In November 1904, the Maidan was witness to a unique sight – an assembly of ten cars and four motorcycles leading to the formation of the first association of car owners in India, if not in Asia.
The members organised themselves into what was called the Bengal Automobile Association and decided to spend the day in outdoor activities with their vehicles.
Surely enough, the inaugural run comprised a trip round the green lungs of the city as well as a journey across a local bridge, presumably the Kidderpore Bridge.
The purpose was pure enjoyment derived from driving around one’s own car and in the process, the club helped to prove to awed city folk that not only was the ‘horseless carriage’ here to stay, but that the car could actually be a useful work-horse in daily life capable of tackling all types of terrain and workloads. Remember, all this was happening at a time when most parts of the city did not have electricity and the only public transport available was horse drawn trams (except for a small number of electric-run trams).
So who were the car owners? There were two landowners, a prince from the royal family of Burdwan, a city-based businessman and six Englishmen among the car owners. The motorcycle owners were all foreigners.
The list of cars present on that day makes interesting reading. Leading the pack of course were the first two cars to be ever seen in India – the 4h.p. De Dions made in France, one of which had come to the city in 1897. Then there were the two 6h.p. Wolseley, designed by Herbert Austin which enjoyed a huge reputation as the most reliable cars of the day. They had external water cooling pipes wrapped around the front of the car instead of radiators and were suitable for all types of roads and weather.
Others included the American Oldsmobile, named after R E Olds and today it is a General Motors brand. These models had to be steered by a tiller mechanism, like a motorboat and not by steering wheel, while its passengers were seated very high up in bodywork that looked like a bath tub. While passengers were fully insulated from the mud on the road, the car’s radiator was under the chassis and got clogged up with dust and mud easily. As a result, the car would overheat badly till someone crawled under the vehicle and manually cleaned the muds from the cooling coils.
Two very rare cars also formed part of the entourage. These were a Richards-Brasier and a Dechamps. Richard-Brasier cars, were produced by a joint venture set up by the famous French auto racer and engineer Georges Richard and Paris based businessman Charles-Henri Brasier. These cars were like the Ferraris of the day and the company’s vehicles dominated world motor racing scene for two consecutive years – 1904 and 1905. The company was the successor of the early French automobile maker Georges Richard from 1902 and the firm made large chain-driven cars. The great French racing driver Léon Théry drove the cars to victory in the Gordon Bennett Cup races in 1904 and 1905. Before the introduction of the Grand Prix races in 1914, Gordon Bennett races, sponsored by the New York newspaper billionaire James Gordon Bennett were the world championships of motor racing held on public roads, closed to traffic for the occasion. Winning a Gordon Bennett Race was the greatest honour of all. The Richard-Brasier cars defeated makes like Benz, Mercedes (the two were separate companies then), Napiers, Mors, Renault etc. and the company acquired a huge reputation for fast, strong vehicles capable of being driven every day. Today, these cars after restoration can fetch upto `2 crore in Indian currency, abroad. Georges Richard left the firm in 1905 to found a new firm, Unic, which became a world-leading truck manufacturer after his death. Meanwhile, the marque became plain Brasier. International automobile magazines and newspapers like Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald advertised the brand as being sold in many countries around the world through agents, the sole importer being located at New York City. The owner of the car was a foreigner but his name seems to be lost to us.
Dechamps was at the other end of the price bracket, making small reliable vehicles. It had started off as one the two car-makers based in Belgium.
In 1903, the company came under British control and the name was changed to SA de Construction Mecaniquesetd’ Automobiles, although the name Dechamps was still used for the cars. The cars became larger, from a 2198cc 9/11h.p. twin to two fours, a 4396cc 14h.p. and a 5024cc 18h.p – all with chain drive. After 1904, the company changed the name on its cars from Dechamps as he was no longer the owner to Baudouin. It continued to do well as it had earned great goodwill for its reliable cars. In 1899, H P Dechamps had exhibited a De Dion-Bouton type tricycle and a voiturette powered by a front mounted 3h.p. 2 cylinder engine, with a 3 speed gearbox and chain drive, which received good response from viewers. So he decided to form a company and set up a factory with attached foundry and a coach building shop. From 1900 onwards, the Dechamps range consisted of three types, the tricycle, a 4.5h.p. 2 cylinder 2 seater voiturette and an 8h.p. 4 seater car. In 1901, the tricycle gave way to a 6h.p. single-cylinder voiturette, and the larger car was a 12h.p. A variety of bodies were made, including a wagonette and a light truck. Dechamps entered in town-to-town races such as the Paris-Berlin, one for which they built a 20h.p. 4 cylinder car. For the record, the other Belgian car maker was Minerva, which made top-end, silent, powerful and expensive motors bought by the very rich, and considered a rival of the Mercedes, Rolls-Royce, Napier or Hispano-Suiza of the day.
It is interesting to note that although there were few cars in Kolkata in 1904, their owners had already decided to form an association to enjoy motoring and interact with the Government for development of roads suitable for cars. One must remember that at this time, the speed limit in Britain was just five miles per hour. In fact, the law required a person with a red flag to walk in front of a car in Britain till 1900. Luckily there was no such laws in India at that time.