ABOUT two years ago, Ratan Tata, chairman of Tata Sons, announced that Telco would bring out a car that was as roomy as the Ambassador and as well designed as the Maruti Zen and priced around the same level as the Maruti 800. The Rs. 250-crore Project Mint (short for Mini-Telco) was soon commissioned.
The model was displayed at Auto Expo '98. The exterior and interior design of the car is futuristic, and it houses a larger, more powerful engine than other cars in the small car segment.
Projecting the 'Made in India' image, the Telco stall at the exposition had models and organisers dressed in Indian attire. At the unveiling function, which was attended by Union Industry Minister Murasoli Maran, hundreds of children waved the Indian flag.
However, Project Mint has not been an altogether indigenous effort. Largely to overcome Telco's weakness in the area of monocoque design, the basic design was obtained from IDEA of Italy, a design house. The first prototypes were made by IDEA and Telco's in-house designers. Le Moto Moderne of France provided the technology for the petrol engine, a technology that is new to Telco.
While the practice of outsourcing design and technology is not uncommon among multinational automobile companies, Telco tried a different approach by customising and sourcing all the components for the car from indigenous manufacturers. None of the components were imported. This is the first time in India that a car of this class has indigenous components.
A Project Mint engineer told Frontline that the large 'tear-drop' shaped headlamps, which suit the jelly-bean design of the car, are also meant to widen the light beam for better visibility. The vertical tail lights are designed to improve visibility. The dashboard is ergonomically designed. While the standard model is expected to have the regular set of meters and controls, the luxury version will feature built-in controls for the air-conditioner, rear windshield wipers, defoggers and remote release systems for the boot and the fuel cap. Other features in the luxury version will be power steering, power windows and central locking facility. The company plans to bring out three versions, including one with a diesel engine. The car will give 16 km to a litre of petrol.
Telco is expected to begin production of the car by October this year. The Rs. 1,700-crore plant will have a capacity of two lakh units a year. Five prototypes of the car have been tested at the company's Pune facility.
Project Mint has also had its share of controversies. While visitors to the exposition were impressed with the small car's design, senior officials of Fiat, the Italian automobile major, claimed that the car is a copy of Fiat's Palio hatchback, which is to be launched by end 1999. The Palio too was designed by IDEA.
Telco is planning other versions of the hatchback and even a possible three-box version that may be introduced in the mid-size car segment by 1999 on the same platform as the small car. Fiat officials are concerned that these would be modelled on Fiat's Palio hatchback, the Palio Weekend and the three-box Fiat Sienna, also from the Palio platform. Telco officials, however, brushed aside these statements, saying that this was a typical reaction of competitors.
Some competitors are sceptical about whether the small car's performance will match its looks. K. Senga, director (marketing & sales) of Maruti Udyog Ltd, said that the car, which has a kerb weight of 900 kg and a turning radius of nine metres, cannot match the manouevrability of the Maruti 800. The Maruti 800's kerb weight is 640 kg and turning radius is 4.4 metres.
Telco officials say that their small car is sturdy and comfortable. As the larger engine will obviously add to the kerb weight, Telco is offering power steering for improved manoeuvrability. Telco may well have another surprise up its sleeve.