Maruti and Sanjay Gandhi: The history of an illicit, extraordinary love affair


Sanjay Gandhi and Maruti (2)

We aren’t dissecting history to bring out some old and stained dirty linen in the open. But this is more of an attempt to demystify the Maruti Dream, driven by a young prince’s purported love for cars. The man in question here is Sanjay Gandhi, born to Indira and Feroze Gandhi in the year 1946. As Jawaharlal Nehru’s grandson, the man was known to be a mediocre student in school, some reports even terming him as a ‘loner’, ‘friendless’ and ‘uncommunicative’. One report recalls his penchant for car pinching, whisking away unlocked cars for short bursts of joy, getting them back before anybody could notice.

Maruti 800

Maintaining family legacy, he failed to get a degree in College; however, there must be some hidden merit in the man for him to bag an internship with Rolls-Royce. With a fast forwarded three year stint at the Crewe, England based company under his belt, where apparently he learnt all that there was to know about cars, Sanjay came back to India with a dream, or so they say. Sanjay perhaps nudged his mother to help him propel his dream to the next level. As a result, circa 1971, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s cabinet proposed the production of a ‘People’s car’, a vehicle which had to be cheap, affordable, efficient and more importantly, indigenous. Remember the last word.

Sanjay Gandhi and Maruti (4)

Straight away, a company by the name of Maruti Motors Limited was incorporated on June 04, 1971 with Sanjay Gandhi as its first managing Director. Reports suggest, the company or the man himself had no prior experience of building a car, had a working prototype, or even a tie-up with a car maker. They did not even forward any design proposals, yet, under the leadership of his mother, the Congress government awarded Maruti the contract and an exclusive production license to manufacture India’s first indigenously built people’s car.

Sanjay Gandhi and Maruti (1)

That is what the first ever Maruti looked like

What happened prior to that is explained across many contradictory reports that float on the internet. One claims that before incorporating Maruti, in 1966, Sanjay got along a few men to start work on a prototype. He made the chassis by himself at a workshop near Gulabi Bagh in Delhi, a few parts were sourced from the Jama Masjid area and a Triumph motorcycle engine was used to propel the car. A few improvements were made to the motor, and the car was even taken to Ahmednagar for testing. After making three initial cars, since there was only so much space at the garage, Sanjay shifted base to the Laxman Sylvania factory, where they spent 18 months in a separate shed.

Sanjay Gandhi and Maruti (3)

The Congress government even used the test model to put it out as a showcase of progress, only to be criticized by the public. Some say, with help from influential friends like senior Congress leader Bansi Lal, who was the Chief Minister of Haryana back then, Sanjay acquired or maybe procured some land in Gurgaon. Widespread criticism of the Indira government’s decision to award the car contract to Sanjay’s company was swept under the sheets, when in 1971, the Bangladesh Liberation War and India’s victory over Pakistan made the issue take a back seat. In the meanwhile, Sanjay contacted Volkswagen AG for a possible tie-up to jointly manufacture the Beetle in India. What happened to his decision to refine and build on his indigenous effort? We don’t know.

Maruti Fronte

In 1974, an opposition led uprising against the government caused widespread disturbance in the country, affecting the economy badly. Sanjay’s mother then declared a National Emergency, enforced martial law, censored the freedom of press and suspended many such privileges in the name of national security. The situation demanded all of Sanjay’s attention and his Maruti project was eventually put on the backburner.

sanjay gandhi

Flaunting his new found political clout during this duration, the man rose in importance as the Prime Minister’s chief advisor, deflecting former loyalists. The Congress party eventually fell flat on its face during the 1977 general elections and Maruti was liquidated in 1977, by the new Janata Dal government. It could’ve been resurrected after Congress came back to power in the year 1980, however, whilst flying a two-seater aircraft near Delhi’s Safdarjung Airport, Sanjay decided to perform a loop over his office, lost control, and in contrast to his meteoric rise in the power circles of the country, fell nose down to his death.

Harpal singh and his 800

Post his demise, Sanjay’s mother summoned Arun Nehru to take stock of the situation and check whether it was possible to revive her maverick son’s dream of building India’s first homegrown car. Mr Nehru felt that the project had some spark, however, needed some professional assistance from a professional manufacturer. A team of geeks visited many manufacturers across the globe for a possible venture, it was Suzuki though which came forward, sent many test mules to measure the length and breadth of the country, and finally fine tuned and built a car that could withstand Indian conditions. The rest as we all know is history that continues to be glorious till this day.


However, what if Sanjay Gandhi had decided to be a sane pilot that day? What if his self built prototype had some spark? What if behind all that mystery which shrouded the man was true passion for cars that vaporized and disappeared behind the lust for power? The person and the personality aside, we don’t think Maruti would’ve been a name that would’ve even existed. But like the flip side of a coin, maybe there could’ve been something better, maybe we would’ve continued to drive Ambys and Padminis for some more time. For credit where it’s due though, the man started a revolution, although not a single car was manufactured till the time he was alive.

PS: Share this story with your family and friends – especially those who have an emotional attachment with the brand. Your dad will surely smile upon reading this 🙂

Maruti Alto 800

With inputs from: The Sanjay Story; Vinod Mehta &


  1. But one needs to mention here that this was the time when the Licence Raj prevailed. Hindustan Motors , Premier where not allowed to make more cars than licenced numbers. Around 30000 per year each. Tata’s where the only Truck manufacturer than. ( TELCO) Tata’s had given proposal to build a people’s Car but they were not given licence to make one. Obviously government owned Maruthi did not want any competetion. 🙂

  2. An excellent and thought provoking mature article as many in India do not know how the automobile market evolved in India


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