In Conversation With Dilip Chhabria

DoJMA: In the mid-1990s, when DC started and was looking for investors, do you think novelty value helped you out? Was it difficult to find out takers for your idea?

Dilip Chhabria: When the company was incepted in 1993, we were not looking for investors, we were self-funded. As we had good margins, we could pump back sufficient money for newer projects. In the late 90s, during the dot com rush, primarily because of its uniqueness and it being the only automobile entity, it helped us in finding investors.


DoJMA: From making ring-shaped horns for Premier Padmini to designing vanity van for SRK, the King of Bollywood – your journey must certainly have those choices you took, which wouldn’t seem fit back then, but now when you look back, you are appreciating them. Could you share some of them with us?

DC: I think it’s been a journey into evolution and learning. When we were making accessories for Padmini, the need for business was to be close to cars. In 1982, no one would have imagined that car design could be a business option. That really helped us in learning about materials and processes involved in the manufacturing of automobiles. Apart from the knowledge, we gained financial independence for our future business. We view every customer as a means to an end, which is the reason why we’re so unique in our style. We wouldn’t have retained our edge solely on a revenue-generating project like SRK’s, we differentiate all our customers in their need which creates learning.


DoJMA: India remains a country dominated by youth making mainstream career choices, which was a path you didn’t take when you opted for automobile design. Do you believe now, with the success of the DYPDC and the saturation of most conventional career paths, more young graduates will make the decision you did?

DC: I think in the 90s, emphasis on design industry wasn’t much. With foreign transplants coming in it was majorly a buyer’s market. That isn’t the case anymore. The competition is huge in the industry; the only way of growth for a brand is based on design so, it has become a major determinant. With that paradigm, the Indian market is poised to grow exponentially. I sincerely believe that we are going to be the next China in the automobile industry. The lower penetration and the need for a market of newer designs increase the scope of designers in the industry.


DoJMA: Even though you were a commerce graduate, you went on to become one of the most sought car designers in the country. What parts, as one would call, would make a successful car designer?

DC: Obsessive passion would be the major player here. Passion is, in fact, gradable. Being obsessively passionate for your work forces you to preclude everything else. It all starts from there. Obsessive passion makes your hobby your profession. I have a 35-minute ride from my residence to office, and many times I am impatient, feeling that it’s too long. This comes from commitment, which results in excellence in your work, which speaks for itself.


DoJMA: It’s that drive and passion that led to the launch of the DC Avanti. According to published reports, however, DC Avanti has had a tough time dealing with its competitors like the Audi R8, Porsche 718 and the Ford Mustang, purely based on sales figures. As a niche carmaker, how much do you read into pure sales figures while deciding your strategy?

DC: The sales figures of the Avanti are, in fact, as much as the Audi R8, Mustang, Lamborghini Gallardo and Huracan combined. We do not publish our sales figures – initially, that was because we did not have the marketing budgets. One of the reasons the car is not doing as well as we expected is low awareness. Anytime people see the car, they ask me which car it is based on. Our legacy was customizing, and they are at a loss when you tell them, “This is our own manufacture.” Many a time they see a car and ask if it is made in India, is it a Ferrari. So the awareness level is lower. That is a fact – you can’t have everything. Our budget went way above expected, and whatever was earmarked for marketing, we consumed it. Eventually, it doesn’t matter to me – as a designer, as an artist, I’m not a pure numbers man. The fact that we successfully put a car on the road in our first attempt as a manufacturer is enough for me.


DoJMA:  In 2011, you designed the REVA NXR electric car for Mahindra & Mahindra. Would we see electric DC Cars like Tesla in the near future?

DC: We’ve already done quite a few electric cars. I’m not so sure if the electric car movement can sustain – there is a lot of hype, but there’s no viability. While the captains of the industry talk about it, they’re not putting their money on it yet. This is a phenomenon all over the world. Electric cars are more expensive than the IC [internal combustion] Indian cars because the volumes are not there, and the volumes can only go up when the price is lower. This sounds like a chicken-and-egg story.


DoJMA: Another thing that the market seems to be moving towards is the idea of self-driven cars which incorporate AI technology and in a sense are likely to replace drivers. Do you think that’s something we’re heading towards and if so, do you think that’ll be incorporated in your models soon?

DC: A lot of AI, autonomous cars are being tested, and level 3 autonomous cars already exist in India – the Audi, Mercedes S-Class and so on. Level 4 is where the cars drive themselves but you need a driver behind the wheel. Level 5 doesn’t require a driver. From what I’ve read, regulation-wise, Level 5 is impossible to implement. Even in the most advanced countries, the regulators will not allow Level 5. With the technological power that [companies like] Google, Uber and Amazon have, they may influence the government to incorporate that because they have spent millions of dollars on it. They might sell AI kits to carmakers as compared to producing cars themselves. For them, it’s another device they can monetize, like an iPhone.