The first wheels roll into India


S MuthiahK N Gopalan Chennai

The fascinating story of the beginning of motoring in the country.

The first wheel may have been used for transport about 4,000 years ago in India, it is said, but it was the 18th century before the first horseless carriage actually hit the roads. Powered vehicles, however, have been experimented with from as early as the 14th century, several Italians having tried out wind-driven cars, Leonardo da Vinci being one of them.

It was after James Watt’s steam engine in 1705 that a powered vehicle was looked at more seriously.

Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot of France developed a three-wheeled, steam-powered vehicle in 1769 and this is considered the first automobile. By the 1830s the steam car had made considerable progress, but stiff competition from the railways and an ill-considered legislation in Britain forced the steam automobile off the roads.

Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler of Germany laid the foundation of the motor industry as we know it today. Benz invented the petrol engine in 1885 and, a year later, Daimler built a car driven by a motor of his own design. In America, Ransome Olds, who had built steam-driven cars and is said to have sold one to an Indian potentate, built a motor car driven by a gasoline engine in 1887. By 1890, two Frenchmen, Panhard and Levassor, began producing automobiles powered by Daimler engines.

And in America, Charles Duryea built a car carriage with a petrol engine in 1892. By 1898, there were 50 automobile manufacturing companies in the United States and as many as 241 by 1908. In that year, Henry Ford, who had built his first car in 1893, revolutionised the manufacture of automobiles with his assembly-line style of production. Herbert Austin and William Morris introduced the system in Britain.

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Motorised public transport had its beginnings in 1830, when Sir Goldworthy Gurney in the UK designed a large stagecoach driven by a steam engine to serve as a bus. The first truck was built by Gottlieb Daimler in 1896 with a four-horsepower engine. It was meant to carry heavy loads. Until the 1920s, a bus consisted of a bus body mounted on a truck chassis. It was in 1921 that a chassis was developed in the United States especially meant for bus operation.

Both steam and gasoline driven cars were well developed before they made their appearance in India.

It was in 1897 that a resident of Calcutta brought the first car to India. The next year, there were four cars in Bombay, one of them owned by Jamshedji Tata and the other three also by Parsis. That same year, the first pneumatic tyres arrived in Bombay, with Dunlop opening an office in the city.

Madras, it would appear, lagged behind, though it is related that a car was seen on Mount Road on a brief outing in 1894. If that unconfirmed appearance is ignored, the first recorded date of a car being in regular use in Madras is 1901. The car was owned by A J Yorke, a director of Parry & Co. He drove it daily from Ben’s Gardens, Adyar, to Parry’s in ‘Black Town’. The South’s first registered car, MC-1, belonged to Francis Spring, at that time Secretary of the Madras Railway Board and, in 1904, to become the Chairman of the Madras Port Trust and ‘father’ of the Madras Harbour.

The first Indian-owned car in Madras, MC-3, was building contractor T Namberumal Chetty’s.

Before long, several Madras firms became agents for British, Continental and American motor car manufacturers. The pioneer was Addison & Co. Addison’s, who had pioneered the cycle industry in Madras, is variously mentioned as having imported petrol driven cars from 1901 or 1904, but a date closer to the former is likely. It also pioneered the import of motor cycles.

In 1903, Samuel John Green of Simpson & Co, Madras, built India’s first steam car and caused a sensation on the roads of the city. The Madras Mail hailed its appearance as the beginning of “a new industry for Madras.” Two years later, Simpson’s built the first steam bus. It ran between Bezwada (Vijayawada) and Masulipatam (Machilipatnam) in what was possibly the first motor bus service in the country.

A future in building steam-powered vehicles was, however, not envisaged by Simpson’s who felt that its core business, carriage building, and, ergo, body-building should be exploited. In 1904, when it was experimenting with steam cars, it built a body on a Turner-Miesse chassis and supplied it to Gwalior, where it became the first motorised vehicle used in India for postal and passenger service. In 1907, it built the first Public Service Vehicle for a customer from Salem District, a 16-passenger body fitted to a long wheelbased 20/32 hp Darracq chassis.

It was not till four years later, however, that a real beginning on Public Service Vehicles was made. A 22-seater body on a 2-ton Halley chassis was supplied in 1911, again to the Salem District. And this was followed the same year by a passenger-cum-goods body for the Travencore Commercial Company. In 1912 it built a motor ambulance for a local institution.

Simultaneously, Simpson’s body-building activity for private owners of vehicles centred on building ornate, carriage-style bodies on car chassis. As English-made car bodies were expensive, only chassis were usually imported and locally-made bodies of varied designs were fitted on them...

When TVS commenced operations in 1912, motor transport received a fillip in South India. The firm was founded by T V Sundram Iyengar to operate a bus service. T V Sundram Iyengar and Sons Ltd (now Sundaram Motors) became a vehicle dealer in 1922 after the lifting of Government restrictions on imported vehicles of all types had been put in place during the Great War (1914-18). By 1920, the number of imported vehicles of all types had grown to nearly 13,500 and two international automobile manufacturers, Ford and General Motors, sensing the potential, set up local companies that year to sell and service their motor cars and trucks.

When Madras tramwaymen struck work in 1921, three trucks were used on a Mylapore-George Town route, initiating a regular bus service in the city.

In 1928, General Motors India Ltd commenced assembling trucks and cars in its factory in Bombay, the first car assembled in India rolling off the assembly line on December 4th. Two years later, Ford Motor Co of India Ltd commenced assembly of automobiles in Madras, and the next year in Bombay and Calcutta. And in 1936, Addison & Co Ltd commenced assembly of cars and trucks in Madras.

A nascent components industry also began in 1936 when Dunlop’s Sahaganj factory, Calcutta, started producing tyres.

A major development in this field was when Simpson’s in 1948 began manufacturing the Perkins P-6 automatic type diesel engines, backed by a campaign urging users of petrol-driven heavy vehicles to make the change-over. It also began manufacturing pistons.

Hindustan Motors Ltd, Calcutta, and Premier Automobiles Ltd, Bombay, were established in 1942 and 1944 respectively to progressively manufacture complete automobiles. Hindustan Motors, a Birla group company, began manufacturing operations in 1948 by assembling Morris Oxford cars and Bedford trucks, gradually indigenising the components. In 1957, the Morris Oxford, substantially indigenised, was re-introduced as the Hindustan Ambassador.

Premier Automobiles Ltd (PAL) was promoted by Walchand Hirachand, in collaboration with the Chrysler Corporation of the US. In March 1947, the company began assembling Chrysler products: Dodge, De Soto, and Plymouth cars and Dodge, De Soto and Fargo trucks. Indigenisation started in 1949 with the manufacture of radiators, mufflers, springs, propeller shafts, shock absorbers, etc. In 1950 PAL entered into a collaboration with Fiat, SpA of Italy and started assembly of Fiat 1100 cars. In 1953, following the Tariff Commission report, the Government of India granted protection to the automobile industry, thus enabling Premier Automobiles to step up its manufacturing programme with full vigour and, in 1954, the first Indian-made ‘Fiat 1100’ cars rolled out.

The Industry Policy Resolution of 1948 announced that automobiles and tractors would be classified amongst industries which would be subject to regulation and control by the Central Government. Nevertheless, their manufacture — if progressively indigenised — was encouraged.

With Government intent on having a motor industry set up near each of the three major port cities, Ashok Motors, incorporated in September 1948, was established in Madras to assemble Austin cars and trucks in India. In 1950, the company acquired the rights to manufacture Leyland vehicles in India. The name of the company was changed to Ashok Leyland Ltd in 1955.

Also incorporated in Madras in 1948 was the Standard Motor Products of India Ltd, the Standard Motor Company of Coventry teaming up with Union Company (Motors) Ltd, Madras, to manufacture Standard cars. Production began in 1950 and the first Vanguard rolled out of the Standard Motors factory in Vandalur, a suburb of Madras, in 1951.

Addison’s was the authorised agent in India for Nuffield products — Morris, Wolseley and Riley cars and vans — and for Chrysler’s Plymouth, Dodge and De Soto cars and trucks. In fact, Addison’s was at the time assembling Dodge trucks and Simpson’s was doing the same with Chevrolet trucks — using imported chassis and CKD — completely knocked down — packs. In 1949, Addison’s got permission to assemble Morris Minors and in November 1950, the first Morris car assembled by the company was driven off the assembly line.

The assembly operations had continued for about two years when Addison’s applied to Government for permission to go in for progressive manufacture. The Government had meanwhile set up a Tariff Commission which visited all the important assemblies in India — Premier’s, Hindustan Motors, Addison’s, and Ashok Motors, which was assembling Austin A-40s — and recommended that Hindustan Motors should be permitted to manufacture the Morris-10 (it was called Hindustan-10), Premier’s the Dodge and Fiat, Addison’s the Morris Minor, and Ashok Motors the A-40. But a legal tangle with Hindustan Motors led to stoppage of production of the Morris Minor at Addison’s in 1952 — and India lost out on a small car long before the Maruti came along.

Addison’s then took up the assembly of Ford trucks, but that too came to a halt in a couple of years.Reviewing the growth of the automobile industry of India, M K Raju, a consultant now, but who was long with the Amalgamations Group, and a past president of the Automobile Components Manufacturers Assocation, writes: ‘As advocated by Sir M Visvesvarayya as early as the 1930s, development of a full-fledged automotive industry is the key to our economic development.

Post-Independence, full-fledged manufacture from assembly was a logical sequence. But the real impetus to the Indian automotive industry came from the first Tariff Commission Enquiry initiated by the Government of India in the early 1950s. A comprehensive policy for the development of the indigenous automotive industry was evolved with a seven-fold thrust as follows:



  • Progressive increase in indigenous content up to 100 per cent in raw materials, components and vehicles; 
  • Protection against imports (tariff as well as restrictions on imports); 
  • Healthy domestic competition; 
  • Consumer choice of multiple models; 
  • Collaboration with leading manufacturers in the world; 
  • Quality to the best international standards; and 
  • Foreign equity participation restricted to 49 per cent, excepting in special cases.

    “With this policy, India could manufacture almost every component that goes into a car, commercial vehicle, two-wheeler, tractor or industrial engine. To build a self-sufficient industrial base in a short span of 10 years is not an easy task in any country. This self-sufficiency model is unique....

    In the early years of the automotive industry, more attention was paid to manufacturing cars than buses and trucks. The progressive manufacture of Tata-Mercedes-Benz diesel trucks and buses in India began in Poona in October 1954, after Tata Motors and Daimler-Benz had tied up. And the next year Ashok Leyland began manufacture of its Comet trucks. Fords and General Motors, not confident of indigenising production, may have pulled out, but the Indian manufacturers confidently forged ahead. And the Indian Automobile Industry had by the late 1950s put down firm roots.

  • About the authors
    S Muthiah is a chronicler of Chennai, freelance writer, columnist, editor of two Chennai-focused journals, and author of over 20 books. K N Gopalan was company secretary of Ashok Leyland from 1956 to 1991.

    Moving India on Wheels: The Story of Ashok Leyland
    S Muthiah & K N Gopalan
    Publisher: Ashok Leyland Ltd
    Extracted with permission


    First Published: Dec 23 2008 | 12:00 AM IST

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