The rich and powerful rode huge motor cars and roared around in style. But for every supercar on the road, hundreds of small cars were sold to affluent Bengali families and professionals, managers working in the tea estates and coal mines and to army wives residing in cantonments. It was these users who brought the magic of motoring, although, as several sketches reveal, they were a source of amusement as well
The most popular small car in Bengal and Calcutta was definitely the Baby Austin. Tens of thousands were sold since its launch in 1923. It was a little over 6 feet in length, weighed a few hundred kilos and could carry two adults and two kids in its waterproof closed body or open tourer style. BMW and Datsun started their car business by building Baby Austins. But appearance-wise it was an impossibly small and cute car and attracted the attention of humourists.
Among the many cartoons that featured the car, the one showing the car being cleaned in the family bathtub was hilarious. The cartoonist played on the word ‘Baby’! Incidentally, foreigners, Anglo-Indians or anglicized Indian families did use a bathtub in those days.
Another sketch depicted the killer buses which were a threat to small cars in the 1920s just as they are now. Based on an incident which occurred at Dalhousie Square, the sketch was published alongside a letter to the editor complaining that the buses of the day were driven by murderers who hardly had any regard for other users. Sounds familiar, isn’t it?
Ladies emerged as drivers particularly in industrial townships and tea estates, where car was often the only mode of transport. Small cars like the Singer, Morris and Clyno were popular for their light steering wheel and easy brakes. But the men of that era often complained about the women drivers, who according to them, rarely followed road usage norms. A particular cartoon depicting a woman driver accompanied a letter by a service officer who complained that while riding with his trainees at a tea garden in Dooars, he found the trail totally blocked by a car driven by a lady who was apparently looking for a short cut. The driver refused to back out admitting that she was not skilled enough to reverse her car and instead asked the horse riders to back out! After much argument, a compromise was reached and both parties finally went their way.
Hill stations have been a part of our culture since the Mughal rule when the emperor would spend the hot months in the laps of the Himalayas. As summer approached, noted families and company ‘sahebs’ arrived at their bungalows in hill stations to beat the heat. But getting there was often a problem due to less powerful engines of the day.
The first image is from a company magazine, showing a car being towed to hilly regions of Netarhaat by a horse. The cartoon was part of an article written by the car owner himself but drawn by another. Note how the boss and his wife are shown dressed according to the fashion of the day!
The second sketch is part of a witty article written by an adventurous motorist who narrated how everything on his small overheating two-seater came loose, as he traveled to what is today known as Jamshedpur.
Notwithstanding the humour, the caricatures conveyed important messages. Most important of course, was the fact that car owners loved their cars and used them to travel everywhere even though it was difficult if not dangerous. The second was that, they record the progress made by women when they adopted motoring wholeheartedly, be it as a passenger or driver. And finally, the danger posed by large vehicles on roads was an issue even then and hence today it needs to be addressed with priority.