The 20th century witnessed the amalgamation of engineering and art in all forms of transportation. Trains had leather seats and dining cars and the best ones had opulent interiors that we see today only inside ‘Palace on Wheels’. Aircraft and airships had stewards attired in white and the best of wines and cuisine on board, as part of the experience despite limited range and speed
Designed to perfection
In the world of automobiles this got translated into more customisation bringing in a touch of class. Seats were deep sprung with multiple layers even in the smallest of cars. The photograph of a highly polished wood, steel and brass dashboard is actually from a Ford Model T, one the cheapest cars ever made in the world. It was just slightly more expensive than today’s Nano and yet offered a large high torque engine capable of hauling enormous loads along with a large body and carrying capacity. Yet despite its cheap price, this Model T from Calcutta had finely designed brass fittings, polished wooden floors and pedals, finely finished in metals and rubber. This was because car companies and their workmen took great pride in the visual appeal of their work.
Luxurious sports cars
In the days before advent of plastic, sports cars had silver and nickel polished dashboards as shown in the photograph. Every portion of the dashboard- the Americans called it scuttle – was polished with a bright fine finish. The circle design was one of the most popular of that age. Polished square design was also popular. Major city garages like French and Walfords offered this service, evident from advertisements of that era.
Oil & electric lamps
Early cars came with two types of lighting options – oil and electric. This was because batteries were weak and therefore prone to breakdowns quite frequently. To prevent cars from being stranded with non operative lights and horns – not to speak of inert self starters – it was normal for cars to be equipped with standby starting handles, oil lamps and manually operated horns. One of the two photographs here show oil lamps with polished brass body along with nickel reflectors and glass lenses. Some owners could invest in additional electric lights both for front and rear and also for the interior of the car. Owners were advised to invest in an additional battery to support these lamps.
Among locally owned companies, Howrah Motors and Mobility Garage were well known for their fitting alongside the bigger ones mentioned above.
Luxury during outdoors
Besides travelling within cities, cars were often used to travel in the countryside. At a time when roads were limited and travellers often had to go to their country homes by driving across fields and dry river beds, much of the travelling must have been an adventure with scope for hunting birds and other animals for food (or sadly for sport). Hence the popularity of advertisements likes the one by Remington selling guns and hunting equipment – these were put up to catch the eyes of car buyers.
The very impressive Mercedes 60 featured here was kitted out for sale in Bengal and was at one time owned by a very affluent professional who also came from a zamindari family. It had extra large radiator and most impressively, twin rear tyres for better traction on muddy and rough roads.
Since it was a powerful car, it must have been a potent machine despite the heavy sedan body and twin tyre carriage on top. This type of bodywork was like a small room on wheels and came with the option of fitting curtains to shield travelling ladies from the public eye. The rare photograph of the full bed type seat is from an open large tourer. This option was offered by car body builders in Calcutta for outdoors. Hunters could wait for their prey while sitting in the car. It was ideal for an afternoon snooze after a picnic as well, said the advertisement.
To sum up, customers of cars, small or big, could expect a finely designed and built machine with much of the fittings inside aimed at pleasing the eye. Early cars were limited in terms of technology but at least reflected the pride of fine workmanship and their owners in their design and appearance