The sales success of any car depends mostly on the garage network. As the first cars arrived in Calcutta in the last years of the 19th century, the rich and brave owners found they had to employ trained mechanics to keep their cars running. The relationship was tense and the owners had much to complain about, as the 100-year-old cartoon from a contemporary newspaper indicates.
It was one these mechanics, a Frenchman, who broke away to start up the city’s first service garage and called it French Motor Car Co. I have written on the story behind French earlier. This one is on its competitors.
Great Eastern Motor
Located in the heart of the city, at the address mentioned in its advertisement, Great Eastern Motor claimed to be the largest garage in the country, selling both new and reconditioned cars from the early 1900s. Besides small transport like the British cycle cars, it sold large vehicles often with specially-made bodies for zamindars and princes.
Great Eastern Motor ran an intense advertising campaign around the time of the British mega-event called the Delhi Durbar (around 1911-12). Its selling point was that it would make special bodywork like a state car (with a pedestal for a throne chair) or a landaulet (a car where the driver sat in the open while the rich passengers sat in a closed body with two facing rows).
Its huge garage was reused as a government warehouse for many years before a jumble of buildings came up there. Today, there is no trace of its garage. The advertisement reprinted here have some details.
W. Leslie & Co.
The credit for being one the first motor companies goes to this forgotten name. It started on the plot of land now occupied by the defunct Metro cinema on Chowringhee with a business portfolio as diverse as steel rims, typewriters and cars!
Luckily, W Leslie & Co. tied up with Wolseley, possibly the most successful brand in the early years of motoring in the country. By 1905, it delivered a large number of Wolseley cars to first-time users. It was a simple vehicle – seats above the engine, a simple-to-repair belt driving the rear wheels from the gearbox and a radiator without a fan. The car was a sensation in the hot Indian climate! As long as the mud was cleaned from the floor-mounted radiator and the belt was kept dry so that it did not slip, it ran without raising any complaint.
It was also selling bigger and more luxurious cars like models from Lanchester, Hotchkiss of France and Belsize. The company moved down Chowringhee by the 1910s to a garage near the New Market crossing. It continued to prosper for some time selling other French cars like Renault. By the end of the 1920s, it gradually wound down and made a graceful exit from the car trade.
A name remembered today, it gained fame when it launched the city’s first company-managed bus service in 1912. An earlier bus service had been very popular but the owner had dramatically fled the country with the ticket money and cheated creditors and suppliers (a story narrated in an earlier article of mine).
Soon after the launch of its bus service, Walfords picked up its prime property at the Park Street-Camac Street crossing. It set up a fabulous showroom with a back-up repair shop and a full garage near Park Circus. Backed by the influential and business-savvy Maharaja of Darbhanga, its property with a flag stand and drive-in portico was one of the landmarks of the city.
It was famous for its stock of large cars (the smallest possibly being the 6-cylinder Chevrolet!) and served the royalty and the richest businessmen in the country. After the sale of its property, it became a leading motor dealership some years ago under a new name and address.
One of the two British car giants, Austin moved into Chowringhee after the demise of W Leslie and Co. Despite being conservative in design, Austin cars dominated the Indian market, thanks to a very high build quality and exceptionally easy and cheap repairs and spares.
The huge success of the Austin Seven ‘Baby’ made it a household name in the country. It is said that like in the UK, the Baby Austin conquered Indian roads from the plains to the hills. Planters in Darjeeling and the ruling family of Kashmir used the miniscule Baby Austin, for no other car could be trusted on the steep and narrow hill tracks. Over the years, the ‘Baby’ grew up, first into the Big Seven and then the Eight, as the two visuals show.
The business is still in place. Austin cars are no longer made of course, but Austin had the last laugh — the evergreen Hindustan 10, 14, Landmaster and Ambassador models are all products of the merged Austin-Morris car company.
Motorists today owe a debt of gratitude to the brave men who set up motor garages in as long back as 1900. Indian society took to the motor car and bus like a duck to water, and the garage-trained Indian mechanics formed an enormously talented body of men who maintained, repaired and adapted foreign technology to the local weather and road conditions with great success.