Well, it’s better than walking…
Maruti 800 DX
As a used vehicle – and all of them are by now – its real competitors are not cars, not even dinky scoot-a-mobiles like the speed-limited Ligiers, Aixams and their kin that you may drive without a licence. Oh no, its biggest rivals vying for the customers' money are bicycle stores, places where you can buy junk 50cc mopeds imported from Japan, or the cashier's desk at vending places of the Budapest Transport Company, at least in Hungary. This is one of the countries in Europe where they had actually sold these cars in real showrooms in the 90's in numbers. Here, a Maruti nowadays costs less than a yearly bus or subway pass.
And in some aspects, it...erm...actually can do things like cars. For example it has five doors – or rather, four and a hatch, if you do your counting the German way. It usually has some panels welded together in a way to resemble a car's body from a distance, there's even a windshield and some other glassy stuff all around if they're not broken. And – yippee – it's got lights, a number of them possibly operating. In fact, if you can find one of these Marutis with most of its body remaining in place, it is possible to squeeze four aboard. A chic transport for the jet-set.
I grew up in Hungary in the 80's. As such, I saw thousands of Polish people coming over to Hungary with minuscule Polski-Fiat 126p's stuffed fat with anything they could sell at places called “Polish markets” at that time. Later I learned that these markets weren't uniquely Hungarian, these guys travelled as far as Gibraltar in those unbelievably noisy, dangerous and slow little things. And from a perspective where masses of Polish could look at the 126 as a real car to travel thousands of kilometres with, carrying as much stuff as a Fiat Dobló does nowadays, the Maruti 800 is a really fine car.
For example, it has three cylinders, not two and it is cooled by water not by air. The Maruti is started by an ignition key, not by pulling a cable via a lever situated between the front seats. It can do 100kph easily, even more is possible, which is about the speed where the Polski 126 runs out of steam altogether. And it doesn't consume any more fuel in turn. Compared to the Polish People's Car from the 70's and the 80's, the Maruti 800 is positively a luxury car. But this is true only compared to that and maybe against the Trabant. Bring along a 50 year-old Mini or even a Fiat Cinquecento, and you start seeing the Aston Martin and the Ferrari in them.
Nowadays you can only spot these Marutis crawling along secondary roads at 80kph – a well-maintained Polski 126p can do the same if you can find one. But at the very end of the 80's, the Maruti 800 DX was an absolute gem for masses of Hungarians looking for a replacement for their Trabants, Zaporozhetzes, Polski 126p's. It was a modern, small jewel amongst heavily outdated East-European steel ware running around on the streets. It wasn't too cheap at the time, but still, those who bought it rarely regretted forking out the money for it.
Things to know about the Maruti 800
Maruti Udyog was founded in 1981 and the company began to produce vehicles in 1983. Maruti 800's started rolling off the line in 1984, their import to Hungary embarked in 1988. It may seem a very basic car, but the Hungarian 800 DX's were quite well equipped indeed. Their most important extra was the coil-spring rear suspension with telescopic dampers. Indian versions only had rudimentary leaf springs at the rear without any damping. Apart from this these high-spec DX-versions also received door pockets and a rear windshield wiper.
At first the state-owned car distributing company called Merkur started selling Marutis to the public. Later, after the closure of that firm the Hungarian Suzuki Co took over the role, selling these cars until the turn of 1996-97. In a decade these cars turned from sought-after quality cars into the lowliest forms of motoring (in 1988, the major players on the Hungarian market were Lada Rivas, Dacia 1310's, two-stroke Trabants, Wartburgs, and rear-engined Skodas). The Maruti became the car of the poor, and it didn't help much that those late cars already had the Saint Japanese Quartz Clock on their dashboards.
Today? The traffic gives way to a homeless punk pushing a supermarket trolley less reluctantly than to a Maruti-driver. Nobody sees the car in it. Luckily it isn't an automobile from a financial aspect either. It is so cheap to insure, that you won't notice it. There's nearly no tax on it. It consumes less fuel than most motorbikes. And the parts for it are so low-priced – if you can get them – that you spend more at the supermarket at the weekend than you do when you overhaul the engine of one of these. Motoring doesn't get any cheaper than that.
It's hard to believe, however, that there are still working, licensed and taxed Marutis running around in Hungary after the best part of 20 years. Here's this specimen – a shite-grey Maruti that was made in 1991, owned by a retired teacher as a second owner for most of its life. She got it as a present from her son while still working; the car was only a few years old then. It was used for a few years by the lady when it was still in great shape. Then she retired and became a grandmother, so the little Maruti was passed to the children, then it became a sort of stop-gap vehicle in the larger family. Nowadays it spends its days being parked between the lawn mower and the grandchildren's bicycles. It only springs to action when a huge car-vacuum develops in the family. You can imagine that it is not maintained too well – to say the least.
It's a mystery how it starts each time after a long sleep. I got to drive it in an afternoon when it had already been used that morning by the original owner for a visit to the store. And she told me that it starts readily after such usage. Well...
I've had some horrible cars in my life, some of them had their starter motors completely missing, thus I always had to park on some kind of incline to be able to drive away. There had been even worse cars, ones which needed voodoo-rhymes and considerable mechanical empathy from the driver to coax them into operation. But none of them was as vicious as this – to try starting it felt like teaching a dead cat to catch live mice. Of course I knew that the 800 ccm three-cylinder engine has an old-fashioned carburettor with a manual choke. So I pulled out the lever.
But this engine needs more than a simple choke to get it stated. It would probably need a thing called a strangler. “Pull out the choke to the max and don't step on the accelerator,” the owner instructed me. I left the starter motor to its work for half a minute and after a while I got some hiccups from the engine as a reward. I massaged the long pedal a little, the cylinders caught up and the engine coughed into life. Pros stay pros in the toughest of environments, I thought. Then there was another hiccup and it stalled.
“Damn it!” I thought and started the whole procedure again. A seemingly endless cranking and some coughs later the engine caught again. I left it running at high revs – “who cares about engine wear with a car like this?”, I muttered a severe warning to the Maruti, so nobody could hear, “My wife had an ancient Trabant with a six-volt electric system and I could even start that in the winter. You're not smart enough to fool me!” But the Maruti knew it better.
The poor little motor was really crying in pain, so I pushed the choke lever back a notch to save its life. Dinggg, it died. You Ä®\|\|Ä®Ä!!! Lots of cranking, choke pulling and choke pushing again, but to no avail. I even tried to floor the gas without choke, thinking the fuel flooded the combustion chambers and lean mixture is needed. Nothing happened. I was being suffocated in fumes of unburnt carbohydrates, a puddle of hugely suspicious fluid was gathering under the end of the tailpipe, but the engine gave as many signs of life as a piece of Martian stone brought back to Earth.
In final despair we pushed the car out on the street with Joseph, the son of the teacher, an ex-pilot of the Maruti, also the person originally buying the car for his mom decades ago. To a small extent it is still his car, so he might also want to share the rigours of used car testing with me.
So we started shoving this heap of junk along the deserted street of this neat little town called Pilisvörösvár, a spitting distance from Budapest the capital. A few lampposts later I was already thinking that if we keep on pushing this 640-kilo car in second gear, waiting for it to start, this might become my last mission.
Finally the engine caught, started working again, but only after we had asked Joseph's mother to get in the driver's seat and do her magic. Who said grey-haired ladies are no good mechanics?
When I got behind the wheel I felt as being left alone at the control panel of the NASA space centre. I didn't have the guts to touch anything for at least five minutes. Never had I felt so much humiliated by a car, not even when I had to learn how to drive a 100 year-old Opel Torpedo in the dense afternoon traffic. As I found out from the forums, hopelessly difficult starting is a popular sport among ageing Maruti 800's, especially in wet weather. Well, India is a dry country, isn't it?
In those five minutes I had some time to get acquainted with the car at least. The pathetically booming noise of the flimsy door slamming shut was the perfect entrée to the special atmosphere, it was akin to the sound of your great-grandmother's washing basin thrown out of the second floor window and hitting the concrete. Of course the non-insulated roof panel also played a role in making this unpleasant reverberation – I looked up and all I could find from the upholstery were some glue marks with dry, disintegrating sponge falling on my head from them.
This is quite typical – Marutis don't really like sunshine. The upholstery of the roof first starts to peel off along the edges and if somebody winds down the windows at this stage, sooner or later the whole contraption falls on the heads of the occupants. This avid sun-hatred can be seen on other interior parts, too. All that is made of plastic turns chalk-white in time, and after those parts lose their resilience they simply break off at the touch of the hand. All pushing, pulling, twisting knobs and also the dashboard disintegrate with the years. A good example for this erosion is our test car's window winders. It had just one left of the four by the time of this review.
This isn't good news, because one of the best methods to make some comfort for the occupants in a Maruti is to wind down the windows. If this can't be done, the shoulders of the passengers touch, but rubbing may be a better word here. They notice this only after recognizing that the seats themselves are not much bigger than an ironing board. To add insult to injury, it is almost impossible to push the front seats back enough to accommodate a 175-centimetre person in the driver's seat. And I'm 187...
Had we been able to wind down the windows, we could have simultaneously inhaled and exhaled with Joseph, but as things were standing we had to do this alternately. But there is a gain to be had from not being able to push the front seats back enough. This way there remains some space in the second row, at least if you compare the Maruti to its direct rivals, the Polski-Fiat 126p or the Trabant 601, but it's not in the original Mini's league for sure. There is almost as much space in the second row as much as at the front. Up comes the next question – what do you do if you're taller than that?
What about the back end of the car? Of course, there is some kind of pit there if you open up the hatch. It might be able to swallow two bags of shopping from the corner store, but it is hopeless to go to the big Tesco with a car like this. The space in the rear was probably meant for having a place to keep the first-aid kit, the spare bulbs and also as a safe area for the pieces of cushion sponge that keep dribbling from the rear seat.
If one gives up this perverted need of having rear seats, some stuff can be put in the rear of the Maruti. This is when you notice that Suzuki was probably copying Volvo when they designed the original version of this car, the Alto. While Volvo estates are perpendicular and boxy to be able to swallow huge amounts of luggage in a large car, the Maruti is perpendicular and boxy to be able to swallow some amount of luggage in a dinky toy. But wonders can be done with a car like this if the owner is a daring person – in Hungarian forums you can find people who have built complete houses with the aid of their Marutis, others worked as DJ's using a car like this, bringing with them the full set of disco equipment in the rear. Well, that must have been a very small garage disco, for sure...
Back to the test car: the engine seems to be warm enough to push back the choke. There was just one hiccup when I let the clutch out in first – a good sign. We turned the stubby nose of the car towards the mountains – luckily the biggest one of these is just 1040 meters high in Hungary, and the one we had nearby was much smaller. Small mountains for a small car – a fair deal there.
I don't know how many times the five-digit odometer has turned to all-zero, but there must have been at least 200,000 of them coming in the years. Nonetheless, the little three-cylinder engine performs in an uncannily smooth style, there are no mechanical noises escaping from it whatsoever. Hats off to those designers at Suzuki! The Maruti even hinted at engine power of some sort – not much, but there's no doubt something could be felt when I pressed the accelerator a bit deeper to the floor.
The first steep incline was done away with in third (this car has only four gears). Then we arrived to a very twisty bit which was also no problem in third speed, sometimes I could even use fourth. Of course, the gearlever had a Boston-Washington travel, the joints in the linkage probably having been worn out completely (another mechanical malady that the Maruti shows quite often), but after having got the feel of the theatrical moves with which one changes speeds in a well-used Maruti, I never missed a gear.
With my hands sweating I tried the magical speed of 90kph. This shed light on another weak point of the design – this car has such bad road holding that it should be rather called road giving. The Maruti may tackle India's legendary potholes very well – I don't know – but to try to hurry this car is a near-death experience. It leans, hops, sways, its baby-trolley wheels start skidding when the next turn appears at the edge of the horizon. All the hype about these advanced Pre-Safe systems nowadays... man, Maruti Udyog invented it decades ago.
In turn, the steering is finger-light even without a servo, and to a certain extent it is precise and has some feedback, too. The whole car has this feeling of a really old jalopy. Last time I had fought so hard to keep a car moving on a curvy road was in a 1924 Ford Model T. But if you know where the (very) limited boundaries of this car's abilities are, it may be even called fun driving within them. Or, at least, exhilarating. Just keep in mind to avoid all situations where you must brake. You can't do such things with a Maruti.
Long-term Maruti owners (Yes, there are people like that!) say it really does wonders to the road holding of the car if you put the 13” wheels from a Swift on it instead of its own measly 12” ones. One reason is that you can buy much better quality rubber for wheels one size larger. The other is that with the bigger diameter the drivetrain's final ratio also becomes longer making for more relaxed cruising. And there's a third aspect, too: Maruti-wheels rot like peaches fallen to the ground at the end of August, while those from the Swift last much longer.
The engine has enough torque to take this slight modification which, according to some, enables the 800 DX to cope with the rigours of motorway usage. The ratio of the original drive train is so short in fact, that a factory-spec Maruti burns less fuel in the city than on the motorway, meaning the consumption goes up from a few notches below 5 l/100kms to a smidgen above 6. Don't expect to overtake anything but lorries and classic cars on the four-lane blacktop: top speed is just 120 kph. And that magic number cannot be reached too quickly either.
We should add one note: the car we had on test was a much-used specimen having led a tough life. It was maintained enough to carry on living, and this meant oil changes, suspension repairs when needed, but it hasn't been loved much for at least fifteen years. At the time of testing it had about a thousand rust spots, dents, its door trim was remade from the canvas of disused furniture, all rubber parts had perished long ago, the base of the seats decomposed ages earlier. It is a car that even its owners fail to understand how it could have survived the years. And from that point of view we start to see the faint magic in this little Indian eco-box.
Plus, don't forget: to buy one costs less than an average bicycle. And for some, this is the only entrance to the world of car ownership.