Cars in India…my memories

A very enjoyable chat with a friend in Sweden set me thinking about the various cars that I’ve seen and used during my life.

My father, who rose from the lowest to the highest executive postition in the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation (CESC), had all his cars provided by the company, so we went through a wide variety of cars.

It is usual of think of India of the 60’s and 70’s having only the Ambassador and Fiat…but in reality, there were certainly a lot more cars around.

In the beginning, I saw a lot of cars of British make in Calcutta (probably imported from Britain; I don’t think they were manufactured in India.) There were Austin (the chrome letters actually announced, “Austin of England”, Humber, Studebakers, and Raleighs. There were all the American cars that were status symbols…”Shevorley” (Chevrolet) which had the famous “Impala” and the other large-fin “kappal cars” (cars like ships!) that floated their lengths along the roads.

Standard was a car company that had the small cars of that era….the Standard 8 and the Standard 10 were tiny little cars. I have no idea about the performance of these cars…they were just cars that I saw around.

Hindustan Motors manufactured the ubiquitous rhinos of the Indian roads….Ambassador cars (and still do, even now) and their predecessors, the Landmaster. For some reason, I always thought of cars with rounded boots as female, and those with even small tail fins as male. Don’t ask me why! I remember the Fiat (before it became Premier Motors) 800 with a rounded boot, and the 1000 with slight fins (nothing like the kappal cars!). One Fiat model was one of the last cars I’ve seen where the front door hinge was the reverse of the usual near-the-dashboard.I feel this must be quite convenient, and still don’t know why this kind of front door was phased out.

The Fords could sometimes be huge mammoths, in which I felt lost once I got in. I do not remember air-conditioned cars in my childhood, at all. Window seats were eagerly looked forward to, and captured, after pleadings to parents and fights with siblings!

It took a while for the realization to sink in that we Indians were getting the reject cars and designs…at some point, yes, I did realize it.

Standard also had that ever-present car, the Herald. This car, too, came in two models, I remember the engine cowl of one opening the other way (not hinged near the windshield)…the only car engine cowling I’ve seen opening like that. These cars would stop in just a few inches of water, and so they were called the Stranded Herald! They were two-door cars…I’ve always detested two-door cars.

I never thought of the company and the model name as different…such was my ignorance. I had heard, as in a dream, of the Rolls Royce, and seen some photos…but I don’t recall ever seeing one, or having one pointed out to me. Daimlers and Bentleys were simply not in my ken.

I do recall several Volkswagens, yes, the Beetles, running around the city, but they, too, were not very frequent.

I think it was in the 80’s that Standard introduced the Rover. Even I, with my lack of knowledge, realized that it was an uneconomical, unreliable vehicle…I remember calling it the Sub-standard Rover, and said that it had enough fuel range to get from petrol pump to petrol pump.Apparently, the sleek-looking design of the car made it a great attraction to many people.

At some point of time (mid 80’s?) there was a Karnataka-manufactured clunker called the Badal, the only 3-wheeler passenger car that I have seen. Does anyone remember this?

Premier, too, introduced a lemon called the 118 NE, which had some fuel-pump problems. I remember having to abandon our car in the Western ghats once, and coming home by bus!

The arrival of the Maruti 800 truly galvanized mass car ownership in India…it’s amazing to think of the revolution! Everyone who had a Lambretta or a Vespa or a Bajaj scooter now had a Maruti….a major change, indeed. It was tiny, convenient, and one of the most useful cars that I’ve seen. Another useful car was the Maruti Esteem…we used to joke that it would be even more cost-friendly if it would run on e-“steam”.

Now the variety and number of cars manufactured in India is mind-boggling, and the roads are clogged with drivers wishing that the other cars and their owners had stayed home….driving in our cities, with the lack of enforcement of traffic rules, is no longer a pleasure. I have started using buses, and own no car now….and am pretty happy about that!

I do wonder how car designers are doing, hunting around for new car names…it must be getting more and more difficult.

Ah, felt good to set down my memories of cars on Indian roads….if any of you have additions..you are welcome to put them in!

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