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Ford India rolls off production line. But the beginning of its end started a decade ago

Those who blamed the Narendra Modi government for Ford’s untimely demise as a manufacturer in India should look at Kia and Hyundai's success over the past three years.

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On 20 July 2022, the very last Ford rolled off the production line at their plant at Sholinganallur, outside Chennai. With that, the story of Ford’s production of cars in India came to a halt. Usually in photographs celebrating a car rolling off the production line, the employees and management look pleased as punch. In this case, the faces in the photograph were understandably glum. It even seemed like some of the employees were close to tears, and if they were, nobody can blame them.

The last Ford, a white EcoSport, is not destined for the Indian market. Ford India already stopped domestic sales last year. This car, a left-hand drive version, will board a ship, most likely from 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 stating that they have sold half a million cars in India in three years since they launched with the Seltos in August 2019, becoming the fastest car brand to hit that mark. When you keep in mind that a large part of those three years included lockdowns and a global shortage of semiconductors, the achievement becomes even more remarkable.

So, for those who blamed the Narendra Modi government for Ford’s untimely demise as a manufacturer in India, they should look at Kia’s success over the past three years, as well as that of Hyundai. The latter Korean brand entered the Indian market just a couple of years after Ford. Unlike the famous ‘Blue Oval’ of the American carmaker, nobody knew of Hyundai in India at the time. Ford, which came to India with the European-specification Escort and had tied up with Mahindra, expected great things from the Indian market. After all, the mid-1990s were a period of hope after the economic policies of the P.V. Narasimha Rao government opened up the floodgates to the Indian market.

But in the past two decades, Hyundai has gone from strength to strength, using their successful base in India, built on the back of the ‘right car’ Santro, to become a global behemoth. Ford, in the meantime, meandered along. In India, the Escort was followed by the Ikon, and then the Fiesta. All of them sedans, and while the Fusion, which was in essence a large hatchback, was a great car, possibly the right car for the market, it was undone by the peculiar four-meter rule that increased sales duties for cars above that length. The Fusion was unfortunately just over four meters in length. By the time Ford finally brought a small car into the Indian market, then dominated by Korean and Japanese hatchbacks, the Figo could not even make much of a splash.

Also read: VW Polo driving out of India but not before it put a smile on enthusiasts for over a decade

EcoSport didn’t break rules

The car that should have saved Ford though was showcased in January 2012, just ahead of that year’s Auto Expo. It was so important for the carmaker that they even flew down their Chief Executive Officer at the time, Alan Mulally, to launch it in Delhi. Coupled with a lot of song and dance, the EcoSport was showcased to the Indian automotive media. And at a level, it was revolutionary, although 15 months passed between the unveiling and the launch.

The EcoSport gave birth to the ‘Compact SUV’ segment in India, a Sports Utility Vehicle-shaped passenger car that was below four meters in length. There was a sleight of hand over here, as the spare wheel was mounted on the rear luggage door and actually made the car longer than four metres, but the EcoSport did not break the rules. It also featured a small turbocharged engine, the one-litre Ford EcoBoost, a motor that won global praise, and also a dual-clutch automatic gearbox.

And make no mistakes, the EcoSport was a hit when it was launched. Waiting period for the car exceeded three-four months at the time. And it was a fantastic car to drive. At the media test drive of the vehicle in Goa, in May 2013, it was evident that this machine held the road extremely well and the power from the EcoBoost engine and the smoothness of the dual-clutch gearbox were astounding for what was an affordable family car. That drive is also memorable because some members of the journalist fraternity actually believed it was an off-road capable car and took it to Palolem beach where a couple promptly got stuck.

But the problems began almost immediately. Customers found sales and service levels to be wanting. Ford itself confused customers with far too many variants, and while that is the norm nowadays, just like dual-clutch gearboxes and small turbocharged engines such as on the Hyundai Venue and Kia Sonet, it was a step too far in 2013. And, the EcoSport might have been affordable by today’s standards, but was considered slightly pricey at the time, which, along with the genuine service cost issues, would cost the car dearly when Maruti-Suzuki rolled out the first Brezza in 2016.

Sales which had begun to stagnate, dropped sharply. That, and the extremely tepid sales of the second-generation Ford Figo hatchback and its Ford Aspire sedan derivative made life difficult for the carmaker. Even the Endeavour, a giant SUV based on the global Ford Ranger platform that was a tremendously capable off-road car, could never meet its sales potential, despite being a better vehicle than its main rival, the Toyota Fortuner. The presence of the Fortuner and its bulletproof build quality made it a favourite among politicians and wannabe politicians, the only market such a vehicle has to crack in India.

Also read: Santro, the car that launched Hyundai in India, drives into the sunset. But shed no tears

My experiences with Ford

I had some amazing experiences driving Ford cars in India, a driving run from Visakhapatnam to Bhubaneswar along India’s eastern seaboard in a 450 horsepower Ford Mustang GT will be a highlight of my life. Letting a car like that rip through the roads — this was a time before the speed camera population exploded — was amazing. Then there was the time we went dune-bashing with the Endeavour on the Sam sand dunes outside Jaisalmer, the big, burly beast of a car performing like a petite gymnast on the sand. And in 2016, as a guest of Ford, I spent a few days at Dearborn, Michigan at the company headquarters where I experienced what the future might have brought, including an autonomous car as well as a spin with Ben Collins, the one-time ‘Stig’ from the Top Gear television show.

In fact, Ford made nice-looking and practical cars. The Aspire remains possibly the only ‘compact sedan’ born out of the ‘four-metre rule’ that did not look Frankenstinian. It also drove well. Ford’s punchy 1.5 TDCi diesel motor was top-class and in the mid-2010s before touchscreens began to dominate, their cabin layout was the best among all carmakers. And one could never complain about how Ford has handled; they were superb. Yet, when 2018 rolled along and Ford India had to update the EcoSport, it was evident that things were not all that great. The ‘new’ EcoSport looked pretty much the same as the old one, in fact it was.

Even though Ford invested $2 billion in establishing a new vehicle and engine manufacturing plant in Gujarat’s Sanand, this was their last hurrah. Bill Ford, the Ford family member who heads the company, dialled his friend Anand Mahindra to explore a new partnership. In 1995, when Ford had initially entered India, they had partnered with Mahindra and while everything seemed like a done deal, the companies were supposed to cooperate on a new ‘mid-segment’ (Hyundai Creta size) SUV and on future electric vehicles, things all came undone a few months later with recriminations from both sides.

Just a few weeks later, Ford called it quits 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 could use their Sanand plant to make electric cars, but a deal to sell it to Tata Motors, their  neighbours in Gujarat, came through and those plans ended. The company is still looking for a buyer for their Chennai facilities but Ford has given their dealers and employees a good severance package. 20 July 2022 will go down as a sad day in India’s motoring history.

But their cars remain on the road. My wife owns an EcoSport and she is extremely pleased with it. Despite its quirky luggage door that opens up onto the road in India (it was designed for left-hand drive markets), off-road fans are sad to see the Endeavour go. The Blue Oval lasted for almost three decades but the story will likely always be of what could have been.

@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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