A man is known by the car he uses, goes a famous slogan. The legends of the cars used in the past which are forgotten today will take us on a trip down memory lane.
The high and mighty in Indian society copied the English in almost everything, including the choice of cars. Naturally, most Indians bought English cars. The majority went for mainstream Austin and Morris models or Fords, but many were adventurous and opted for interesting cars.
I must start with Sir Surendranath (‘Surrender-not’) Banerjee, the famous nationalist leader. Possibly the first Indian politician who had an all-India following, he was revered for his logical and hard-hitting arguments against the problems of English rule. His car surprisingly was the German-inspired but English-built Daimler. Besides being supremely comfortable and powerful, Daimlers had large engines and four forward gears- advanced features for the 1910s.
Another legend, Chittaranjan Das, was devoted to French cars, of which he owned several. As one the most successful (and richest) barristers in the country, he could have easily afforded Rolls-Royce or similar cars, but gave away much of his wealth in charity and lived simply. It is possible he owned a Hotchkiss sedan.
Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose, a towering personality and doyen of Indian science, used a Studebaker sedan. His car was a familiar sight on College Street which he visited in lieu of his academic pursuits.
Take the case of the Chandra family after whom several streets in central Kolkata are named. The family had multiple famous cars. The first was an American-built Cole, one of the largest cars in its day. Cole cars were serious rivals to Packard and Cadillac, using eight-cylinder engines that gave them performance and reliability but had high fuel consumption. The second car was a Humber (like Rabindranath Tagore’s), but a sporting variant called the Beeston Humber. This range had become famous for its participation in the annual car-versus-plane Paris-to-London race.
The Mahalanobis family (famed social reformers and educationists) were famous for their Napier cars. At one time a serious challenger to the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, the large Napier models came with innovative open and all-steel closed bodies. Napier was the pioneer of six-cylinder engines and was the favourite car of many Indian landowners and rajas. The company later stopped making cars. The Tagore family of Pathuriaghata was also devoted to Napiers.
Another famous public figure, Sir K G Gupta, preferred the English Armstrong Siddeley, marketed as the ‘car with aircraft quality’. For forty years, the company sold vast cars to the English and Indian upper classes with 5000cc six-cylinder engines. The cars were either praised for their design or mercilessly criticised for being extremely ugly as they had v-shaped radiators topped by a ‘Sphinx’ mascot.
These legends owned very interesting cars, like the famous figures of show business (e.g., I have written about Gauhar Jaan’s famous Nash car and the Buick used by Chhabi Biswas in an earlier article). With cars such as these plying the roads, the city was truly a delight for car aficionados.