Robert ‘Scotty’ Mathewson, a wealthy British engineer of Calcutta loved swans and resided in a house called Swan Park. When he wanted a unique car he bought a large chassis from Brooke of England in 1909 and a coach builder was ordered to build a bodywork according to his design. Thus was born the most famous car to ever come out of India- a car that is now displayed in a European museum, admired by the likes of Jay Leno and the envy of every visitor. The car delivered in 1910 had a cream multi-layered wood bodywork in the form of a gigantic swan with neck raised high in anger. The radiator and engine were not at all visible. Scotty sat at the back with a keyboard to play tunes on the exhaust gases and it worked as the car’s horn as well.
A lime wash compartment at the back dumped whitewash on the road to give the impression of bird droppings. And to scare off people, it had a steam generator which would blow out hot gas from the outstretched beak in order to clear crowded roads. The Brooke Swan car of Calcutta was later bought by the Raja of Nabha and smuggled out of the country. It reportedly cost three times as much as a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and was allegedly smuggled out for an unimaginable sum.
Silver, nickel and aluminum
As cars had a wood or metal frame covered in steel they were all prone to rust. This problem turned acute in the humid and sultry weather of Calcutta. So the solution was to use rustproof materials.
From door sills and frames to light mountings and spot lamps and horns, everything was either made or coated in silver or nickel. Wealthy buyers loved it. Running boards at the side and their brackets also got the same treatment. While nickel added to the weight of the car, silver was a soft metal that wore away. Either way cars like the Rolls-Royce models shown here looked like shimmering torpedoes.
The RR Silver Ghost with red seats had only engine cover with this finish. The second RR which was reportedly in Nizam Palace for long, had every bit fashioned out of either aluminum or silver or nickel.
A Mercedes-Benz Supercar
When buyers did not spend money on unique designs or precious materials, they went for power and speed. In earlier issues we have discussed the large number of super cars that were raced in Kolkata alongside locally designed and built racing specials. The open Mercedes was a supercharged sports racer of 1929 vintage. Last seen in the hands of Mr Haywards of Shaw Wallace in the early 1970s, it was shipped out soon after. Very few of these hand crafted luxurious super cars survive today. Sadly none of them are in our city.
Wealthy landowners alongside equally rich professionals and millionaire businessmen made the city one of the most important luxury car markets. The impeccable good taste of such buyers was reflected in car interiors as well but that is another story meant for another day.