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The 250 that could’ve been India’s first people’s car

Autocar India 2020-08-02 07:01:20

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If you were to ask anybody born in or before the 1990s, chances are they’ll tell you they learned how to drive in a Maruti Suzuki 800.

Your parents – or grandparents – may have had their driving lessons in something even older, such as a Premier Padmini or a Hindustan Ambassador, but a majority of India’s driving public cut its teeth on the humble – and now iconic – little Suzuki. Its launch back in 1983 may have been a little more than a landmark occasion, but all these decades later, you simply cannot ignore the significance of the 800; and in hindsight, everyone who’s owned or driven one will tell you just how good a car it was.

But before Suzuki, there were several other carmakers who entered the fray to develop India’s first people’s car. As has been described in great detail in a number of books, major names from across the world, including Fiat, Renault, Daimler and Volkswagen, were in the reckoning to help engineer what would become the first truly affordable car for India’s masses.

But what if I told you there was a ‘before’ even before all these companies were approached? That there was another name – which you’ve probably never heard of – that was, at one point in time, viewed as a potential candidate for the title of India’s first people’s car? It was the car you see here – the Lloyd LP 250.

Borne out of post-war Germany’s need for small, inexpensive vehicles, the two-door LP 250 – which measures in at less than 3.4m in length – was a derivative of the four-seat LP 400, which had a larger displacement engine.

The LP 250 was borne out of post-war Germany’s need for small, affordable vehicles.

‘LP’ denoted limousine or sedan, and the LP 400 was manufactured in the early 1950s, designed to be a fairly basic form of personal transport. In 1956, Lloyd introduced the LP 250, which was essentially the LP 400 with a smaller, 250cc version of its air-cooled, two-stroke, two-cylinder engine. It made just 11hp and, this being the most basic model on offer, didn’t even come with hub caps, bumpers or a back rest for the rear-seat passengers. It had a 3-speed manual gearbox, suicide doors, lacked an air-conditioner, weighed only a little over 500kg owing to its barebones construction and interior, and cost less than 3,000 Deutsche Marks – it was a car built to a purpose and cost.

Even the rear seat backrest was an optional extra in the barebones LP 250.

In its homeland, the LP 250 was referred to as ‘Prüfungsangst-Auto’, which translates to ‘Exam fear car’. The reason for this amusing nickname was the fact that the LP 250 could be driven by those who hadn’t obtained a licence for driving a passenger vehicle. Legislation at the time necessitated an additional test for those who wanted to apply for a passenger car licence, but not for those driving a vehicle with an engine measuring 250cc and lower.

It didn’t have any sort of link with our country, but the Lloyd LP 250 ended up coming to India thanks to the late Sanjay Gandhi. His passion for cars was well-known, and Gandhi – the son of former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi – was intent on giving India its first true people’s car. Having returned to the country after completing a three-year apprenticeship with Rolls-Royce, Gandhi shipped in three examples of the Lloyd LP 250 to see if it could be the right car for India. Two of those three examples are said to have been taken apart for design and development work for it to suit Indian conditions and tastes, but the project was shelved midway. The only surviving example was auctioned by the State Trading Corporation, sold to one Mr Janardhanam – the then-president of the World Tamil Congress. It may come as a surprise to many, but this very car exists even today, having been acquired in 1996 by G D Gopal – son of famous Indian inventor and engineer G D Naidu – when the significance of this car dawned on him. Post restoration, the LP 250 is on display in the German car section of the Gedee Car Museum, in Coimbatore, which also houses a variety of cars from different eras.

The only surviving Lloyd LP 250 in India was acquired by Gedee Car Museum chairman G D Gopal in 1996.

Less than 4,000 units of the LP 250 were ever made, and this particular car is certainly among the only few surviving in the world over, half a century later. Had the project in India not been shelved, there probably would’ve been scores of these. Then again, I’m sure most will breathe a sigh of relief knowing a 250cc, two-cylinder Lloyd could have been their first car, instead of the comparatively luxurious 800… but it wasn’t.

The history of Lloyd

Lloyd Motoren Werke GmbH was founded in 1908, and manufactured cars at its facility in Bremen. Absorbed by Borgward – another German carmaker – in 1929, Lloyd only started mass production of vehicles in the 1950s.

Its first cars had bodies made from wood and fabric, and Lloyd expanded its range of small, affordable vehicles by introducing multiple derivatives and different body styles including coupes, vans, pick-up trucks, and convertibles.

While it could never come close to matching Volkswagen for sheer volumes, Lloyd sold a fairly high number of vehicles between 1953 and 1960, with the LP 400 being a notable commercial success. However, the company filed for bankruptcy in 1961 and ceased production of vehicles in 1963.