RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
As we heard yesterday, this year is the 100th anniversary of the Model T - the car that put Americans behind the wheel. It was inexpensive, reliable, and the public loved it. The Model T and the other mass produced brands that followed transformed the nation.
Now another people's car is about to go on the market in another nation. It's India. The car is the Nano, priced low enough that millions of people could become first-time car owners, in theory. We continue our series on the people's car with a look at the many hurdles that the Nano faces. Here's NPR's Philip Reeves in New Delhi.
Mr. RATAN TATA (Chairman, Tata Motors): Now I give you the new car from Tata Motors, the people's car that everyone has been waiting for.
(Soundbite of music, "Also Sprach Zarathustra")
PHILIP REEVES: It's more than five months since the world's cheapest car was unveiled. Tata Motors presented the birth of the Nano as historic. Chairman Ratan Tata placed his baby car alongside some of mankind's groundbreaking inventions.
Mr. TATA: The same quest for leadership and conquering new frontiers led to landing a man on the moon.
REEVES: Since he's spoke those words, the world's been waiting with keen anticipation. It's heard how the Nano does 47 miles to the gallon and meets stringent environmental standards. Now it wants to see if the Nano will survive the ultimate test: the unforgiving roads of India.
(Soundbite of engine failing to start)
REEVES: Nowhere is interest greater than here. This where the people of New Delhi look for motorbikes at bargain prices. Hundreds of bikes are lined up on either side of the road. Everywhere you look there's an oil-spattered mechanic taking a bike apart or putting one back together.
Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)
REEVES: Customers haggle, but the men who run this market are seasoned professionals.
(Soundbite of horn honking)
REEVES: Om Soni has been in the motorcycle trade for a quarter of a century. He thinks the Nano costs too little.
Mr. OM SONI (Motorcycle Salesman): What people will think if I have only a Nano? Nano is considered to be the cheapest car in India and the person will also be supposed that he is the most cheapest person who buys this.
REEVES: Tata Motors is taking direct aim at Om Soni's customers. It wants to sell Nanos to Indians who now ride motorbikes and scooters. Ratan Tata got his inspiration from seeing a man riding on a motorbike with his wife and children, including a baby. That's one of the most disturbing and common sights on India's lethal roads. The man wears a helmet - the wife and kids often do not.
The motorcycle plays a central role in India's economic life. In the countryside, where 70 percent of Indians live, it fetches and carries like a horse, it travels roads impassible by car, connecting remote villages. In the cities it delivers a multitude of commuters to work every day.
Indians bought more than seven million motorbikes and scooters last year, six times the number of cars. That's why Om Soni's confident the Nano won't damage his business.
Mr. SONI: No, no, no. Never, it can never happen. I'm not going to throw my scooter away and take a Nano. For everything Nano will not work.
Mr. RAVI KANT (Managing Director, Tata Motors): The way we are receiving inquiries, the way we are receiving comments are quite mind-boggling.
REEVES: That's Ravi Kant, managing director of Tata Motors talking to the BBC. He says the Nano appeals to a new type of customer.
Mr. KAT: We could have never imagined that this person actually would have ever thought of buying a car or driving in a car. We feel that it's going to be a very big change in this country.
REEVES: Per capita, the number of Indians who own passenger cars is still very low, just eight in a thousand. But to the alarm of environmentalists, that number is growing rapidly with the rise of middle-class incomes. Tata's planning to start producing 250,000 Nanos a year, eventually rising to one million.
The government's embarked on a vast national highway-building project. City authorities are building roads but they can't keep pace. A thousand new motor vehicles are registered in the capital, New Delhi, every day, which can make getting around town difficult.
One of the best ways of getting through the traffic jams is to hop into one of these three-wheel rickshaws. They're even smaller than the Nano is going to be. And they're pretty good at weaving in and out, but even they get stuck sometimes in the traffic because the jams here are so dense.
People in the motorcycle business say it's much easier to use a bike.
(Soundbite of bell ringing)
REEVES: That's certainly true here. This is Delhi's Old City. The alley I'm walking down right now is about nine feet wide; it is crowded with people. Most people are getting along on foot. There are occasional cycle rickshaws. One of them is just forcing their way past me now. And here comes somebody on a motorcycle. But basically a car would stand very little chance of making any headway at all in this part of town.
Competition to the Nano is mobilizing. Bajaj, in partnership with Renault and Nissan, is working on a car that will sell at the same price as the Nano. The motorcycle industry will fight to keep its market share.
(Soundbite of engine revving)
REEVES: And it's got machismo on its side. The bikes' names in India have a masculine swagger - Avenger, Splendor, Passion. The TV ads show glowering young men with big hair and boots racing around doing wheelies.
(Soundbite of TV ad)
Unidentified Man #3: 180 CC, 15 BHP, solid muscular styling. Bajaj Pulsator - definitely male.
REEVES: The Nano is not definitely male. It looks like a computer mouse on wheels. Its name just means very small. Will it be able to compete? As it's a family car, much will depend on who makes the decision. Vita is a housewife in New Delhi. She says she calls the shots when it comes to buying cars.
Ms. VITA (Housewife): Seventy-thirty percent - 70 percent is me and 30 percent him.
REEVES: She's not particularly keen on the Nano.
Ms. VITA: Because of faith. It is a small car. I like big cars.
(Soundbite of laughter)
REEVES: The majority of Indians can't afford any cars, let alone big ones. Yet there's no doubt many of them do now want to get behind a steering wheel, even if it's a tight squeeze.
Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) Watch out there how you drive that Cadillac there...
MONTAGNE: Tomorrow on our series, The People's Car, we take a look at how inexpensive mobility has been marketed to Americans over the years.
Unidentified Man #5: Henry Ford and his lieutenants were really tuned in to the fact that you could build the best car in the world, but if nobody knows about it and the image is not there, you're not going to sell many vehicles.
MONTAGNE: That's tomorrow on MORNING EDITION.
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Man #5: (Singing) Green light says stop, red light says go. Look at that man, at that man on the road, that highway man parked on the road. You better drive that Cadillac, you better drive it right on the road.