Contessa was the country’s first luxury sedan. It was a ‘foreign-looking’ stylish car that Indians craved for – especially Indians who were stuck with domestic choices of a big, fat Ambassador or a basic Premier Padmini. But here was an affordable desi car with videshi pretensions.
The Contessa, or Conti as it was popularly called, came from the house of Hindustan Motors – the same group that manufactured the Ambassador. The Contessa hit the Indian roads around the mid-1980s —long before the country’s economy was liberalised, opening the floodgates to all things foreign.
The car targeted the Indian upper crust, and symbolised social status, success and pride. The Contessa brand seemingly created a class divide, according to brand experts, between those who still drove the Ambassador, Maruti 800 and Premier Padmini, and those who drove the Conti. It was a chic sedan for the Indian roads at an Indian price — Rs 83,435.50 (with an Isuzu engine).
The Contessa, positioned as a car for the successful executives and their big families, was available in 1500ccas well as 1800cc, and later in 2000cc.
The car also began to be found parked at five-star hotels in big cities next to the stuffy, sarkari Ambassador –and signalled the arrival of young, new rich Indians. Although the era of Contessa did not last long, it did emerge as an anteroom and stayed so until the big foreign brand names arrived. The Contessa was the then at the cusp of changing aspirations – coinciding with Rajiv Gandhi’s push for India’s entry into the computer age. Though many could still not afford the car, Contessa foretold an era that was to soon kick off, brand experts said.
“I was given a Contessa by my employer in 1992. It was an experience during those days when Indians had limited choice. I remember once when I was trying to park the car, the attendant told me, ‘yahan pe gaadi park hoti hai, hawai jahaz nahin’,” recalled Santosh Sood, advertising and brand advisor.
Sood said that the car’s interiors were not very comfortable, yet it brought an unparalleled intangible value, and was supported by smart advertising and marketing strategy.
In this television commercial, a senior executive was shown sitting at the back, enjoying the drive in his Contessa as his chauffeur drove the car. The advertisement clearly stated luxury and success.
“The Contessa was the first big, long car in the Indian market. Before this we had the Impala, which we saw in the early Bollywood movies,” brand expert Harish Bijoor pointed out. “The Contessa, which came in multiple colours, including the majestic white and red, showcased India’s changing mindset and consumerism.” Bijoor said.
The Contessa started to lose its sheen after a successful run for about a decade. Sood says the cause was competition, but it was also due to the change in mindset — the craze to own foreign brands and not just a ‘foreign-looking’ one. “Suddenly after the economy was opened up, we had foreign brands and there was a surge to own something made not in India but abroad,” he noted.
Sood also points out that the carmaker and the brand owner of the Contessa did little to improve or upgrade the model to keep it up with the changing market. Eventually, by the late 1990s, Indian roads had many foreign vehicle brands, including Maruti Esteem, Cielo from Daewoo and Opel Astra among others, denting Contessa’s market share and appeal. The once glorious and aspirational Contessa was eventually put to sleep in the early 2000s.
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