In the early 19th century, bitten by the adventure bug, quite a few British men and women tried achieving the impossible – climbing Mount Everest and perishing in the attempt or driving across continents, from UK to India.
They drove across continents, through mountain passes and riverbeds between 1905 and 1930 to drive home the point that the car was indeed a useful and practical machine that could actually change the way people lived. In fact, April 2015 marks the 90th anniversary of an awesome motoring journey from UK to India. Such drives are hardly possible these days because of political situations and other issues like visa and transit permits.
Drive from England to India, 1924
It was in 1924, that three men from Great Britain decided to prove that competent motorists could drive all the way to India from London. As they discovered, it was a huge, huge challenge!
The first journey in a motor car from England to India was made by a team led by Major F. A. C. Forbes-Leith of the British Army. The journey was undertaken in a 14hp Wolseley Colonial model by a three-member team comprising Leith – the team leader, Allan Wroe – a chronicler and writer, and Montagu Redknap – a movie cameraman who succeeded in recording much of the journey for posterity. The adventurous journey was caught on film and the clips are now available on the web (Search for ‘Major Forbes-Leith’ to watch the clip).
The three started off from Leeds, England, on Sunday, April 27, 1924 and ended their journey five and a half months later at Quetta (in Baluchistan, a province of undivided India). To be fair, only the Major and Redknap reached India from Leeds; Wroe was unable to complete the journey because he fell ill when they reached Tehran. The distance of 8,527 miles was covered in ninety six running days.
Funds were short, which prompted the decision to make a film and contribute articles on the journey to the press so the expedition could pay for itself.
Major Forbes-Leith did most of the driving behind the wheels, while Wroe was entrusted with the job of keeping a diary from which the newspaper articles were to be written; and Redknap was to make the film. In order to make the articles and film more interesting, the team took a route that was advised as being the best but not the shortest.
The route chosen was from Leeds via London to Paris, then a detour towards southeast to Italy via Genoa and Venice, followed by a visit to Belgrade in Eastern Europe. Thereafter, they crossed into Ottoman Empire to drive to Istanbul in Turkey. From there, they drove eastwards on the route linking Damascus and Baghdad before crossing over into the Iranian kingdom to reach Tehran and then via the town of Shiraz they came to Quetta.
On the ground, they faced enormous problems. After Belgrade, they came across bad mountain roads and at one point the road running along a river was closed because of a major landslide. The car was then driven down into the river bed and after bypassing the stretch affected by landslide, was dragged up on the road to resume the journey. They often came across streams without any ferries or bridges. The car had to be pulled by bullock/donkey in order to cross the streams.
In West Asia, they had to get across large stretches of marshy land and deep mud and sand where the car got stuck again and again. They had to use the same technique so that they could move forward.
While crossing several mountain ranges in Eastern Europe and Asia, they encountered steep, rocky mountain passes. The car did not have four-wheel drive nor did it have the engine power to negotiate such difficult stretches, thus, coolies in groups were employed to pull and push the car.
The Major and Redknap were received with much fanfare when they crossed into British India and several receptions were held in their honour. They had initially planned to drive on to Delhi (then the seat of the Viceroy) and perhaps also visit Bombay and Calcutta. But in absence of Wroe and due to exhaustion, they decided to end their great adventure at Quetta.
Government anti-car policy
Despite such initiative, the British colonial Government continued to maintain its hostile attitude towards cars. As a British analyst commented, while the elephant was the symbol of the princely states in colonial India, sadly, the British Government stuck to the horse as the official mode of transport in its dominion.
“The horse rather than the car remained identified with British India. Long after the motor car had become a standard household item, all civil and military officers were still required to pass riding examinations. Government officials were asked to tour on horseback”, wrote a noted historian.
Outside the city, officials continued to bar the car as a “fragile intruder” even though they accepted that it was very useful when the need arose. ‘Sahib’ officials were expected to maintain sturdy horses for their work.
If anything, the only factor favouring this primitive ride was that it satisfied the burning desire of British gentlemen and ladies for exercise, which was an obsession with the foreigners serving in our country.
New York-Paris Great Race, 1908
The London to India journey was by no means the first but special mention must be made of another record-breaking event. As early as 1908, a great race was held from New York to Paris, which involved driving east across USA, all the way from New York to Los Angeles, then shipping cars by boat to Asia to drive westwards across Russia from Siberia to Europe and finally through Germany and France to Paris. A Thomas built in USA, won the race, covering more than 12,100 miles in 170 days! This was undoubtedly one of the greatest achievements in human history.