Which car do you think a doctor or a lawyer would prefer, and for that matter which set of wheels would suit a businessman? In the past each car brand had a distinctive image. This was at a time when Kolkata was one of the greatest car markets in the world, both in terms of brands on offer and the wide choice of models available
The Americans often say: ‘You are what you drive’. In a country like the United States of America, an adventurous young adult with a small budget would look for a second-hand sports car like a Camaro, while a studious one would go for a Honda. This happens because cars have their distinctive ‘images’, a quality that is as mysterious as a brand and almost gives them a ‘personality’ that reflects that of its owner as well. Even in Kolkata, there was a time when almost all the cars in the world were being sold; and as a result, cars became synonymous with the personality of the owner and even ‘acquired’ one of its own.
“We have young men darting around in the new sports cars posing a risk not just to all others on the road but also themselves”, complained a reader in a letter published in the city’s leading daily. Though he did not name the cars but according to other reports the high speed cars included British MG and Riley, or Italian Fiat. These brands were famous for sporty drives and were very different from the reliable and staid Austin, Morris or Clyno cars favoured by the less adventurous.
Eurasian and English ladies residing in the city occasionally drove themselves, and car advertisements till the 1930s indicate, they preferred cars like the Rover or the British Fords (not the American V8), which were reliable and easy to drive. Another car that was a particular favourite was the Singer, also made in England and reason for its popularity was its good brakes.
The best selling family cars at the entry level were the mid sized Austin and Morris models, with engines in the range of 1000-1500cc in modern terms. They usually had four cylinders but six cylinders were also available. At the time, each 100cc was loosely called a horsepower, so a 1000cc car was 10hp for tax purposes. More affluent families went in for six or eight cylinder American cars from companies like General Motors (Chevrolet being the best seller in India), or Chrysler, or Studebaker-Hudson, or the Ford V8. These had independent front suspension, superb riding comfort and large capacity combined with utter reliability and good power for use on highways and cities.
The head of a family or a business with some affluence would inevitably ride a Buick or a similar top of the range American car. The alternative was to own a large English made Wolseley or Humber. The last two held a particular appeal for the ‘brown sahibs’, that is, Indians working for the government, as their English bosses too had a soft corner for them. Britishers working here were more adventurous—almost all of them drove high powered two-seater cars or motorbikes for pleasure, while preferring to be driven around by their staff when on duty.
At the top of the market was the Rolls-Royce in terms of demand, although there were more expensive and better made cars from Hispano-Suiza or Mercedes-Benz. The Cadillac V16 and the Duesenberg were among the cars in the category in that era. The king of England rode Daimlers, so many large landowners and zaminders nurtured a weakness for them. As for the Rolls range, it was split into two- a smaller model and a premium one to offer more option to car owners. Some models like the Phantom III were most unreliable. Despite these shortcomings, India was the largest market for RR cars outside England and USA – superior sales and service network kept it ahead of the pack.
The sports cars of the Indian maharajas, landowners and business tycoons deserve special mention. Second hand grand prix or Le Mans cars made by Bentley, Bugatti, Maserati, Alfa-Romeo, Lancia and Mercedes-Benz were purchased by the uber rich and brought back to the country with modified carburetors, wheels and radiators. The speciality of race cars of that era was that they could be regular cars too. For example, when racing they used special petrol with additives, but ran on regular premium as well. Several of these were in our city, owned by wealthy Indians and English bosses of the top managing agency houses. They used to be raced till the 1960s at the Behala and Barackpore race tracks.
Unfortunately, despite the globalization, neither the cars nor their owners have retained their personalities.