When did the first car arrive in India or for that matter come to Calcutta? There are varying accounts but if newspaper reports and similar sources are to be believed, the first car on Indian roads was possibly a (French) DeDion that left most denizens of this city terrified.
In 1897, a resident of Calcutta brought the first car to India. It appeared to be a horseless carriage to curious onlookers and later vehicles apparently sought to tone down the shock by adding embellishments like false heads of swans and horses in the front section. Well, these must have been even more hideous than the original!
In 1898, as many as four cars arrived in Mumbai. These were the very first ones to arrive there. All the owners were Parsi gentlemen-led and inspired by the founder of the Tata Empire, Jamshedji Tata.
By this time, over half a dozen cars were plying in our city. Delhi, the largest car market in India today, was a laggard while Madras saw its first car only in 1901. It was owned by a gentleman, Mr A Yorke of Parry’s & Co. who reportedly took it out daily. However, it was not registered. The first registered car in Madras belonged to a civil servant, another British gentleman named Francis Spring, who later became the Chairman of Madras Port Trust.
As the motor car became more and more visible in the city, and the convenience and pleasures of motoring became apparent, a few companies and wealthy landowners took initiative to take cars beyond Kolkata. Petrol or oil powered engines were not unknown in districts as they were used for tasks like power generation, dewatering of mines and so on but nonetheless maintenance was a problem in the early years.
In 1904, the Bengal Coal Company had officially set up a motor wing at its mines in Ranigunj, the heart of the coal and iron manufacturing area. The car was made by a company called Dennis, which enjoyed a great reputation in those days as a manufacturer of tough and long lasting vehicles. The vehicle was driven there; evidently the 200-odd kilometre road was motorable.
In 1907, Burn & Co followed this lead and bought a four-seater Albion car for the use of its top management. It had, like the Dennis, ground clearance of over a foot and passengers were seated at a height reaching above the waist of a man standing upright. This was necessary as vehicles had to negotiate through streams and small rivers. The elevated seat ensured passengers and their shoes remained dry.
Soon after, zamindars in the districts started buying cars and popular buys included Lanchesters and Ford Model T, which were both tough and cheap (Fords were assembled at factories near Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai from 1928).
Popular models were those fitted with the now-unknown epicyclic gear box which did not have the normal crunching gears or clutch and therefore were easier to maintain.
The Albion mentioned above was delivered by none other than Paul Gibson of Allen Berry and it became normal for car dealers and garages to hold regular camps in the districts to service the growing fleet. Records indicated that there were over thousand cars by 1915-16; the figure excludes trucks.
Usage and safety
One interesting feature was that cars in districts were always fitted with ‘governors’, a device that limited the maximum speed that could be attained – to around 20 miles per hour or so (approximately 40 km). Honestly, with skinny tyres and mostly rear-wheel-only brakes, even this must have seemed terrifying!
Wise drivers usually drove at lower speeds because of pedestrians, carts, cows and other animals on the road – and not to mention the chasing dogs.
According to a report published in 1916, “Aged people used to come and do ‘salaam’ to the cars – I suppose they wondered what kind of a cow was under the bonnet”.
Safety was a concern because often “the greatest problem was from charging cows and buffaloes which frequently had their horns torn off in the wheels if they struck at a wrong angle”, the author wrote. Head-on collisions also meant a great deal of damage to the vehicle and of course major commotion.
By 1908, cars like the Albion had made way to further interiors up to Jharia. Similarly, some cars were ferried by rail and boat to North Bengal and started attempting to climb the Darjeeling Hills by the Hill Cart Road. After few failures, the first trip was probably made around 1919.
The Albion and Dennis vehicles lasted well over 15 years in the harsh conditions of the districts and established a great reputation in terms of reliability and utility.
Meanwhile, advertising in Indian languages played a big role in popularising the use of cars. While old advertisements in Bengali have not survived, here are a couple of them – one for Austin cars and the other of the famous India brand tyres. Before such advertisements became common, cars were mainly sold through road shows and distribution of handbills and pamphlets among the wealthy and company bosses by canvassers.
Interestingly, one of the early users of vehicles was the Church which worked in remote areas mostly through foreigners who were familiar with cars back in England (for the English clergy) or Europe (Catholic clergy). These gentlemen used their simple, sturdy vehicles to serve the poor and travelled to remote areas. The popular vehicles included Trojan, a two-stroke mini car made in England, or the usual Ford or Austin or Morris. They also used motorised hearses.
A sweet victory
Also there were no petrol pumps in those days. Petrol was transported by trains and stored by the company in temporary depots.
As cars in that era had a separate chassis and bodywork, after a period of more than 15-20 years they were refitted with flat open racks and used as light lorries. Subsequently, the engines were used to power agricultural machinery or pumps by those unable to afford new ones.
Besides the ease and pleasures of motor transport, motoring brought in some unexpected benefits. The deadly tetanus disease that spread through horse and other animal droppings came down sharply. At the same time, various operations like lifting which drove animals to early deaths through cruel exploitation were also done away with.