The current Indian automotive scene has been a predictive one in terms of product availability. The market clearly dictates its preferences and none of the manufacturers want to take unnecessary risks. Hence we get the same old hatchbacks, sedans derived from hatchbacks and SUVs that aren’t really SUVs but hatchbacks with bigger wheels and body cladding, in the lower end of the market.
Things weren’t so bleak during the early part of Indian automotive history. Till the 50-60’s you could get almost anything from the American and European markets. If you watch movies from that era or even the 70’s you can see that Indian roads were quite diverse and interesting. Later the 80’s again saw more independent players trying to come up with new cars and finally with the removal of trade restrictions in 1991 the current car market was slowly established.
One of the early players in the contemporary Indian market was Bangalore’s Sunrise Auto Industries, later changed to Sipani Automobiles, who built many cars during the 80’s and the 90’s. Even though none of them were met with considerable success they were some of the most interesting cars sold in Indian soil.
First came the Sunrise Badal which was a quirky fiberglass bodied, 3-wheeled, 3-door car with a rear mounted 198cc Italian engine powering its rear wheels. The Badal was mainly derived from the Reliant Robin which would be instantly familiar to any fans of Top Gear or Mr. Bean as the car that is prone to tip-over with the slightest provocation.
The Badal was to no one’s surprise, a market dud. Sipani followed the Badal with the four wheeled Dolphin. The Dolphin was based on the Reliant Kitten which was actually the four wheeled version of the Reliant Robin and this time most of the Kitten came to India unchanged. If you read the specs of the car now you’d be surprised that such a car ever existed in India. It was made of fiberglass which meant it weighed only about half a ton. Powered by a four cylinder, 848cc, 40bhp engine placed longitudinally in the front, sending power to the rear wheels the Dolphin was truly a hoot to drive.
Dophins came in two variants a two door with a glass hatchback and surprise, surprise a two door shooting brake/estate. It was available in three colours, white, powder blue and yellow. All versions had the same engine and 4 speed manual gearbox combination.
Even though the cars sound like an enthusiast’s wet dream the Dolphins suffered with various issues. Much like the British cars of that era the Sipanis were prone to a host of quality and reliability problems. These were worsened by Sipani’s terrible customer support and dismal dealer/service network. Sipani could never build a dealer network all over India and the cars were only found in the south. Dolphins also couldn’t take the abuse dished out by the Indian roads. Their fiberglass construction and 10” BMC Mini like wheels were not suitable for the country. The launch of the Maruti Suzuki 800 was the final nail in the Dolphin’s coffin as it could not compete with the dealer network, reliability and efficiency of the little Suzuki which was also a bit bigger than the Dolphin and had four doors which large Indian families wanted, unlike the impractical two door design of the Dolphin.
While the Dolphin lost out on the family costumers it gained from the enthusiasts who, because of the car’s light weight, adequate power and rear wheel drive layout subjected it to all sorts of motor sports activities such as rallies, where it was quite competitive. In that sense it was similar to the BMC Mini which was the Kitten’s biggest rival in the UK. In both markets the quirky RWD car was beaten out by the much more practical FWDs, the 800 and the Mini respectively.
Later Sipani tried to compete with the 800 directly with its Montana, a four door version of the Dolphin, but it never got any success either. Sipani, later in the 90’s also launched the Rover Montego in India but that’s a story for a different day.
Today very less information is available online about the history of Indian Automobile industry, especially during the License Raj. Cars such as the Dolphin seem to have just disappeared apart from a few Easter eggs roaming about and some forum chatter here and there. It’s really a shame because today we can never expect such off beat cars to be produced by mainstream manufacturers. Sometimes a light weight RWD hatchback is all you want and all you need.