NEW DELHI: Pratap Bose remembers the first time he saw the Tata Indica. It was aquamarine blue with grey bumpers. For me, it came from another planet, says Bose, meaning that in a good way, since it was 1998 and no Indian company had produced such a good-looking car that had been designed from the ground up. At the time, Bose was 22 and had just graduated from the National Institute of Design (NID), waiting to go work for Piaggio in Italy. Hes now 39 and head of design at Tata Motors, which means its his task to make sure that the line-up looks fresh and exciting. This is going to be critical if the company wants to have cars that people want to buy just as sales are reviving and the economy looks like its about to turn around.
For the last two-three years, Tata Motors has only made money because of Ratan Tatas inspired decision to buy Jaguar Land Rover in 2008-9. While JLRs cars are exceptionally attractive, the Tata Motors line-up looks terribly jaded.
Can Bose get people to think differently with the newly launched Zest and the soon to be unveiled Bolt? Its going to be difficult. Sixteen years ago, the Indicadesigned by Italian design house IDEA–looked remarkably fresh.
It was a modern, indigenous product. I saw the car and thought to myself, it must be a fantastic company to work with, says Bose, who has an MA on vehicle design from the Royal College of Art, UK, which has trained many renowned global designers.
Over the next eight years (1998-2006), Bose gained international exposure with stints at Piaggio in Italy, and Mitsubishi and Daimler Chrysler in Japan, working on key projects. In September 2006, he met Ravi Kant, then managing director of Tata Motors, and asked for a meeting with Ratan Tata. A few months later, he was making a presentation to then chairman at Bombay House.
At the end of the day, Mr Tata said, Most of the things you said in the presentation, I disagree with, but I think it is a good point of view, Would you like to work with us at TMETC (Tata Motors European Technical Centre)? Bose recalls.
Since coming on board, Bose has been in charge of design concepts such as the Pixel, Mega Pixel and Nexon, showcased at the Auto Expo in New Delhi to largely positive reviews. Hes part of the new Ramp;D unit at Tata Motors led by Tim Leverton and Girish Wagh. While Leverton heads Ramp;D, Wagh is head of product planning and project management, driving the HorizonNext initiative started by the late Karl Slym, former managing director.
Bose says his mandate is clear: Tata cars need to look good enough for customers to want them. So far, Tata Sons chairman Cyrus Mistry seems to be happy with the way things are shaping up.
We recently had a design review of one of our future cars and the feedback from Mr Mistry was just one word, Stunning. He said the same thing after looking at the Nexon (SUV concept). And that is the clear direction, that is one word we want to get from our customers, says Bose.
But the verdict doesnt seem to be unequivocally positive, at least thus far.
I feel that Bose had a good opportunity with the design of Tatas new product portfolio. Sadly the opportunity has been wasted. For a brand like Tata Motors, which is battling slow sales and almost extinction in the domestic market, the new cars needed to come with a family design language. This would have pulled in customers and given a more confident impression to the fence-sitting customer, says Deepesh Rathore, director of Emerging Markets Automotive Advisors.
Unfortunately, this is not happening with the Zest and Bolt, both of which do not look similar to each other… Also, the Bolt looks just like a facelifted version of the Indica Vista (which it is) and not a completely new car that Tata would like us to believe. The silhouette is identical to the Vista, Rathore says.
On the other hand, while the Zest and Bolt are not meant to be radically different from the current design theme, the planned small car and compact sedan based on the Kite or X0 platform will offer a more dramatic departure from the way Tata Motors cars look now, said a company insider.
To be sure, good design can be a matter of individual taste and creating a design language, such as Hyundais Fluidic or Fords Kinetic, can be a massive challenge.
And Bose is clear that he doesnt want to limit himself. I dont want products to be clones of each other in different sizes. Each product should have a different thing to say. Some can be subtle (Zest), some friendly (Nano), some aggressive (Nexon) and some classy.
He also says there has been a substantial change in thinking at Tata Motors, addressing another of Rathores concerns. The company has reoriented itself so that design gets the importance it deserves with concepts not getting diluted as they make the transition to the manufacturing stage. He says that the Zest and Bolt are very close to the concept design. The Nexon too will look much like the concept, he adds.
Once the design has been approved by the board, even the cost and engineering teams cant alter it, confirm senior executives at Tata Motors
Bose is said to have the complete support of chairman Mistry, who understands design well. Monthly design reviews take place in the presence of the entire executive committee, including Mistry.
Tata Motors badly needs a lineup of hot cars. Average monthly volume has slumped to 7,500-8,000 units from 25,000-30,000 units two years ago. Its been relegated to number six in the Indian passenger vehicle market, down from three in FY13.
Bose has done a good job with the Zest and Bolt, says Hormazd Sorabjee, editor of Autocar India. But design is not enough.
Given the environment, design is non-negotiable today and has become a make or break factor for the car makers. Zest and Bolt are a good start from Tata Motors, given the limitations Bose had, says Sorabjee. Design wise, the vehicles will be acceptable, but Tata Motors will have to fundamentally change its perception of quality of its products. Boses 170-member team in India, the UK and Italy (Turin) are working on 15-20 new products for Tata Motors going up to 2020-21. Among the youngest design team in the world with an average age of 28-29, they hail from countries such as France, Italy, UK, Ireland, Australia, South Korea, Iran and India and have worked in GM in the US, Ford in Australia and Nissan in Japan.
The design unit under Bose has a truly global touch, said a person who has worked closely with Bose, remarking on his close engagement with team members, for instance being able to converse them in Italian and Japanese.