Utility Vehicles in Vintage Garb

Pradeep Gooptu

A gentleman in a dhoti walked into the Rolls-Royce showroom in London. The salesmen ignored him and almost misbehaved. The visitor then fished out a cheque book and placed an order for a Rolls-Royce with a commercial body. For use as a garbage van!

Now the managers apologised profusely but it took a lot of begging to get him to withdraw the order. The buyer was the head of the Tagore family of Pathuriaghata (though many ‘princely’ families falsely claim it was someone from their line!)

Why and How
The purpose of this incident is to show that from the first buyers realised that car chassis could be used for utility or commercial purposes. And it started from the earliest of days.

The segment really boomed as all cars at that time were built with a separate chassis and then fitted with bodywork made to order. When these became old, the entire bodywork was taken off and a new one fabricated and fitted according to choice. Usually old cars were refitted out with light bodywork or as utility vehicles.

Calcutta with its huge number of highly skilled fabricators and workmen was the major centre for this. Firms like French Motor or Steuart, Allenberry and Great Eastern were market leaders in specific fields as explained in my earlier articles.

Napiers in the 1910s
Napier was a manufacturer at par with the best in the world including RR but very soon it started lengthening its car chassis to fit multiple rows of seats (like the one in picture) or a flat deck. Smaller well-built cars were also fitted with such bodywork and the utility vehicle was born! The real champion in this lot was the Ford Model T which had many variants.

Austin and the Big Boys
Major makers like Austin and Morris from Britain as well as from France stepped into the field by the 1920s. Mass production had started and they were eager to follow the trailblazing path set by Henry Ford’s Model T. By this time cars were being sold as a one stop solution on wheels – from utility vans and gun carrier vans to cargo haulers in mines!

Austin ventured into selling its car engines as commercial units indicating the solid reliability and long life of its products. Buyers could order special axle fittings for cars to run pumpsets or harvesting machinery!

American Muscle
Besides Ford, other American heavyweights decided to strike out in new directions. The largish six and eight cylinder models from General Motors or Ford or Chrysler were ideal for the greatest of all American innovations – the sport utility pick up.

Legendary models that later became the Chevy Blazer and Ford F150 were born at this time. The catalogues and advertisements of that time show these variants.

The bodybuilders of Calcutta had a field day. Major brands and promotions picked up old chassis and refitted them with fully enclosed bodies to carry advertising on the streets of India while industry associations used their models to promote products like tea (then considered a sinful drink!)

Another alternative was to fit station wagon bodies and at least one more row of seats. With wide American bodies, passengers could sit in each row. As the front had a bench seat too, carrying 10-12 people was normal in the American station wagons. The bags and bedding went on the overhead luggage rack.

End of an Era
Manufacturers phased out separate bodies and switched to monocoque or unitary bodies. That prevented application of redesigned or refitted bodies. The lakhs of such cars in use gradually died out.

Bodybuilders lost their trade and instead started building bus bodies or truck decks to survive. Many were lost in disturbances but most utility cars were gradually consigned to the junkyard.

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