In 1939, Seth Walchand Hirachand and Shri Advani went to the United States to talk about collaboration with each of the American Big Three. Walchand believed the Indian company should be completely independent, with Indian management, capital, and employees, paying royalties or a technology-transfer payment to the Western automaker. Ideally, the existing automaker would help to maintain quality standards and would train Indian technicians.
Although General Motors was able to do the work, they balked at helping to set up an independent Indian manufacturer, and insisted on part ownership. They then moved on to the second-largest automaker, Ford; Henry agreed, but delegated the project to Ford of Canada, which refused. Finally, they moved on to the third-largest automaker, Chrysler, and signed an agreement in Bombay in 1940.
By 1944, the Indian company was created under the name of Premier Automobiles, Ltd. Two years later, with the timetable stretching out due to the war, the first assembly plant was built, in Kurla, Bombay; production started in 1947. Two vehicles were built, albeit under several brand names: a Plymouth car and a Dodge truck, the car sold as Dodge, Plymouth, and DeSoto, and the truck as Dodge, Fargo, and DeSoto, with Fargo being the brand for trucks sold by Plymouth dealers. In the early years, at least, quality was considered good by both Chrysler and the Indian Department of Defense.
In 1949, Indian parts production started, beginning with simpler components and gradually building up to more complex pieces. Two companies made parts: Premier and Hindustan Motors of Calcutta. The Hindustan 10 was based on the British Morris 10 as part of a collaboration with the UK’s Nuffield.
Dodge trucks were successfully imported from the Kew plant in the United Kingdom, according to Hans Ensing, who wrote that you can still see them in use (as of 2010).
The early years of Premier and Hindustan were marked by very low sales, due to the size of the market rather than the intrinsic worth of the vehicles. Only about 20,000 vehicles per year were made in India, though in 65 different models. Because of the very limited production runs of any particular vehicle, most manufacturers operated as assemblers of imported components. Premier and Hindustan found competition with mass-produced parts makers to be difficult, to say the least, especially given their own need for capital to build factories and train workers.
The government, via Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukherji (Minister of Commerce and Industry), thus set up steep import duties on parts early on, shooting prices on "made there, assembled here" vehicles quite high, and allowing Premier and Hindustan some breathing space. The government started to study the issues of domestic automobiles in 1952, concluding in 1953 that having a domestic auto industry was essential for building the country technologically and economically. Thus, in 1954, the government added incentives for local parts production to its existing import duties.
By that time, Premier had started to collaborate with Fiat, whose smaller Fiat 1100 may have been better suited to local conditions (small roads and expensive fuel) than the relatively big Plymouth. Hindustan started selling British-designed cars in 1949 with the Morris 10, followed by the Morris 14 (Hindustan 14). Other British cars in these early years included the Austin A40 and A70, while the Fiat 500 and Millicento were also sold. Premier continued to produce Chrysler Corporation-based vehicles at the same time (as evidenced by the 1960 model-year ad at the top of the page), including trucks — including, it seems, both U.S. and Kew Dodge designs.
A 1957 article (provided by Hans Ensing) noted the production of the 55,000th Premier vehicle, which at the time produced Dodge, Plymouth, and Fiat cars, and Dodge and Fargo trucks (no explanation was given as to why such a small market had both Dodge and Fargo). 60% of the components were made in India by Premier; the trucks had both gasoline and diesel engines. Production was at the rate of one vehicle every 12 minutes, around 40 per day.
Replacing foreign-made parts with domestic production took considerable time, and in 1964 only 65% of domestic vehicles were made from Indian parts. In 1969, Indian vehicles were finally made of 90% local parts, an enviable state; few countries could boast of such a feat, even with government assistance.
While production of Dodge and Fargo trucks by Premier stopped, they were still not an uncommon sight in the 1990s
Jeeps in India: Mahindra & Mahindra, Willys, and Chrsler
In addition, starting in 1949, the Willys Jeeps were made locally by Mahindra & Mahindra, as part of a collaboration with Willys Overland (which eventually made its way into Chrysler via AMC). In 1954, Kaiser Jeep Corporation and American Motors Corporation collaborated on building newer vehicles. In 1974, a new collaboration agreement was signed with Jeep, then part of AMC. Collaboration switched to Peugeot in 1979, with engines and the XDP range being French designs. A cooperative agreement with Nissan started in 1988, with a merger with Nissan's subsidiary in 1995. In 1997, they started producing European-style Ford Escorts and signed an agreement to produce Mitsuibshis. They started making Voyagers in 1998 - not Plymouths but either Nissan or Peugeot commercial vans.
Mahindra & Mahindra created a new automotive division in 1994 and still produces local Jeeps, and sells them through 275 dealers. The product line includes the Liberty-lookalike Scorpio, which M&M claims is entirely locally designed; what appears to be a Wrangler-based pickup, the Mahindra; and a number of other vehicles with more or less resemblance to the current Wrangler and past Jeeps. This resemblance is probably not the result of collaboration with Chrysler, but simply a carryover of the early Willys designs and looks. Engines appear to be Peugeot designs.
Premier’s vehicles continued to be based on Chrysler’s through the early 1960s; after that time, the trail is lost. In the early 1990s, Premier lost much of its sales when the market was opened to imports; the company had never designed their own vehicles, but had licensed Fiats and Asian automobiles for local manufacturing. In 1999, DCX announced that Chrysler would start making or selling vehicles in India, most likely starting with the Cherokee, Neon, and Voyager; but that seems to have disappeared when DCX imploded, albeit leaving behind plans for an Indian engineering center. Mahindra, in contrast, has been selling miniature trucks in the United States, with plans to move into the light diesel pickup market.
Around 1996, the Times of India, Bangalore ran a story (again, provided by Michael MacSems) on a new minibus service running from Ramanagaram to Bangalore — a distance of 50 km over rough roads. The service relies on “gothic vehicles of aristocrats” — ancient Plymouths — with retrofitted Perkins P-4 diesel engines which raise gas mileage to 14 km/liter (33 U.S. mpg). the cars cost around 15,000 to 18,000 rupees, and the ride is 10 rupees each way. The article reported that 30 Plymouths are in use on this route; each seats ten, and they are much preferred to buses. The drivers were quoted as saying “There is no problem with the vehicles... once we start from Ramanagaram there is no stopping” and “Today’s cars are useless, Plymouth is the king of all vehicles.”