Ford confirmed yesterday that it hopes to complete the sale of Jaguar and Land Rover by the end of the first quarter of the year.

Last week it named Indian corporation Tata Motors as preferred bidder for the two West Midland luxury brands, the sale of which is set to yield about £1 billion.

In guidance to journalists it said the detailed negotiations with Tata were likely to take about six weeks to complete.

That has now been hardened up by Ford chief executive Alan Mulally who said in a wide-ranging interview that he expects the sale to be completed by March 31.

However, journalists at the Delhi Motor Show hoping for an early indication on the likely fate of Jaguar and Land Rover were disappointed as Tata Motors put talk of the acquisition on the backburner.

There was little indication of the impending move at the Auto Expo 2008 event as Tata chose instead to focus on the Indian domestic market, launching several new mass market models including a revamped Indica which if history had followed a different course, could well have been the replacement for the illfated City Rover.

The five-door hatchback, which would hardly warrant a second look on the car park of a British supermarket, was one of the stars of the show with hundreds of journalists crowd-ing into the exhibition hall to see the unveiling of the vehicle.

The light show and fanfare which accompanied the launch would have been worthy of one of the potential acquisitions rather than a family runabout. However, there is a lot riding on the vehicle.

More than one million of the cars have been sold in India in the past decade and the new model has a lot to live up to if it is to maintain Tata's share of the market, currently worth around 16 per cent.

Company chairman Ratan Tata, said: "When we announced that we were going to design and manufacture a car in India most people said that we could not do it without a licence agreement or as a joint venture.

"However, we met the challenge and ten years later we have a respectable market share and a strong presence on the roads of India."

He added that the new model was more powerful, more robust and better technically - a metaphor perhaps for modern India.

As a whole, the company is more on a par with Mercedes, in that it also manufactures trucks, buses, vans and cars - all of which are on display at the show. All that is missing from the stable is a luxury saloon or off-roader, hence the firm's interest in the two British companies.

Today sees the eagerly awaited launch of Tata's People's Car - a utilitarian vehicle which will retail for the princely sum of around £1,250.

The car is aimed squarely at what is known in India as the Metro class, the lower middle classes who currently commute on two wheels rather than four.

That the company should be launching such basic models at a time when it stands on the threshold of securing two of the world's most prestigious marques is perhaps ironic, at least to European eyes.

However, sources close to the company say that the Jaguar and Land Rover acquisition, should it happen, is indicative of the company's growing aspirations.

The wider company wants to spread its influence globally and wants to do so by acquiring only the best brands. It already owns two British institutions - Corus (formerly British Steel) and Tetley Tea - while in the US it has the Ritz Carlton hotels in New York, Boston and San Francisco.

If it can successfully manage these companies then there is a confidence in India that Jaguar and Land Rover will be safe in Tata's hands.

Also displaying at the event is Tata's rival in the bid to acquire Jaguar and Land Rover, Mahindra & Mahindra.

Things were more subdued in the company's exhibition hall yesterday compared with Tata but equally there was little talk of its potential new recruits.

The company already manufactures tough off-roaders but they are short on luxury and long on practicality. While it may benefit from Land Rover's technology it is difficult to believe it could safely stable Jaguar.

Mahindra's tie-up with a European manufacturer is through Renault - Tata's is with Fiat - and its major presence in the saloon market is a mid-market Renault-badged model, the Logan.

What was noticeable at Mahindra however, was the focus on green fuels, especially bio-diesel. Several models, including the large Scorpio offroader, were shown running on the fuel, a significant move given the rising cost of fuel and India's pollution problems.

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