Fiat 1100- D (Delight) or Pad or Padmini, or Bombay’s Kalli-Peeli is emblematic of Indian enterprises that stood firm on their legs during an era of strict licensing and state control. Almost 4-decades long journey of Padmini from the 1960s made it synonymous with a family luxury car in the yesteryears.
Today, well remembered as the Bombay’s Kaali-Peeli, Premier Padmini has been more than that to a lot of people who at the time of the car’s launch were just in awe of this Italian-Indian Diva and continue to be.
Produced by the Premier Company of the Walchand Group under the license from the Italian motor house, FIAT, Premier Padmini is one of the last vestiges of the License Raj and even more a rarity for memories, stories and childhood days.
Premier Padmini started the journey in 1972 as Premier President but much to the objection of the government of the day, the Premier President moniker made way for Padmini in 1974. A diva inspired by the fictional queen of Chittor, Rajasthan with the same name.
It soon became synonymous with royalty, luxury, class and grandeur. Indians were so fond of Padmini that despite the end of its production road in 1997, it continued to rev in the hearts of almost all-car loving Indians until the Maharashtra Government’s 2013 ordain that finally turned off the Padmini’s engine forever.
From holding a market share of 99% in the 1970s and almost 38,000 plying in Bombay itself. Padmini in its 4-decade long journey has travelled two roads- a mode of public transport and a symbol of individual affluence.
The Wheels Start Going Round
Like many cars, the Padmini of the Fiat 1100 was conceptualised decades before it reached its customer. Fiat 1100 in the 1950s was conceptualised as an aspirational zeal in Italy. In India, this was the period where strict licensing and ban on model upgrades made cars luxurious and rare products.
Padmini solved this issue by visualising a car that will appeal to the masses and stand in stark contrast to the symbol of power and politics-Hindustan Motors’ Ambassador or Amby.
Back at home base in Italy, the famous car designer Dante Giacosa was tasked with a challenge to come up with a family saloon that can accommodate a family with their luggage, has an economical engine and can withstand the undulation and road conditions of developing nations.
In 1953, Fiat drove in 1100 at the Geneva Motor Show, on that day few would have thought that this car would start a love that would make a distant developing country one of the largest auto markets in the world.
Fiat armed it with an 1100 cc engine that churned 43 bhp of power and 71 Nm of torque mated to a 4-speed manual gearbox. Looks like a fast car for the time, doesn’t it?
A year after the unveiling at the Geneva Motor Show, Fiat 1100 started to reach the shores of the Indian Peninsula in 1954 as Completely Built Units (CBUs) from Italy, with a ban on model upgrades, Indians had to be content with what they got. Fiat 1100 was changed over the years to meet the demands of an increasing consumer base.
In the 1970s, just 2 decades short of the first 1100, India was treated to a new delight- Fiat 1100 D (Delight) or famously known as Premier Padmini.
Premier Company of the Walchand group started manufacturing this car at Kurla, Bombay under the license from Fiat. Fiat 1100 made way for a true successor, one that took the initial model’s success to new heights and navigated the Indian automobile market into a new direction.
New Roads, New Destinations
In 1972 the agreement was made between Fiat and Padmini. However, Padmini was not the company’s first name preference. The Premier President name preceded Padmini. The name President was removed in 1974 and the fictional queen of Chittor’s name Padmini, reflecting glory and grandeur was chosen.
With ease in restrictions in 1985, Premier could update the model and rechristen the memories already formed in the car. Premier brought in a host of features for this car. Air Conditioning, bucket seats, vanity mirrors, luxurious interiors, tinted windows, leather upholstery, and a strong monocoque to carry all this.
The end of cost restrictions was one reason for Premier to throw all this in the Delight, Hindustan Motors’ luxury offering Contessa was hot on the heels of Padmini too.
Before 1991, Padmini was much like a film award, it had to be earned and the receiver had to wait for a long time to finally lay their hands on it. The homecoming of Padmini as many people told in the production of this article was nothing short of a homecoming.
People waited for years to get their car delivered. Many even used to count the days until the day a phone call from the car dealer with the good news rang. That was how Padmini drove itself into our hearts. In 1991, India opened up its economy through the New Industrialisation Policy.
This meant new competition for Padmini and this time it came from the overseas giants like Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Ford and many others. Along with this, India’s domestic automobile market also took a new route, Padmini had to fight the Maruti 800 for the title ‘family car’.
Selling it to Masses
The new success formula in the Indian automobile market is to sell to the masses. Padmini was the first one to do that through the advertisements. Padmini’s advertisements called it- “Padmini- A beautiful Princess of Your Own” and she indeed was a princess.
The other positioning of Padmini was the one that sits on the lotus, Goddess Lakshmi- the Goddess of Wealth in the Hindu religion. This was not a move to capture Indian women drivers but still, it was a full-hearted effort to colour an Italian product with Indian traditions and heritage.
A Symbol of Individual Affluence
If a car in the 80s and the 90s has air conditioning, tinted windows, leather upholstery, it is the luxury of the period. Actors like Rajnikanth and a young chocolate boy of the time Aamir Khan had the Padmini or Pad.
It was nothing short of the best car in the market at the time. And numbers prove it, Premier Padmini held 99% market share in the 80s and 90s with almost 38,000 of these cars on the roads of Bombay.
The stories were made in these cars, if ever asked by auto enthusiasts about their memories with yesteryears and cars, Padmini will definitely be one of the most high ranking cars with memories so alive that you would still want to take it out on a drive.
A Road Taken
I shall be telling this with a sigh.Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two Roads diverged in a wood, and I-I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the differenceRobert Frost, the Road Not Taken
This also stands true for Premier Padmini that took a very broad look at the Indian automobile market and laid down a proposition in front of the Maharashtra Government in the late 60s to also use Fiat 1100 as a means of public conveyance in Bombay.
Fiat 1100 was not that famous with the residents of Bombay at the time. But, Fiat 1100D or Premier Padmini made their way into the heart of Bombay just as Vada Pav or Local Trains did. If one has to recall Bombay and now Mumbai, Padmini is one of the first things that pop up in their minds.
This romantic relationship between Padmini and Bombay resulted in endless memories, satires, movies and drama shows. It was almost like the roads of Bombay were painted Black and Yellow
These cars on the roads of Bombay were adorned by Bollywood heroes and their stickers, Bollywood themed interiors, wobbly doors, torn sofa-like seats and always meter down made them a lifeline of road.
As my memories form the navigation for this article, these Bombay taxis had their last destination on their rear window.
Telling passengers where they are headed to end the day. The production of the vehicle stopped in 1997 but the love for it kept it revving on roads till almost 2018 despite the Maharashtra Government’s 2013 ruling, banning cars that are more than 20 years olds. Having the gearbox in the sterling columns, just like that Padmini’s will stay in our hearts forever.
Padmini in Motorsports
She was there too. Yes! Heavily modified and fine-tuned to run as a motorsport car, it was now an enthusiast’s, a family’s, a taxi driver’s and a racing driver’s diva too. It was also touted as the best car in the market and leader of the pack. All this boasting came with support from the car that could do it all. From local errands to long drives to performance runs, Padmini had become a go-to car for almost everyone. Isn’t the 99% market share looking too small for Padmini already?
Padmini vs Ambassador vs Maruti 800
Which one would you choose to be your first family car? The choice is even tougher if you are someone with political links. Ambassador was politicians’ car, Padmini was a family’s car. Ambassadors remained more successful than Padmini commercially, but Padmini continued to rule the hearts and minds of Indians.
Soon after the sun started setting on the journey of these two, India fell in love with a new small family car backed by the finesse of the Japanese. I remember sitting in all these three cars as a child and wondering, when would I get to drive these cars, how cool would it be to overtake people on wide roads.
By the time I reached driving legal age- these lovely memories of the past were replaced by the automatics of the future. While I may be driving a car that has all the amenities and technologies of the future, I still carry the love for all the yesteryear cars.
Like many car enthusiasts, I still wait for the opportunity to drive these cars. Padmini was a symbol of individual affluence. She is as deeply rooted in our history as Humara Bajaj, Meri Pehli Car Meri Maruti, Ambassador and many others that paved a way to our hearts and have found parking with no charge in the hearts and minds.
The engines of the Padmini may be off forever but she continues to rev in our hearts and for always she would be a princess, a diva, one that would never rust but will be resting in peace…