Wednesday, August 19, 2009



Just before the lecture began, somebody asked C V Karthik Narayan whether he was raring to go like a horse. Karthik’s repartee at the top of his speech was, “Yes, you decide at the end whether I neigh or bray.” That really set the tone for a historical walk down memory lane, oops, that should be a drive down memory lane—it isn’t for anything that Chennai is the new-age Detroit!

He turned the ignition key on with maps of Chennai on the screen, and I was surprised that I did not realize till then, that with the possible exception of the OMR and the ECR, all roads radiating out of Chennai have a strong presence in either Automobile or ancillary manufacturing. The fact that Chennai has sustained what has been arguably the most auto-industry friendly metropolitan agglomeration speaks volumes about the foresight of the visionaries who ruled the roads—rather, ruled the machines that ruled the roads.

The long and rewarding journey actually started in 1840, when the Simpsons group set up shop in India, apparently to manufacture harnesses and the like. They then went on to make coaches, palanquins and the Howdah for Buckingham, the architect of the Buckingham Canal. Being a railfan myself, I was rather ashamed that I did not know that Simpsons manufactured the coaches for the first ever rail run from Royapuram to Arcot! Simpsons’ long VIP list got longer when they made coaches for the Nawab of Rampur—complete with leaf spring shock absorbers for a smooth ride!

Simpsons, in 1900, experimented with a kerosene—water car, according to Karthik. In 1904, the first car, was registered in the name of Alexander Spring of the Madras Port Trust, and the number was M.C. 1, and the first Indian to own a car was Namberumal Chetty, when he got the number M.C. 3. Karthik’s grandfather had a car registered in 1910, with the number M.C. 226. That means only 226 cars were registered in the period 1904–1910. The number swelled to 9,000 by 1920. Eight years for 9,000 cars—today we do as much in a month?

The journey got another boost in 1940, when Buick jumped in with a gas-plant fitted car, and they had people go right up to Peshawar to sell these! That was a period when giants like Visveswarayya thought about cars, Lalchand Hirachand talked cars. In the 1940s, Raghunandan Saran came down all the way from Delhi to set up Ashok Motors, the precursor to Ashok Leyland that we know today. The first Austin A40 was assembled in Ashok Motors. After the war, the auto industry got its big push with Hirachand at Bombay, Hidustan Motors at Calcutta and the TELCO at Jamshedpur looking to make it happen.

In between, Addison tied up to assemble the Morris Minor, but the then government regulations meant that Madras was getting crowded. Yes, there could not be more than three manufacturers at one port city, and Madras already had three.

The story of Ashok Motors, particularly after their collaboration with Leyland is one of spectacular rise. AL were the leaders in every sense of the word. They were the pioneers of multi-axle vehicles, owned a test track and probably had the best R & D in India! No wonder, the Indian Army relies heavily on AL!

Standard Motors started operations in a shed in Chromepet and assembled tractors that were manufactured by Massey Fergusson. When Massey Fergusson bought over the Standard Motors at Coventry, the factory in Madras moved to Perungalathur, and started manufacture of the Standard Vanguard. Standard also developed the Herald, the iconic car, from scratch and probably was way to ahead of its times with two doors, advanced suspension and what not.

Government regulations did not help at all—the prices were fixed by the Government, with the Herald costing all of 14,320 INR. Prices could not be hiked easily in the absence of an escalation clause. The fight went till the Supreme Court. It was no surprise then, that the volumes were low, at least till 1985, when the curbs were eased a bit. Earlier in 1982, Standard came up with the Standard 20, a van as advanced as you could get then. Fully tested for crashworthiness and for aerodynamics at the IIT, Madras, it was a winner, ferrying athletes at the Asiad in Delhi.

Some non Standard stuff now. In 1957, Sundaram Iyer collaborated with Enfield to start Royal Enfield, and brought out India’s first four-stroke 350 cc motorbike. What a rhythmic beat the Bullet has! Even today, it will put any pretender to shame.

The biggest advantage, according to Karthik, has been the strong presence of the ancillary industry. The TVS group, the Rane group, UCAL and many more have never had second thoughts of collaborations, investments and taking risks.

Though Standard Motors had to meet a sudden closure, with the powers that be not being really too helpful, the economic liberalization meant that the halcyon days of Madras at the forefront of the auto industry were never really in doubt, and how Madras has reclaimed it!

The speech itself was enlightening, aptly presented on a powerpoint presentation—though Karthik confessed to being rather frightened at the prospect of using a laptop. The photographs gelled excellently with Karthik’s speech, and the generous humour left everyone satisfied at the end of the day.

If there were any doubts about what Karthik ended up doing, he certainly neighed as well as any pedigree would have! It is about time that he changed his name to ‘Car’thick!


Blogger Rangachari Anand said...

Great article! You can also add that mention that Standard Motors actually produced the Rover SD-1 for some time:

Blogger madras maverick said...


Excellent article. I guess you are going write more on Madras week.


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