One of the most memorable movies of all time was ‘Hatari’, a film on how animals were caught or handled in Africa in the past with vehicles like jeeps and mini trucks. Sadly, no such movie was made on India, which had a great tradition of using cars in the countryside for outdoor activities like hunting and picnics. If anything, in India such exercises involving cars were far more dramatic and interesting than those used in the movie. Though it left our wildlife much depleted, the performance of early-era cars on such hostile terrain is worth a read.
The popular cars used for outdoor activities in India were made by companies like Napier, Lanchester, Crossley and Rolls-Royce of Britain. This was partly because India at that time was part of the British Empire and Indian buyers had a fascination for cars used by colonial officers of the Raj (who almost always bought British cars).
It will be worth mentioning that not all cars were bought for ‘shikar’ or hunting purposes. Cars in those days were supplied as bare chassis and then fitted with bodywork style chosen by the owner, like tourer (open body), or sedan (closed body), or roadster (two seater open body with small closed seats in separate rows), or even as three-row 9-seaters.
After a few years, when the chassis was no longer new and the original bodywork of wood-canvas-steel suffered damage, the old bodywork was taken off. Then, the chassis was refitted with new bodywork like flat open bodywork with floor-mounted stands for guns, shooting spotlights, binoculars etc. alongside racks to mount and carry back the hunted trophies.
Great success was obtained by American companies like General Motors (Buicks and Chevrolets were big hits), Ford (its V8 was a hot favourite) and Chrysler because they generally came with higher specifications than British cars. For example, dynamos and electric starting, high power lamps, synchromesh gear boxes (on some gears at least) and four-wheel large brakes were much more easily available on American cars. Also, their engines were larger (six or eight cylinders) and suspension softer and more supple and therefore ideal for outdoor use.
There was also a healthy second hand market for such cars and we find innumerable advertisements for sale of hunting cars in newspapers, magazines and journals of that period.
Cars like Rolls Royce were sold by the princes and big traders and so were less glamorous brands like Lanchester and Buick with fitted body or just as chassis suitable for fresh bodywork.
As late as 1966, we find an advertisement reading, “FOR SALE Rolls-Royce Phantom III owned by a Maharajah. Enquiries start at `18,000” in a newspaper published from Kolkata. However, after the Second World War (i.e. after 1945), the jeep became the legendary car for animal shooting and overshadowed all other vehicles.
Hunting cars came with special equipments, some of which have been mentioned above.
First, they were fitted with special bodies with low sides to allow hunters to use binoculars or telescopes to spot animals far away even while sitting.
Seats were made especially soft so that the passengers remained comfortable even when the car was being driven off road and at times, at speed over open fields, river beds or streams.
On the floor were mounted special stands so the guns could be kept upright when not in use, and leather/ canvas bullet cases could be hung ready for use. On spotting the game, the guns could be mounted on the stand for discharge.
Very skilled and brave hunters ignored the use of stands and preferred to fire standing up despite the danger of falling over if the car swayed or rocked from side to side when running over a ditch or uneven ground.
On both sides of the car, special lights were mounted on swiveling stands, backed up by a compartment carrying additional batteries charged from the car’s dynamo. These were used to hunt in the night when the headlights lit up the front and the spotlights lit up the sides to focus on the spotted animal.
Finally, larger hunting expeditions were often accompanied by horses or elephants (in eastern India) or camels (in western India), so there would be racks carrying water and food for the hunters and accompanying animals at the back of the car.
When the food was used up, the same rack was used to bring back the hunted trophies depending upon their size. Tigers, deer and wolves were most popular prey. Only the bravest dared to shoot bisons or elephants as these needed special guns. Rhinos were hunted only during very special expeditions.
All in all, India was one of the most glamourous motoring markets in the world because of the sale of such exotic and special vehicles. Most of these cars have now vanished from our country. Some are proudly displayed in museums.
The hospitality of Indian landowners acquired legendary proportions when they arranged hunts for both foreign and Indian guests on their estates. In fact, the hunting parks of the maharajas and landowners became national parks, reserve forests and animal reserves of today. But that is another story.