What A Steel—When The Zen Lost Two Doors And Became Pricier
Images: Deepanjan Sarkar
“It was August 2003. They had just been launched. I was in Chandigarh and went over to Pasco, the dealer, to have a look. It was simply fabulous but too expensive for me then. So, I had to let go… sadly. But the urge to own one always stayed alive. And then, five years later, in Kolkata, I saw an ad in the Sunday Statesman by Richie Motors of one that had done 24,000 kms. The previous day I had seen a Daewoo Matiz and was almost that close to pick it up. But then, this was it. My chance to finally own a two-door Zen. It was a steel!”
The sheer delight in his voice was palpable. Shamsher Singh, a 68-year-old retired transporter, settled in Kolkata, sounded like a child who finally got the gift he had wanted so long for.
The Maruti Suzuki Zen is known in India’s automobile history as one of the most loved cars ever. Launched on 1st May 1993, it took time to gain the popularity traction… what I call the ‘Sholay Effect’.
After a good 7–8 months, once the early adopters started sharing their stories of sheer delight, the followers… followed. Then there was just no looking back for Maruti’s ‘little master’. This was India’s first premium hatchback, a personality very different from its 10-year older sibling, the Maruti 800.
The Zen held centre stage until the turn of the millennium. Then came the Alto and the WagonR into the Maruti Suzuki fold. The company’s focus naturally shifted to the new kids in the family.
However, the numbers of the Zen did not fall as drastically as assumed. Some insightful research showed that the Zen customer was very different from that for the Alto and the WagonR. The former was younger in age while the latter was more rational/functional in decision-making.
The Zen customer was middle-aged, wised up, and global in perspective. Quite a few respondents told us that they chose the Zen as it was Maruti’s ‘global’ car, being exported to the UK and Europe. They drove what was being driven on the streets of Paris and Berlin. Bingo! That was the insight.
Why not create a limited-edition of the very Zen that was exported?
The two-door version.
Are you crazy? Yes.
Can you guys pull it off? Yes.
Will we make money on this? Hmmm…
Then? It will help bring the brand back on to the centre stage!
Hmmm…okay, go ahead with this punt. Thank you, Sir!
It had to be the UK version, right-hand drive.
It had to be truly limited-edition… not more than 500–600 numbers.
It had to demonstrate the DNA of the Zen.
It had to be positioned as a vehicle for a ‘clan’ or ‘tribe’.
That is where the Engineering and Design team came in.
Ajay Saran Sharma, a key member of the team, now the head of design at Mahindra, goes back the 20 years.
“PURITY & DESIRE were core to the thought philosophy. Purity of motoring by shedding all non-essentials like two doors. A purity highlighted by the thematic use of two materials known for being no-nonsense, true-to-purpose and devoid of ornamentation in their essential make-up.
STRONG Steel & TOUGH-LIGHT Carbon (Fibre).
The backbone was the brand, Zen, only too well known from very quickly after its launch as a feisty, high-revving performer. And these products being released only in 300 pieces per version ensured the MUST HAVE desirability quotient!
The intervention was not JUST cosmetic. The Zen in its lighter, stiffer three-door avatar was even more of a hot-hatch, even with the same all-aluminium four-pot motor.
And emphasizing this EAGER INTENT was the curated use of accents inspired by the look and feel of the two focus materials. Exterior and interior accents in carbon-black or silver set off the bespoke body colours to maximum effect. Colours other than black and silver were kept well out of the consideration set, in-line with the pure, hence monochrome (read super-focussed), themes.
All of this rolled into one ultimate daily-use performance pack!
Rajeev Mehta, member of the Product Group that conceptualised it in the first place reminisces, “I don't think anyone in the team did not have fun in creating the Zen Carbon and Steel. It was a rare chance to launch possibly the first three-door car by Maruti—with all its trappings. What made the journey exciting was that the car sold like hot cakes, reinvigorating the brand, and giving it further longevity.”
Back to Shamsher-da. He spent quite a packet refurbishing the Steel at AK Automobiles at Bondel Gate. The rust had to be meticulously treated. Then springs, ventilated discs, Pipercross filter, free-flow exhaust and rims. And voila, the effect was this fabulously turned-out machine as seen through Deepanjan’s camera lens!
“Never thought of plonking a Baleno engine in this?”
“Naaaah!” roared Shamsher-da. “The only two things the vehicle should have had are a rev counter and a sporty steering wheel. Otherwise, it was just perfect, with the aluminium pedals and the upholstery. It has done 61,000 kms now. Till the pandemic, it was my choice for daily commute. The rust problem keeps recurring.”
The ‘twins’ as we called them, came with their numbered badges and key rings. So, as the 75th Steel customer you would get a badge on the vehicle that said ‘075/300’ and an aluminium key ring that said the same. And a neatly designed A4 size letter from the Maruti Suzuki team welcoming him/her into the ‘clan’. This was possibly the first time an Indian automobile company had proudly showcased the team that went behind the creation of a vehicle. That too set a trend.
The 300 Carbons sold in a jiffy. The last 50-odd Steels took some time to be owned. The kinds of people who bought them were a wide spectrum of age and demographics, right from the young college-going kid to the retired couple living alone. They were as popular in Patiala as in Pune. Maruti dealers wanted them as much in Bangalore as in Bombay [Mumbai]. The wiring of the customer was the same… independent in mind and liberal in spirit.
“Any interesting anecdotes, Shamsher-da?”
“Oh yes, many!”
“In January 2020, I took my car for its CF... when the MVI came to my car he inspected it and pronounced it as ‘jaali’.... it doesn't have rear doors... in anticipation of this I had taken the parts catalogue which has a separate section for the three-door Zen... he saw it and was satisfied.
"Once I went to Gariahat market and parked the car under the flyover... upon coming back the parking attendant was standing next to my car and scratching his head as to wondering where the rear doors were and how does one get into the rear seats!
"Once, at a petrol pump, one person came and complimented me saying that I have modified the car very well and then wanted to know who had done the work? So, I said Maruti did it and his jaw dropped.
"I have met a number of people on the road who have given me their cards/phone numbers in case I ever want to sell my car.”
“Will you ever?”
“Are you crazy?”
On the 20th Anniversary of the Zen Carbon and Steel, wish the automobile planners today were as adventurous and their bosses as confident in their sheer craziness as then.
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