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A pioneer’s Diamond Jubilee

Inspiring industrialists Raghunandan Saran

On September 7, Ashok Leyland Ltd, pioneers in truck and bus chassis manufacture, celebrates its 60th birthday. Those beginning were in Ashok Motors, founded by Raghunandan Saran of Delhi.

Born the youngest son of ‘Motorwale’ Pyare Lal, Saran preferred to march with Nehru and find himself in jail on several occasions than to follow the family business interests. Saran, educated at St. Stephen’s College, went to Cambridge. On his return to India, he fell under the spell of the freedom movement. As participating in it would go contrary to his family’s business interests, he disassociated himself from the family business, took up a job as a school teacher and became active in the movement. He was Treasurer, Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee, for some time and then, the Convenor of the INA Enquiry Relief Committee appointed by the All India Congress Committee.

Once freedom was won, Jawaharlal Nehru, his friend and leader, persuaded him that he would be able to do more for nation-building through developing industry, in which India’s future lay, than by getting into politics and joining the Congress government. Whereupon, Saran decided to help develop an indigenous automobile industry. Familiar as he was with Austin Motors Ltd., through his family’s connection, he decided to negotiate with it for the assembly and manufacture of Austin cars in India. And, was successful.

Helped by other Austin dealers he founded Ashok Motors Limited, the name chosen being that of his only son. Ashok Motors was incorporated on September 7, 1948 in Madras and commenced business on December 14, settling in the fishing village of Ennore. In September 1949, production began in Ennore with the help of Austin Motors Limited and Austin Motors Export Corporation Limited, U.K.

Even before assembly of Austins in Madras had got into full swing, Saran was thinking ahead. In January 1949, he began negotiations with Leyland Motors Ltd., U.K. In 1950, agreement was reached and Ashok Motors got sole rights to import, assemble and progressively manufacture Leyland trucks for seven years.

Sadly, before manufacture could get underway, Raghunandan Saran died in an air crash in Nagpur on December 18, 1953. His widow, Raksha Saran, was, in the years ahead, to contribute significantly to the company as a Delhi-based director.

Raksha Saran

The gloom that was descending on the company was relieved by a silver lining, even if it meant that the assembly of Austin cars had to be stopped, following the Government’s decision that all future activities of the company were to be confined to progressive manufacture of Leyland commercial vehicles. A licence for the manufacture of 1,000 Comets a year was granted.

On July 4, 1955, Ashok Motors Ltd. became Ashok Leyland Ltd. and produced in 1955 the 1,000 12-ton Comet bus and truck chassis for which it was licensed. At the time, there were on its rolls 252 employees in all.

Today, the Company is looking at creating capacity to produce 2,00,000 vehicles by 2010-2011. But even as Ashok Leyland begins to race ahead, one thing remains constant. And that is the contribution that it has made to the development of the automotive industry in South India. To meet the Government’s requirements and Ashok Leyland’s needs, local ancillary suppliers put down roots in the 1950s and 1960s. Among them were Lucas-TVS, Brakes India, Wheels India, Sundaram Clayton, MICO (which Saran had helped promote in Bangalore), MRF, India Radiators, India Pistons, and Bimetal Bearings, as well as numerous others.

The suppliers it nurtured are suppliers today to not merely Ashok Leyland and the rest of India but to the world. Indeed, it would not be too fanciful to say that the components’ suppliers Ashok Leyland helped to develop had much to do with the automotive industry itself sinking roots around Chennai in the late 1990s and having Chennai popularly described as the ‘Detroit of India’.

In getting India to move on wheels, Ashok Leyland has got the automotive industry to move with it.


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