Motoring in the 1900s: A car-lover’s tale

Pradeep Gooptu

This is about a man who resigned from a secure and plush job and invested all his life savings (no less than Rs 5,500 in 1906!) to set up a garage for cars - his first love and became the friend, philosopher and guide to every enthusiast in the region. And so successful was he in building up his business that when he died in his beloved India, his share was worth 50,000 (British Pounds Sterling* use the symbol) in the 1920s. And believe it or not, in his will, a part of his fortune was awarded as token of his love to some close friends who had helped him over the years, with shares in his company! Even his death was poetic. He set out to drive a car from Delhi to Calcutta in record time. But he had just recovered from a severe illness and he made it till Benares (Varanasi), where he died of a heart attack.   Paul Gibson Hardly anybody would remember the name of Paul Gibson today, but when he resigned his job in Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation to invest Rs. 5,000 in a motor repair shop and garage in Ballygunj (where it still stands), he created a sensation. There was one complication: Gibson had a cousin in the Indian Civil Service (ICS) and his family warned him not use to use his own name. Why? Because a trade firm with the same name as an ICS officer would bring shame to the civil servant in question and embarrass the family. Luckily for Gibson, a close friend named W H Bates put him in touch with two British men seeking to sell off their firm and Gibson paid Rs. 500 to buy the brand name. Thus was born Gibson’s firm, Allen Berry & Co., a familiar landmark on Hazra Road today. As business prospered, Gibson moved to a showroom and garage at the crossing of Free School Street and Park Street but it has vanished today. In any case, he “rented the garden house belonging to an Indian gentleman off Gariahat Road. It was a ramshackle building with several small rooms but there was a large compound where he lived and worked day and night. Cars were so few (at first) that he could not get sufficient repair jobs. Business prospered as cars were imported in greater numbers”. Well-thought out infrastructure kept the firm going. Gibson’s original Hazra Road garage had motor repair and service facilities; a metal working unit that modified and repaired car bodies but made tin travel trunks too; a repair shop for motorized tea machinery; and a brass foundry for light parts. His staff comprised local ‘mistries’ and mechanics whom he trained. Gibson had realized that the future lay in the motor car and though he had to work at time under difficult and discouraging circumstances, he never looked back.   Enjoying motoring Gibson quickly became the moving spirit behind motoring in the region. He handled smaller models made by Wolseley (“the most dependable car at that time, designed by Herbert Austin”) and Rovers, as well as luxury cars like Napier and American family cars like Dodge. Also, popular was the 1907 two-seater Oldsmobile which had a tiller steering (instead of a steering wheel) and a body shaped like a bathtub and its radiator under the engine so that it clogged up with dust and mud very easily! On weekends, Gibson and his friends would plan races, for instance from Maidan to Barrackpur and back, with Gibson providing technical support. New winners emerged over the years, the earlier ones being won by the Oldsmobile and the Wolseley. Bates writes that a car that could do 25 miles per hour for some time without breaking down or seizing was considered quite advanced. Of course, you had to stop then to cool down your car and clear the dust and mud from your eyes and body. Roads were mostly unpaved dirt tracks and the dust was horrific. There were few bridges and one form of sport was to drive across (or some times along!) dry river beds and streams to see how far a car could go. In the rains, the same motorists would try to race on mud tracks and drive through deep patches of water to see which car did the best. Drivers were advised to carry a spade or shovel and two flat metal plates for traction over the exceedingly muddy stretches, as also a stout rope. Travellers wore waterproof overalls. Rivers and streams in the monsoon could be crossed only on motor ferries or large boats, on which the cars were loaded and tied down. There was a famous roll-on-roll-off car and truck ferry at Budge Budge but this service no longer exists (though no bridge has been built there). The main problem was power. Despite this, a popular motorsport event of that era was racing up Kidderpore Bridge (near the race course) or other bridges from standstill or in top gear to see who could get there first. This must have brought back memories of hill-climbing, a very popular form of motor sport in UK, Europe and USA. As far back as 1906, Gibson had devised a trickle charger for batteries so that car owners could (if they wished) charge their batteries every night at home.   The challenges These were very challenging times for motoring. Cars shipped to India were ‘colonial’ models and had electricity only for starters. Lighting was usually by acetylene and this needed a generator outside a car on the footboard (see picture) and pipes to lights front and back. Bodies were usually canvas and few could afford to buy and maintain heavy and rust-prone closed bodywork, which also pushed up fuel consumption. According to memoirs and news articles of the era, a common problem at that time was overheating, partly because radiators were exposed and got blocked with mud which had to be scraped off. Another problem was that batteries were atrocious and “needed charging every night so if you had a car with an electric self starter, you were asking for trouble”. Tyres were pneumatic (air-filled) but very unreliable, like all other rubber parts e.g., fan belts. Gibson devised leather and fabric belts for cars at his garage. Business really boomed as more and more cars were imported into India. Bates wrote some years later that Gibson’s friends used to “go to his place after office hours and at weekends and there drink pegs out of finger bowls and glasses laid out among dynamo parts, sparking plugs and gear wheels – Gibson all the time working or reading the latest technical literature on the motor car”.

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