On behalf of the human car-buying community, I’d like to formally apologize to the Tata Nano, and wish it a fond farewell. The Nano is effectively out of production now, with just one car built in June, and was, if we’re honest, a sales failure. But I don’t blame the car, which I maintain is brilliant; this one is on us, and our ridiculous and all-pervasive ideas about status.
The Nano was introduced in 2008, with the admirable goal of making a car that was affordable to the lower economic classes of India, giving them a safer and more useable alternative to cramming a whole family on a moped.
To do this, the car had to be inexpensive, to a degree previously unknown even by the standards of historically inexpensive people’s cars. For example, even if we accept that the Nano’s introductory price of about one lakh rupees (that’s 100,000 rupees) or $2,000 wasn’t sustainable, even the current price of about $3,100 is still astounding.
As I compared in my Nano review,
“A Nano cost right around $2500 in 2008, which is equivalent to $2891 today. That’s astoundingly cheap. A Ford Model T, to cite another famous example, was $825 back in 1909; that’s about $21,748 today.”
I don’t care what you think about the Nano or how crappy you imagine it may be, the truth is that Tata developed a real, functional car for a fraction of the price anyone would have expected as reasonable, and that’s a no-joke engineering triumph.
But people didn’t buy the Nano in the expected droves because even the poorest people don’t want to be seen in something that everyone knows is the cheapest car in the world. Car ownership is inexorably tied with status and image, even in situations where being concerned with such things would be actually counterproductive to quality of life.
This is, of course, a ridiculous reason for the Nano to fail, but it’s absolutely part of being a human. This happens all the time, and cars are likely the biggest and least rational purchases humans make, all over the world, at all socioeconomic strata.
The Tata Nano, I believe, is a milestone of automotive design and an unqualified engineering triumph, and I think it deserved a much better fate than to fade away, unwanted, because it was too good at its intended job of being the least expensive car possible.
I’m sorry to see the Nano go. I think these will one day become collectible, so snatch up your Nano now, people. Someday the surviving Nanos will sell for genuinely insane prices and then the Nano will have the last laugh.