Every automobile—small or large, historic or modern—has its own personality and place in the motoring universe. India’s automotive history is replete with the finest examples that straddle generations and genres. Gautam Sen, the ‘automobile man’ who spearheaded motoring journalism in India, beautifully maps this very history in his new book The Automobile: An Indian Love Affair.
The book starts off in the 1890s when cars were rarely seen in India, let alone owned. It drives us through British India and the maharajas, and into the heady decades that shaped the industrial and socio-cultural growth of modern India. It reads like a story that delights you at its every turn and establishes how closely interwoven India’s history is with that of the love affair that Indians have had with the automobile.
You’ll be surprised to know that before known marquees, like Benz, Rolls-Royce, Humber and Austin, reached our shores, early steam-powered ‘horseless carriages’—essentially large unwieldy machines which did the all-important job of carting man and his luggage without animal power—were shipped to India for use by certain royals. These, of course, soon gave way to more efficient gasoline-driven vehicles in the 1900s, and the love affair soon turned into a full-blown obsession.
Rajas, maharajas, well-placed professionals and the wealthy mercantile class lapped up the latest from the leading brands from Great Britain, France, Germany and America. Needless to say, the automobile also brought with it the necessity to build good motorable roads and a host of allied services like dealerships, garages, petrol stations and spare part suppliers. India and the automobile were now inseparable.
As India’s need for cars grew, manufacturing facilities were set up—independently and also as collaborations with Indian industrialists. The industry grew as the demand for cars, buses and trucks was ever on the increase. Names like Dodge, Plymouth, Studebaker, Ford, Austin, Morris and, later, the Fiat-Ambassador-Standard triumvirate that ruled our roads for decades, find good description here. So do the many lesser known names which actually had a fruitful presence in India.
As Independence dawned on a young democracy that was full of hopes and aspirations, so did dreams of making a car—‘an Indian car for Indian people’. Many known and unknown innovators tried their hands at designing and building a fully Indian car, though few saw commercial success. The emotions of what it feels like to build a car for the people are best echoed by two stories—the Maruti and the Tata Nano. My heart swelled with pride, as I read the author’s description of the euphoria at the Nano’s launch on the 10th of January 2008:
“Then in a halo of lights, with the theme music from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, blaring in the background, as bits and pieces of the much-anticipated car flashed on the screen behind, an iridescent silver white egg-like ball of metal emerged from the shadows, rolled on to centre stage, and Ratan Tata himself stepped out. Within seconds two other cars—a red one with black bumpers and a bright-yellow one—were driven on to the stage and parked, flanking the silver on either side.
“Thunderous applause, and then, mayhem, as photographers, journalists, the audience, everyone scrambled for a closer look at the three cars. In the midst of that excitement, Tata quipped, ‘Since it is high-tech and small, we call it “Nano”,’ adding ‘the car will be priced at Rs1 lakh. A promise is a promise!’
“Until late that evening, Hall 1 at Pragati Maidan remained crowded, jam-packed. Outside, the eager crowds reminded you of a cricket stadium before a one-day match. Hundreds of security men formed uncompromising barricades with thick ropes… By 16th January, the last day of Delhi’s ninth motor show, some 1.8 million people had thronged the Expo, comfortably beating the Paris motor show’s draw of a million and a half…”
As would happen with any industry—competition truly pushes for technological innovation and so came the rise of competitive events like racing, rallying and speed-trials. The book captures this spirit right from the early races partaken by Englishmen and the maharajas, through the international events that passed through India like the London-Sydney Rally, Indian organised events like the Himalayan Rally, and up to those thunderous championships at Sholavaram and Irungattukottai.
An interesting bit, on how important racing was to prove a machine’s reliability, is quoted in the book—it was right after a certain race event in Paris in 1894, that a well-known French publication excitedly reported: “The conclusion of all this is that in some years we will all have our mechanical vehicle to drive around and to do our shopping, or our trips.” How prophetic that was!
No work on the automobile can be complete without documenting the two-wheeler, and perhaps no country has embraced scooters and motorcycles the way India has. Evocative names like the Lambretta, the Vespa and our very own Rajdoot, Yezdi, Bullet, Luna and Chetak are among the many whose stories have been documented and described in this book. This paragraph from the book aptly summarises what the endearing Bajaj Chetak was to India:
“It was the Bajaj Chetak, which had become the ‘vehicle for the people’ of India, the one two-wheeler, which everyone wanted. It was the family vehicle, the one which the man of the house used to get to his workplace, dropping off his child to school, the one which then carried the family in the evening for dinner at the grandparents. It was the all-purpose vehicle, which had the space between the legs for ferrying the gas cylinders, or carting the shopping from the market, or for carrying young Munna, standing between the legs, on the footboard, looking over the handlebar.”
Gautam also writes with passion on the more ‘specialised’ genres of the automobile—sports cars, convertibles, one-off machines, art cars, rare historic vehicles, and also some very modern cars made by Indian and international manufacturers in India which, due to their uniqueness and abilities, deserve a place in India’s automotive story. Not to be missed are the automobile’s best moments encapsulated in various art forms like cinema, photography, illustrations, magazines and literature. Also noteworthy is the wealth of information on famous Indian personalities and their cars, and cars featured in movies across generations.
Presenting little-known trivia and well-researched facts, this book will truly engage readers of all ages and interests. It effectively treads the fine line between being a fun read and an informative tome. Some superb and rare photographs add the element of nostalgia and are sure to strike a chord across generations of Indians. Gautam Sen has achieved the perfect balance that eludes many an automotive writer and has gifted us a book we all will thoroughly enjoy.
(The Automobile: An Indian Love Affair. Rs699, Penguin Books, 2021)