Car Humour in Print

Pradeep Gooptu

Ever since the first association of automobiles in the country was set up in Calcutta in 1904 to popularize motor cars and motor sports, motorists found themselves at the receiving end of wit and humour in print. Newspapers and magazines printed amusing incidents and anecdotes, often with sketches attached of motorists in various hilarious situations to highlight the humour that cars had brought into their lives. Here are some examples: Religion and cars Till the 1950s, motor insurance was in the hands of private companies and they charged different premiums for different categories of customers. Those motorists adjudged to be prone to risky behaviour were charged more for their fast cars, while others – like men of God – were charged less. This led to this editorial piece in the leading English daily of the day in the 1930s: “Did you know there was a close connection between religion and motoring? Perhaps one day we will have a full classification by religion of a motorist’s capabilities,” it read. What led to this article? The newspaper complained that a London firm of insurance brokers had decided that among various members of the Church, favourable rates of premiums would be offered, specially to Methodists. The insurance firm had explained to the newspaper that their (the Methodists, that is) records “are marvellous due to the fact that they are more soberly living, more orderly and more cautious than other people. And their usual high standard of morals puts bogus claims out of the question”. Unfortunately, at that time, there was a scandal of sorts doing the rounds about the group and the newspaper sarcastically remarked that the nasty stories in circulation were possibly partly or entirely false and libelous. Or better still, said the article, perhaps the negative stories were only about those who did not drive or did not do naughty things in their cars. “Not one of the seductions that take place in uncomfortable places – of which some appear to be so fond – ever did take place inside a motor car,” the article concluded. In other words, motorists were good souls who did not do anything naughty inside their cars. If only they knew! Tackling Breakdowns By the 1930s, motorists were driving all over the place either alone or accompanied by spouse, friend or companion (nothing naughty about it). If they had a breakdown midway, they would attempt to repair the problem themselves, and the visual result would tickle the readers’ funny bone. This cartoon printed from a widely circulated English journal in our city shows a troubled couple at the roadside beside their two-seater saloon and carried a caption “The instruction said it was only necessary to remove the rotor arm – have you found it?” Some of us may have seen similar scenes on our roads. Beating petrol shortages Before Independence, almost all the petrol sold in India was imported into the country by a handful of British and American companies. Whenever there were any disturbances anywhere and shipping lines were disturbed, supply of petrol ran short or the fuel was rationed. Some technicians and companies came up with portable coal or charcoal plants that were fitted to the back of cars and used to produce a gas (like CNG or LPG, but weaker) that petrol engines could run on. This cartoon did an amusing take on the situation with a four-seater car towing a small trailer producing the gas that kept it running! Unhelpful private pumps Petrol companies would often put up pumps inside private premises like palaces (Nizam Palace), or big companies (J Thomas or Birla Brothers) or at remote locations (coal mines or steel plants) on highways. These pumps sold petrol only to cars owned by the hosts and refused to serve normal car owners, irrespective of their problems. This caused much resentment and letters of grievances reached the editors. The cartoon showed a private pump refusing to serve an Indian adventurer who had run out of petrol during a world tour. The adventurer had run out of petrol but the service station attendant refused to help him. Suffering car pools In addition, during any crisis in fuel supply, the Government advised junior officers and assistants, as well as self-driven car owners to travel using car pools. This would save fuel. Often car pools were forced on people because the Government requisitioned cars for relief efforts or emergencies or official work (a practice that continues till today during elections). Of course, this did not apply to the high and mighty like top government officals, Indian princes or zamindars. A cartoon depicting an overloaded two-seater car with passengers standing even on the footboard or on the trunk who merrily sing as they travel (or are they abusing the Government?) was the resultant rib tickling humour. The car also provided new situations to cartoonists for witty takes on traffic jams, one-way traffic and unmindful pedestrians and jaywalkers.

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