All of us, four siblings and I, were car lovers as children, The last time we had a car in the family it was a Chrysler convertible. There were hardly ten cars plying on the mcadamized roads of Bezwada, our first place of residence at the beginning of the second world war, abrading their tyres when Gannon Dunkerley and Co launched a government project to lay motor-friendly roads and bridges and underpasses to transform the town into a city.
My grandfather had in his double garage two of the ten cars paying road taxes. A zamiindar, two leading lawyers and the Deccan Diocese owned the rest of the cars. The Diocese car resembled a bus without doors. The most popular brands were Chevrolet and Ford. We owned a convertible Chevrolet and a strange automobile freak called Citroen. Strange because it had solid tyres and so never needed replacement. Instead of a shaft, a chain connected the engine to the rear wheels. It had two battery-powered headlamps besides two small kerosene lamps flanking the windscreen. Sometimes a visitor to the town would drive in in a brand that set us guessing. We had not known any other brand than Chevrolet and Ford, One day we sighted a Ford V8 and an Opel, the first sedans we identified with the help of an uncle. . That was on the eve of our migration to Hyderabad.
A feast for our eyes awaited us at Hyderabad, celebrating Prime Minister Mirza Ismail’s magic touch. It was a challenge to our skills of automobile brand identification. The Nizam, the world’s richest man at tha time maintained a vast collection of foreign cars (the Landmaster was a long way off at that time} known as Ameira cars. The only foreign cars we had known were Chevrolet and Ford. The Nizam himself had a canvas-topped black Ford Tourer, supreme symbol of his extreme frugality. It looked like a cousin of our Chrysler convertible. Traffic policemen sometimes mistook it for Ala Hazrat’s car and honored our car with a stiff salute.
In our reckoning the Nizam’s collection began with the seventh Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan, acquiring a 1912 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, thus ushering in an automobile royalty headed by a triumvirate of Rolls, Royce, Daimler and Bentley. He acquired it for ceremonial purposes for which horse-drawn carriages were used earlier. To the automobile proletariat belonged Austen, Wolsley, Opel etc. The Nizam never used any one of these cars, which were meant for the Ameira department (hospitality) for use by non-dignitaries.
In our early days in Hyderabad we would see newer and newer models of Chevrolet, Ford, Buick, Oldsmobile, Nash, Dodge with radiator grills declaring their pedigree. Even from a long distance we could recognize the brand of a car from its grille.
We weren’t familiar with Japanese or German brands. We had not even heard of Lincoln Continental or Volga.
Delhi alone could show CD and maharajas’ foreign cars cars. Some Indian states too had them. In 45-47 I lived in Belgaum where I could see the foreign cars of princes of Miraj, Sangli. Jamkhandi, Kohapur etc.
Almost all the cars at that time had hand gears except a few American cars. We were very eager to be seen driving a car with steering gears. I do not know why a neighbor of ours took fancy to us and permitted us to drive his Willy’s Overland Jeep station wagon. We had an uncle a high official of the Hyderabad Legislative Assembly, who permitted us to use a Humber car and a jeep acquired in Army auctions. When his own Austin arrived, we would drive it whenever he didn’t.
Every year we had our Chrysler repaired in one of those garages in Siddiambar Bazaar. for Rs.100. But our main mechanic was our elder brother. In those days motor engines were simple contraptions. The problem generally would be with either the carburetor or with the battery. He would take out the carburetor and clean it in kerosene oil.. He would scratch the battery for life. We would always keep a long wire. We e would flag down another car and use the wire to connect the two batteries . When our engine came to lfe someone sitting at the wheel would rev it for a few minutes and we were on our feet again. The car had a self-starter which we never used for fear of weakening the battery. We had a Z shaped handle which we would insert in an aperture below the bonnet and crank it clockwise until the engine roared.
Petrol was dirt-cheap at Rs. 1.14 a gallon. Our father allowed all of us except the last brother, who was too young to steer the wheel. We had a single driving licence for all four of us. Since there was no photograph of the driver pasted on the licence in those dayswe used a single licence for all of us. We were never caught. The trick was to avoid the road where the traffic staff was checking.licences.
We frequentlly took out the car, fill it with friends and drive to the university campus in the evening or sometimes on a full moon night.The story is incomplete ithout the mention of sports pantheon of Jaguar, MG, Rover and Riley. We had a neighbor who owned a Jaguar and would take us for an occasional ride.