Heritage in our Homes: Automobiles

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In this series called Heritage in our Homes, we are celebrating the history of everyday objects. They were status symbols, signs of a growing middle class, and emblems of a new and industrialising India. Today, they're more than souvenirs; they are symbols of our shared heritage.

We are bringing you this series in collaboration with Jugaadopolis, a people-led cultural platform. We are spreading the series across four weeks – a new theme every week. In the first part, we focused on India’s automotive heritage, gave you some delightful nuggets about four- and two-wheelers, and invited you to write in with personal stories of vintage vehicles that you owned or meant something to you.

Thank you all for writing in! Clearly, we struck a chord as stories are pouring in. Here are the winning entries from our first theme, on the automotive industry:

1. Anirudh Singh 

The receipt for a car bought by the Rani of Barauli
The receipt for a car bought by the Rani of Barauli

This is one of my most treasured souvenirs, a receipt I found while going through some old papers, of a car bought by my great-grandmother, Rani Khushal Koer Sahiba of Barauli, Aligarh district, Uttar Pradesh. It is dated 1915. It was perhaps one of the first cars in the district of Aligarh. Regrettably, I don't have a photo of it.

Anirudh belongs to the old Badgujar Rajput family from Barauli, which was formerly their zamindari, in Aligarh (Uttar Pradesh)

2. Kalpa Tipnis nee Alakananda Sabnis with inputs from Pramod Sabnis & Aparna Sabnis-Joshi

The Morgan was a unique car, known for its three-wheel series. Seven of these cars were imported from the UK to Bombay in 1949, and six of them were sold. Our grandfather, Mr Ramachandra Raghunath Sabnis, a lawyer and businessman from Hindu Colony, Dadar, Mumbai, was the proud owner of one.

The car was a convertible and had two doors and bucket seats in front. We fondly called the car “teen chaaki”, Marathi for ‘three-wheeler’. Often our uncle, Anant R Sabnis, would take us on a joy ride to Marine Drive with all the children packed into the back seat, with the roof open. It was wonderful to drive through the streets of Mumbai in the 1950s when people would gawk at the car in wonder. After all, it was a beauty on three wheels!

This three-wheel Morgan was only one of seven such cars imported to Bombay in 1949
This three-wheel Morgan was only one of seven such cars imported to Bombay in 1949

Kalpa Tipnis is a retired medical practitioner and child specialist now based in Pune.

3. Rohan Banerjee

WNW 9827. This was the registration number of our first family car: a second-generation, latte-coloured Maruti 800 purchased in 1989. I was two years old at the time. As I grew a little older, my parents told me to memorize the registration number, so that if I ever got lost, I'd have the sense to find my way back to the car! After all, it was our family's lodestone, the one constant on our trips to the market, visiting relatives and ferrying me (only sometimes) to kindergarten.

Oddly, the part of the car I was most familiar with was the 'floor hump' in the middle of the rear section. My parents would sit in front, one of them driving and the other in the passenger seat. I had the rear seat to myself but I rarely sat on it. It seemed so far from everything – from the road, from the windshield view, from them. So, I would stand bang in the middle, feet planted firmly on both sides of the floor hump and hands resting on the top of the front seats. This way, my face would be at the same level as my parents sitting in front. We'd rarely, all three of us, be so close for so long, in any other setting.

This positioning also afforded me an unhindered view of the road ahead as well as the steering wheel console. Oh, how I adored the steering wheel console with its bright dials and switch stalks sticking out on both sides! I was particularly fascinated by the narrow, rectangular horn buttons on the steering wheel. To my eyes, the horn buttons resembled Britannia Bourbon biscuits, which, of course, made them all the more desirable.

I was rarely allowed anywhere near the steering wheel but on the rare occasions when I was within arm's reach, I would lunge for the horn. I didn’t mean to honk or create a ruckus. I just felt an irresistible need to touch the plastic ‘biscuits’, pry them out and bite into them! The honking was just a side-effect.

Once, we were out on a drive when the horn stopped working. My father was quite agitated (driving on Indian roads without honking is a rare talent) and we had our eyes peeled for a mechanic. Suddenly, I had a brainwave. I suggested that my dad continue driving as if nothing had happened. I would keep my eyes trained on the steering wheel, and the moment I saw him pressing the horn, I would shout "BEEP, BEEP!" at the top of my voice. Thus alerted, the cars ahead of us would graciously make way and we could proceed on our way, unhindered.

I am tempted to say that this stroke of genius worked flawlessly and we never had horn-related issues in the future. In reality, my proposal was summarily rejected by my parents. They used to often complain about how loud I shrieked when I was a child, and this would have been a perfectly good opportunity to harness that attribute.

Eventually, we sold the car and bought a newer Maruti 800 model (olive green) in the mid-1990s, By then, I had grown too tall to continue standing on the floor hump and I resigned myself to reclining in the rear seat, even if it meant being ‘far’ from my parents. I figured that's what growing up involved.

I don't remember the registration number of our second car or the one my parents bought after I moved to a different city. But I don't think I will ever forget our first car and the memories of always standing in it, striving to never be more than a few inches away from my parents. I don't think I will ever forget that registration number. WNW 9827.

Rohan Banerjee is a lawyer by training but is attempting to make a career in writing. He lives in Mumbai and has an avid interest in history and mythology.

4. Suleen Kulkarni

My father lived in the UK from 1958 to 1965. He had bought a two-door Morris Minor in 1964, in Stafford, which was shipped to India in August 1965. I think its most quaint feature were the two lights on the roof of the car, signals for turning.

The two-door Morris Minor bought in 1964. Its most quaint feature was there two signal lights on its roof
The two-door Morris Minor bought in 1964. Its most quaint feature was there two signal lights on its roof

My parents had made trips in this car, from Mumbai to South India, Gwalior, Agra and Delhi in the late 1960s. It was used extensively for family trips in the 1970s, all over Maharashtra. We could easily pack in four to five adults and two to three children, even though it was a two-door car. My mother drove us to school and back in Chembur, Mumbai, and my school friends called her the “Aunty who drove”.

As the years went by, spare parts were tough to find and mechanics equally rare, so my father would spend his weekly holidays tinkering with the car. The passenger-side door refused to shut on many occasions and Mom would have to secure it with a thick rope, which was hilarious! With time, the car became willful and would stall in the middle of traffic and we’d heroically push it. A couple of times, we had film stars gawking at us, grinning and giving the cute car a thumbs-up as they overtook us in their fancy wheels!

Both my brother and I learnt to drive this car very early in our lives as it was also a floor shift car, rare in the days of the Fiats and Ambassadors that most people had.

It was an extremely unique car and we spent a good part of our childhood in it. It was filled with precious memories of our grandparents, uncles and aunts, and cousins with whom we’d spend time as toddlers.

We had to finally part with her in the late 1990s, as maintenance and spare parts became very tough to handle. So, with great regret, my parents had to finally let go.

Suleen Kulkarni is a History & Travel trade graduate and homemaker. She used to live in Mumbai, currently lives in Qatar

5. Urvashi Basak

An egg-yolk yellow Lambretta it was. I still remember this scooter vividly. My father used to ride it and, at times, my mom, my baby brother and I would fit on it quite comfortably.

I think we were the only family that owned a Lambretta in our neighborhood back then. Its colour and sound were so distinct that we could tell when dad was returning home from work, from quite a distance. It was a sturdy machine and those were happy times! I loved its unique design, unlike today's scooters. We were very proud of our Lambretta.

Sadly, all beautiful things come to an end and our Lamby had run its course. We were grown up then, my siblings were in college and I was working. I still recall the price; we sold our dear Lamby for Rs 5,000. It was heart-wrenching for the entire family and we discussed it for years. Occasionally, the elegant yellow Lamby still tugs at my heart!

Urvashi Basak practises law in Delhi and NCR. She is a history and heritage enthusiast

6. Prajakta Nagre Armarkar

We had a parrot-green Bajaj Chetak, on which five of us used to travel, my parents and three of us kids. I used to sit on mummy's lap and sometimes fall asleep, in that position, if we were returning from somewhere, late at night. Those were the days.

Dr Prajakta Nagre Armarkar, MD, Homoeopathy, Counselor and Parenting Coach

7. Narayana Sai Sharma

My precious vintage vehicle memory is of our Bajaj Chetak, the Kohinoor of the middle class. It was a family member and it took a family of four to the most beautiful places. Standing in front with those tiny hands on the handle was a lesson that it's your parents who are your greatest support at all times.

Narayana Sai Sharma works at a global consultancy services company. His interest lies in history and sociology.

8. Jeevan Singh Thoidingjam

You could say that this car was loved just that much more than others because there was not a family member that didn't dote on it. It was a Datsun-1600ccp, 1971, L-16, off-white car. It was charming, attractive, yet powerful, and one of a kind in Manipur. Everyone knew it belonged to my father, a senior police officer in the state.

This Datsun served the police and also became a social phenomenon in Manipur
This Datsun served the police and also became a social phenomenon in Manipur

The Datsun was also a proud, honorary member of the police force as it ferried my dad on official duty inside Manipur and outside, with escort vehicles. It also took us on family trips.

Our car was also part of Manipur’s customs and traditions. There is a custom that the bride is driven in the best available foreign car in the state to the groom's house. And our beloved Datsun made more than its fair share of such trips for the community. There used to be a long waiting list and people would book dates in advance to use it. Only lucky brides got to avail this special facility!

In the 1990s, it became tough to maintain the car as spare parts were not easily available, and we had to look high and low in Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai, Nepal etc. On one occasion, we even reached out to police sources to help us get spare parts. After 2005, we even started looking for old Datsun cars, to source their parts.

This old Datsun is retired but still with us in Imphal
This old Datsun is retired but still with us in Imphal

Over the years, we spent three times the cost of the new Datsun on repairs and maintenance alone but it was worth every penny. My father would tell us how this car had saved his life many times from attacks and ambushes by criminals and insurgents. He loved it dearly, and drove it till the last days of his life. Our beloved Datsun is still with us, in my sister’s farm house in Imphal.

Jeevan Singh Thoidingjam is a retired officer from the Central Reserve Police Force and Rapid Action Force. He and his family are history enthusiasts

Our next theme is food. So if you have any pictures and stories to share, do send them to us at 

contactus@livehistoryindia.com

Cover Image Courtesy: Jeevan Singh Thoidingjam