OOn July 20, 2022, the last Ford rolled off the production line at their Sholinganallur plant near Chennai. That was the end of Ford’s story of car manufacturing in India. Usually, in photos of the car rolling off the production line, the workers and management look pleased with their fists. In this case, the faces in the photo were understandably somber. It even looked like some of the staff were in tears, and if so, no one can blame them.
The latest Ford, the white EcoSport, is not for the Indian market. Ford India stopped domestic sales last year already. This left-hand drive version will board the ship, probably from the Chennai port, sharing space with countless Hyundais and Kias. Indeed, a day before the last EcoSport rolled off the line, Kia India issued a press release proudly announcing that they have sold half a million cars in India in the three years since the launch of the Seltos in August 2019, becoming the fastest car brand. hit the mark. When you remember that much of those three years involved shutdowns and global semiconductor shortages, the achievement becomes even more remarkable.
So, those who blamed the Narendra Modi government for prematurely ending Ford as a manufacturer in India should look at the success of both Kia and Hyundai in the last three years. The last Korean brand entered the Indian market just a few years after Ford. Unlike the American automaker’s famous blue oval, no one knew about Hyundai in India at the time. Coming to India with the European-spec Escort and tie-up with Mahindra, Ford expected big things from the Indian market. After all, the mid-1990s was a period of hope after the economic policies of the PV Narasimha Rao government opened the floodgates to the Indian market.
But over the past two decades, Hyundai has gone from strength to strength, using its successful base in India, built on the back of the “proper car” Santro, to become a global behemoth. Ford meandered by in the meantime. In India, the Escort was followed by the Ikon and then the Fiesta. They’re all sedans, and while the Fusion, which was essentially a big hatchback, was a great car, maybe the right car for the market, it was undone by the peculiar four-metre rule that increased the sales tax on cars longer than that length. . Fusion was unfortunately just over four meters long. By the time Ford finally brought a small car to the Indian market, then dominated by Korean and Japanese hatchbacks, the Figo couldn’t even make much of a splash.
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The EcoSport didn’t break the rules
The car that should have saved Ford, however, was unveiled in January 2012, just before that year’s Auto Expo. It was so important to the automaker that they even flew in their then CEO, Alan Mulally, to launch it in Delhi. With much song and dance, the EcoSport was introduced to the Indian automotive media. And on some level it was revolutionary, even though 15 months passed between the announcement and the launch.
The EcoSport gave birth to the compact SUV segment in India, a sports utility vehicle shaped passenger car that was less than four meters long. This was a bit of a stretch as the spare wheel was mounted on the rear tailgate and actually made the car over four meters longer, but the EcoSport didn’t break the rules. It also featured a small turbocharged one-liter Ford EcoBoost, an engine that won worldwide acclaim, and also a dual-clutch automatic transmission.
And make no mistake, the EcoSport was a hit at launch. The waiting time for the car exceeded three or four months at that time. And it was a fantastic car to drive. A media test drive of the vehicle in Goa in May 2013 showed that this machine handles extremely well and the power of the EcoBoost engine and the smoothness of the dual clutch transmission were amazing for this affordable family. car. The drive is also memorable because some members of the journalist fraternity believed it was an all-terrain vehicle and took it to Palolem Beach, where the pair were immediately caught.
But the problems started almost immediately. Customers found sales and service levels lacking. Ford itself confused customers with too many options, and while that’s common these days, as are dual-clutch transmissions and small turbo engines like the Hyundai Venue and Kia Sonet, it was a step too far in 2013. The EcoSport may have been affordable by today’s standards, but it was considered a bit expensive back then, which, along with real maintenance cost issues, cost the car dearly when Maruti-Suzuki launched the first Brezza in 2016.
Sales, which had begun to stagnate, fell sharply. This, along with extremely tepid sales of the second-generation Ford Figo hatchback and its Ford Aspire sedan derivative, made life difficult for the automaker. Even the Endeavour, a mammoth SUV based on the global Ford Ranger platform that was a hugely capable off-roader, never managed to realize its sales potential despite being a better vehicle than its main rival, the Toyota Fortuner. Fortuner’s presence and bulletproof build quality made it a favorite among politicians and politicians, the only market where such a vehicle would crack in India.
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My experience with Ford
I had some amazing experiences driving Ford cars in India, the drive from Visakhapatnam to Bhubaneswar along the east coast of India in a 450hp Ford Mustang GT is the highlight of my life. To have a car like that on the road – this was a time before the explosion of speed cameras – was amazing. Then there was the time Endeavor and I went dune bashing on the Sam Sand Dunes near Jaisalmer, a big, chunky beast of a car that acted like a little gymnast on the sand. And in 2016, I spent a few days as a guest of Ford at the company’s headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, where I experienced what the future might hold, including an autonomous car and a one-off with Ben Collins. From ‘Stig’ Top Gear television show.
In fact, Ford made good-looking and practical cars. The Aspire is probably the only “compact sedan” born of the “four meter rule” that didn’t feel Frankenstian. It also drove well. Ford’s powerful 1.5 TDCi diesel engine was top notch and in the mid-2010s, before touchscreens became dominant, their cabin layout was the best of any car manufacturer. And you can never complain about how Ford has managed; they were great. However, when 2018 rolled around and Ford India had to update the EcoSport, it was obvious that things weren’t all that great. The “new” EcoSport looked pretty much the same as the old one, in fact it did.
Although Ford invested $2 billion in setting up a new vehicle and engine manufacturing plant in Sanand, Gujarat, this was their last hurray. Bill Ford, a member of the Ford family who runs the company, called his friend Anand Mahindra to explore a new partnership. In 1995, when Ford had originally entered India, they teamed up with Mahindra, and while everything seemed to be done, the companies were to collaborate on a new mid-segment (Hyundai Creta-sized) SUV and future electric vehicles. things worked out a few months later without recriminations on either side.
Just a few weeks later, Ford dropped it in India. In addition to the $2 billion in Sanand, the company had already invested another $2 billion before that. It was believed that Ford might use its Sanand plant to produce electric cars, but a deal to sell it to their Gujarat-based neighbors Tata Motors fell through and those plans ended. The company is still looking for a buyer for its Chennai facilities, but Ford has given their dealers and employees a good severance package. July 20, 2022 will go down in Indian automotive history as a sad day.
But their cars stay on the road. My wife has an EcoSport and is very happy with it. Despite its odd tailgate that opens onto the road in India (it was meant for left-hand drive markets), off-road fans will find the Endeavor sad to see. The Blue Oval lasted nearly three decades, but the story will likely always be about what could have been.
@kushanmitra is an auto journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)