The saga of motor cars in India started more than a century ago. As a tribute to this age-old legacy, we present a series on the cradle days of motoring. We begin with the very first car service station and garage that had set India’s love affairs with the set of wheels, rolling. Calcutta was privileged enough to have the first motor garage set up in the Indian soil.
The earliest records about motor cars were all noted by foreigners including Britishers working in India and some Europeans and Americans who were also here due to professional reasons. These records have almost all vanished and it is only as a result of persistent efforts, support and help from some foreign scholars with access to best libraries overseas, that some of the original texts of the foreign writers have come to light.
Actually, most of the vehicles at that time were imported and sold to foreigners. Indian buyers were limited to a handful of rich landowners, businessmen and professionals. Foreigners, though few in number, were generally qualified and held decent jobs that paid them enough to own and drive cars. Culturally too, they were more comfortable than Indians in general, with car ownership and maintenance, including do-it-yourself jobs as well as modifications and repairs.
These factors, established by data and records from surveys and census of the 20th Century, make foreign sources so important to the history of motoring on Indian shores. So, in a sense, ‘foreign devils’ ruled Indian roads in the early part of the 20th Century!
French Motor Car Company
The very first independent garage in the city was the French Motor Car Company Ltd., which was set up at Bentinck Street by a French citizen who had chosen our beloved city as his permanent home. Established in 1905 and backed by a French Armenian diamond merchant, Michael Sevajian, the garage was famous for its mechanic who reportedly hailed from Dieppe in France.
He had two assistants and was widely admired for his skills and enormous capacity for hard work. For example, W H Bates, a very highly placed Englishman in the corporate world, wrote in great admiration, “Around 1910, the only motor car service and repair shop was the French Motor Car depot on Bentinck Street. The French mechanic in charge worked day and night and in fact, he never seemed to sleep at all. He was a most interesting man and inspired many to follow him.”
This location on Bentinck Street is lost to us but according to old timers it was possibly located in the spot now occupied by Aliah restaurant and other eateries and shops – a short distance away from the Esplanade crossing.
The Frenchman inspired such great confidence among his English customers that they organised regular drive-outs from Calcutta and in the process, ended up having improvised races to and from the city. Among the cars recorded over the years which were worked upon at French Motors included makes like Oldsmobile (also called REO after its American maker’s initials) and Wolseley (a British make later nationalised).
In course of time, French became the dealer for Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars but this dealership was later lost to Walfords Motors on Park Street located at the spot overlooking Camac Street crossing now occupied by the commercial building, Park Plaza.
There is a very funny anecdote on the reasons behind the loss of dealership, though the author warns that it is unconfirmed and should be treated as a rumour only.
According to this yarn, a couple of visitors from Rolls UK had dropped in unannounced at the French one day and found mechanics clad in dhotis and kurtas working on R-R and Bentley engines and chasis.
This was considered to be a sacrilege – as R-R and Bentley staff had to be in company overalls, round the clock, on a mandatory basis. Hence, the skills and merits of the mechanics were set aside and the contract was terminated immediately by that most prestigious among car companies!
In 1920, French was converted into a Public Limited Company through raising of capital and in 1925, Sir Onkarmal Jatia became the first Indian Director of the company.