'Unpacking the Nano' to show revolutionary car's impact

What does it take to design and mass-produce an automobile to sell for around $2,500? And what are the inevitable environmental, social, economic and cultural impacts of having 5 million, 10 million, 50 million such cars (and first-time car owners) on the road?

The College of Architecture, Art and Planning (AAP) will explore these and other questions related to Tata Motors' revolutionary new Tata Nano, in an exhibition at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art.

"Unpacking the Nano," on display Jan. 15 through March 27, 2011, will feature two production Nanos -- one of them taken apart to highlight 16 critical subassemblies -- and the original concept vehicle.

The exhibition team of AAP students, faculty and young alumni has created custom shipping crates for the Nano's parts and subassemblies. Each crate side doubles as an exhibition panel, with text, maps, charts and other graphics showing cost, weight and statistics.

"The question we asked [in organizing the exhibition] was, 'What do all the nuts and bolts add up to?'" says Alex Mergold, B.Arch. '98, a visiting assistant professor of architecture. "What does the Nano add up to as a car, a piece of engineering and design, a status symbol, a social construct, a financial asset, an environmental hazard, a solution to India's mobility problem? This thing brings out many debates, and that's what we are hoping to stimulate."

Production of the Nano in India began in 2009; about 250,000 Nanos will ship in 2010 alone. The company ultimately wants to produce as many as 2 million cars a year. Designed by a team of 70 Tata engineers, the four-door car seats five, has an aluminum two-cylinder engine, weighs 600 kilograms, and gets up to 65 miles per gallon.

"The design accomplishment is truly extraordinary," says Kent Kleinman, the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of AAP. Kleinman, who is co-directing the project with Mergold. Kleinman discussed the Nano with Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata '59, B.Arch. '62, at a Reunion 2009 event and led an AAP delegation in June that toured the new Tata Motors factory in Gujarat.

The exhibition highlights "the role of design as an agent of profound social change," Kleinman says. It also addresses safety, the Nano's role in sustainability in India and other nations, and casts a critical eye toward American automotive culture.

Tata engineers worked to meet a price of one lakh (100,000 rupees, or around $2,200 in 2009 U.S. dollars), a symbolic price benchmark in India.

"It was started from a blank slate," says exhibition team member Spencer Lapp, B.Arch. '09. "[Tata Motors] started with the idea that this car was going to be much less than it eventually became. They tried a design with no doors, plastic curtains and a plastic body. They discovered they could design a car that people would want to drive, not a golf cart."

Ratan Tata's goal was to bring motoring to the masses in India. The Nano was designed as a safe, affordable alternative to the millions of two-wheeled vehicles now on the road.

Using outside manufacturers proved ineffective, so Tata engineers designed parts themselves, Lapp says: "The value engineering became a very effective strategy; the car's weight essentially drove the cost."

The project has opened up "huge" teaching possibilities, Mergold says. "During the research phase we ended up with mini-courses on design, engineering, environment, anthropology, sociology -- all during only one semester."

A related symposium, "Unpacking the Nano: The Price of the World's Most Affordable Car," will be held in March.

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Blaine Friedlander