The first automobile association in India which started in Calcutta in 1904, had multiple objectives including popularising the use of motor cars, exploration and motorsports. Racing before the Second World War (1939-45) was unorganised but did not lack courage or horsepower. Short events like racing up bridges or round the Golden Mile (around Fort William, via Red Road-Eden Gardens, Strand Road, the Race Course etc.) were most popular. Longer speed events (from the city to Barrackpore or Barddhaman or Asansol) were the choice of the more adventurous.
Calcutta was a city of great cars. We find advertisements and newspaper reports talking of British Bentleys and Lagondas rubbing shoulders with Italian Isotta-Fraschinis and Alfa-Romeos and American Chryslers and even an odd Duesenberg. Some of these cars came with two-seater bodywork suitable for fast driving while others were modified with sleeker wings and bodywork. A couple of high powered Mercedes-Benz cars also find mention, alongside Minerva (of Belgium) and the more rare Hispano-Suiza and Bugatti cars. Our city was at the heart of the global supercar market!
After Independence to the 1970s
Motorsports started in our city on a more organised note when the first dedicated motorsports club, Calcutta Motor Sports Club came up in 1949. From 1945 onwards, a group of Englishmen and Indians had started racing their cars at many airstrips around Kolkata, like the one in Behala (near Alipore Mint), Barrackpore and Kanchrapara.
The Government of the day was not against such activities and public enthusiasm too was quite high. Newspapers gave good coverage to such events and reported the results dutifully.
The large number of good cars and engines that had come to Kolkata over the years and its close association with foreigners who had stayed back in India after Independence in 1947, helped motor racing to flourish. There were racers who imported powerful cars and raced them with minimal modifications like a reshaped wing or stripped headlamps. Mention must be made of M Issacs, who lit up the tracks with a Jaguar SS and Mike Griffiths who along with Tutu Imam raced a Lagonda. R Ghose raced a Studebaker V8 sports saloon while K P Leppard fielded a Sunbeam Talbot along with W Dewar (of the famous garage) in a Rover 75. R P Ramsay brought in a Jaguar Mark VII and was one of the few who also raced the supercar of the era – a Jaguar XK120.
But the two top cars of the era included a very rare 210bhp Alfa Romeo Monza Grand Prix racer of the 1930s that reached Kolkata in the 1940s and was driven time and again by Howard Jackson. The second one was the Alan Ramsay-imported supercar called Allard J2. The J2 is even today considered as one of the greatest ever sports racers (one of its models came third at Le Mans 24-hours race). We have to thank Jimmy Baird for importing the Allard as well as the Alfa Romeo Monza before others got their hands on it.
The foreigners worked in different companies in the city and saw it as their home where they invested their savings and risked their lives. Sadly, the great cars were mostly smuggled out in the 1970s and are now proudly displayed by collectors in USA, UK and Australia.
Specially made cars
Then there were the car designers who made their own racing cars. The most famous of these were Mike Satow of ICI, a mechanical genius who built India’s first indigenous racing car that looked like a Jaguar D-Type and was called the Cheetah though it used humble mechanical components from marques like Standard and Rover. Satow’s beautiful racer earned considerable success. Incidentally, Satow was also a great railway restorer and persuaded the Government of India to establish the National Rail Museum in Delhi. There were others including Arni Chandru, who also made a Standard based Special. Alan Morley modified Ambassador’s parts to build an open single-seater racer called Tiger, which was later rebuilt with an enclosed bodywork by the Kumar family and renamed Qmarri. It ended up with Fiat mechanicals and still runs. Meanwhile, R Richards used American and British components to build his Bijou Special while Satow contributed to the construction of Delilah using a double-overhead camshaft Riley 1500cc engine. David Peries fielded a Ford Anglia 1600 Special.
Among Indian enthusiasts, Tutu Imam followed up his Lagonda with a Lancia-based Special using Italian components. Kinny Lall, the first Indian to race in Formula 3 and Formula 2 overseas, campaigned in a Triumph Herald based Special. B P Ferozeshah used Fiat 11 parts to build his Rustam-1 and followed it up with Vincent 1000cc motorcycle engine and gearbox based Rustam-2.
As a result of such efforts, motor racing turned out to be a serious affair in our city, with plain racing being supplemented with full day events like wiggle-woggle tests at high speeds, relay races using three to four cars to form teams and combined acceleration and braking races over different distances. Vehicles were raced according to power and also by handicap in ‘Open’ category events that combined tight corners and short straights to eliminate advantage of sheer power and highlight good braking and road-holding.
By 1970s, most foreigners had left Kolkata following intense political agitation and violent protest by the Communists and toughening of government policies against foreigners working in the country. Some Indian enthusiasts managed to keep the flag flying for some more years.
Two big blows almost destroyed the racing movement; following unplanned urbanisation, old airstrips were built over or became inaccessible like the Behala airstrip. Luckily, the Indian Army and Air Force co-operated and allowed some degree of racing at the equestrian and gymkhana stadium in Barrackpore and at the airstrip there. Modified or specially built cars were few. The pride of place was taken by partly or fully modified Fiats and Ambassadors (the latter losing out owing to poor brakes).
Glamour was provided by imported racers brought in by men like the Maharajkumar of Gondal, Vijay Mallya (then head of the Dipy’s-Kissan empire) and enthusiasts of the competing Madras Motor Sports Club like S Karrivardhan and Tarun Chandok (father of racer, Karun).
The Madras group enjoyed the luxury of having a dedicated track and proving ground at Sholavaram where round-the-year events allowed much more opportunities, like it had been in Kolkata in the 1950-70 era. Without a permanent ground available round the year, Kolkata’s automobile industry and racing heritage went into a fatal decline.
Nonetheless, newspapers continued to provide good coverage. One report talked about a 1940s front wheel drive Citroen racing in the 1970s while another referred to organisers like Suresh Kumar and Tarapada Saha (possibly the only Indian to have raced at the famous Isle of Mann TT race). Racers like Niaz Ali and the Kumar brothers were highly rated but let down by their vehicles.
Mallya brought in a Formula 1 Ensign for a couple of races while Gondal battled with him at the head of the field with an American Formula 3000 vehicle. They both drove other, smaller cars but the battle at the end of the day between supercars grabbed the attention most. But more than that, the greatest thrill was to see the long row of open racers parked in the paddock with thousands of horsepower between them even before the day started.