BVR Subbu and the Santro are both extremely important bits of Indian automotive history and folklore. On the face of it, the little Santro didn’t look like it was headed for success when it was showcased back in September 1998. In fact, as Subbu says, “most didn’t give it a snowball’s chance in hell.” The design was unconventional to say the least, the company was unknown and the Koreans who first came to India knew almost nothing of the market. This then is the story of the Santro, from the inside, from the man who did more than any other to make it a success. And it is a fascinating story, told with tremendous passion and, it must be said, respect for his Korean colleagues.
Subbu starts off with some very interesting revelations about the Indian car industry in chapter 1 or ‘The world as it was then’. Oh no, I said, history lesson, but it isn’t. Stick with it, there are some real eye-openers here. Stuff like how Mercedes-Benz penned the first Indica, how Tata Motors almost started its car-production journey with Audi’s DKW 900, how Maruti went into liquidation in 1977 and how Tata Motors, in 1986, took the dimensions of the Honda City from Autocar (UK) and built a test mule!
Then starts the best part of the book, where you, the reader, get a seldom-seen insight into how the Santro was turned from an unattractive but well-engineered car into a sales success. Subbu’s memory, field of vision and clear definition of the battlefield paint a vivid picture. Some highlights include how the styling was changed for India, how he emphasised the need for a larger and more powerful engine by demonstrating what he called ‘the Peddar Road Syndrome’ (where a loaded car has to power up a long slope in a city like Mumbai), how the performance of the air-con unit was bumped up to meet the demands of Indian car buyers and how Hyundai contributed to the Army Wives Welfare Association during the launch of the car.
Subbu often quotes Mao, quite effectively, draws parallels with military strategy and explains his approach and solution to a problem by often going back to his days in Tata Motors, who he says “taught him everything he knows”; something I’ve often heard him say in person.
And then there’s how he turned the introduction of Euro-II emission norms into a showcase of the Santro engine’s technical sophistication.
Subbu has also dedicated a lot of space to how Shah Rukh Khan was convinced to be Hyundai’s brand ambassador, with a fascinating insight into the man, his approach and why and how he played his part in the Santro success story.
It’s clear from the book that Subbu thoroughly enjoyed his Hyundai journey and it is clear he enjoys telling the Santro story too. A must read if you are interested in the Indian car industry, and what makes it tick.
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