it was said in wondering tones that there were 2 million automobiles in the city (”automobiles” includes scooters and motorcycles). Life in Delhi, it was said, was a pain without one’s own transport, a pain without an AC in your car. The streets of Delhi, it was said, were a driver’s dream, wide and straight and well paved. Carmakers sold by the thousand, and government helped by keeping taxes and petrol prices lower than elsewhere in the country.

All this is still more or less true, though the numbers have zoomed. Delhi is still the largest car market in the country, has the highest density of cars per capita, and the largest total number of automobiles on its roads — more than 11.2 million, according to recently reported figures.

So why do I write that Delhi “used to be” the car capital?

Because I’ve just spent some time in Mumbai.

In Delhi, roads are widened and flyovers added, and somehow utter rush hour traffic disaster is kept at bay. In Mumbai, on the other hand, daytime driving has become terminally sclerotic. A few heroically long flyovers are being added, a coastal road being planned to waft traffic directly into town from the eastern suburbs and Navi Mumbai, a monorail being built to relieve the pressure on suburban trains and roads alike — but even so nobody in their right mind will choose to drive themselves around in Mumbai during the day.

Yet there’s something about Mumbaikars’ relationship with their cars that strikes me as far more open-minded and optimistic than that of Delhiites with theirs. It’s not just that small cars are also OK and lovingly cared for in Mumbai; nor that the still solid middle-classness of the city means that a car-owner won’t feel socially superior to their mechanic/repairman to a damaging degree; nor that Mumbaikars love to take family trips out of town on the weekends (to beach/hills/temple) and therefore make the car more wholly a “lifestyle” product.

It is also that Mumbaikars seem to be much more willing to try out new car models.

I take it as a proof of Mumbai’s open and bindaas spirit that, at an exit from the massive, busy slum of Shivaji Nagar one can see at a crossing four generations of Fiat cars, at the same moment. Or, in the less frequented warehouse district along the Harbour line near Cotton Green, at one little crossing three Skoda Superbs heading in three different directions. Or, on any road anywhere in the city, literally dozens of Mahindra Renault Logans, Hyundai Getzes, Fiat Lineas and Puntos and Mahindra Xylos, even a small smattering of Tata Arias.

These are all cars that have not done well in the market as a whole, and that are more or less invisible on Delhi’s roads. But Mumbai has taken to them with no trouble, no timidity about service network and resale value. And they look well cared for.

Delhi is full of the bestselling models of Maruti Suzuki, full of Tata Indicas, Honda Citys and Hyundai Santros. The colours here are brown, white and grey, with (now) rare flashes of Punjabi yellow or pink. In Mumbai, on the other hand, you will see many, many reds and even, far more often than a Delhiite might expect, bright blues and greens.

Now that is a car culture. Where the car isn’t just a convenience or a status marker, but also something to take simple pleasure in and for the family to enjoy on regular outstation trips; not primarily an investment, but a thing that allows you to give yourself satisfaction. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most automobile journalists and magazines, not excluding Business Standard Motoring, are based in Mumbai, not Delhi.

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