Faint Signs of Life From India’s Forgotten Premier Marque
By Andy Bannister
This is the Premier Rio, a strange little mongrel SUV just introduced in a last-ditch bid by one of India’s few indigenous auto manufacturers to say alive in a fast-changing home market.
Despite the domestic name it is no home-made design. In fact, it’s nothing more than a locally-assembled version of a Chinese vehicle called the Zotye, which itself is based on an old model of the Terios, a small and relatively obscure 4X4 originating from the quirky Daihatsu division of Toyota.
Kits imported from China are put together in India and mated to an ageing diesel engine designed by Peugeot of France, making the Premier Rio one of the odder new cars to be introduced recently in India’s booming motor industry, which is now dominated by big players like Hyundai, Suzuki, Chevrolet, Ford and Tata.
India’s new car market is awash with customers like never before, and the company is pitching this as a “luxury” small SUV for aspirational types who don’t just want a hatchback for their rupees.
Premier Automobiles also hopes to lure buyers away from the Maruti Gypsy (a version of the old Suzuki Samurai) and fairly rudimentary but much larger 4X4s from domestic rivals Tata and Mahindra.
It will initially hit 20 dealership showrooms across India, with a fairly paltry 500 units a month to be made at first, after which the manufacturer will assess the demand.
Founded back in 1944, Premier’s glory days are long behind it, but in its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s it had a virtual monopoly of the Indian small saloon market, with almost all its products selling as taxis. Like its competitor, Hindustan Motors, it clung grimly to an old European design and kept making it decades beyond its natural lifespan
That car was the Premier Padmini, a locally-built version of the post-war Fiat 1100. Production started in 1954 and continued in India almost unchanged until the end of the 1990s, in a timewarp market effectively closed to imports.
Thousands were churned out every year and to many people the cute little Padmini is still one of the icons of India, particularly in and around Mumbai, where it was made and is hugely liked and respected to this day.
After years of complacency, Premier saw the writing on the wall by the mid 1980s. It tried but dismally failed to update its line-up, introducing another years-old Fiat design, a version of the old 124 (the same car which gave birth to Russia’s Lada). This model, despite a newfangled Nissan engine, was already on its last legs and was too expensive to catch on, let alone replace the Padmini.
Premier also had no luck with later attempts – in the face of ever-tougher competition – to introduce domestic versions of the Peugeot 309 and Fiat Uno to India.
Today it clings to a tiny sliver of the market thanks to its Sigma and Roadster vans and pick-ups, produced under licence from Taiwan’s China Motor Corporation.
With its poor track record in recent times it seems amazing Premier is still around at all, but it’s pretty certain the new Rio is one Indian product which won’t be muscling into western markets.
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