India: A History of Automotive Manufacturing

Though ready-to-be-driven motor cars were imported and sold in the very early years of the automobile, some of the car manufacturers also shipped out chassis-engine ensembles, to be ‘bodied’ in India. Thus the coachbuilding of bodies was perhaps the earliest automotive ‘manufacturing’ activity in India, and given a tradition for skilled woodwork, several Indian coachbulding companies had an early start.

The oldest known was that of Steuart & Co, from Calcutta. Established in 1775, over the years, Steuart & Co had built up a very fine reputation for their ornate and elaborate state coaches, howdahs for elephants and a variety of horse carriages, many sumptuously decorated with gold, silver and ivory.

With the coming of the horseless carriage, Steuart & Co too moved into the world of coach-building of automobiles. It also saw an opportunity in distributing cars and took up the distribution of several European brands including the British Thornycroft. Steuart & Co, other than selling complete Thornycrofts, imported significant numbers in chassis-mechanical form, building, at its facilities in Calcutta, the bodies of the cars, as per the customer’s requirements, or following the styles established by the carmaker.

As the popularity of the motor car increased, Steuart & Co soon had competition. Not very far from Steuart’s facilities in Calcutta, the French Motor Car Company was established. Other than selling completed cars from brands like Panhard et Levassor, Mors and Berliet, and then Armstrong-Siddeley, Bean, Bianchi, Minerva, Cadillac and Studebaker, French Motor also began bodying chassis-mechanicals shipped out by many of the carmakers. Business was so good that French Motor opened an important branch in Bombay soon thereafter. The combined staff of the two facilities added up to over 600 people.

In Bombay though, French Motor Car Company had another very worthy rival in Fort Coach Factory. Established in 1877, the Fort Coach Factory moved to specialize in automotive coachbuilding too, starting with making bodies for the French Brasier cars, imported in chassis-mechanical form. But the coachbuilder who was the most successful in India was Simpson & Co from Madras. Established way back in 1840, Simpson & Co built hundreds of bodies based on chassis from ‘middle-market’ car-makers such as Darracq to the more prestigious Daimler, Delaunay-Belleville, Napier and even Rolls-Royce.

Made in India

The very first attempt to make a complete car in India may have been by a certain British gentleman named Samuel John Green, a director at Simpson & Co. It was in 1902, that he tried to make a car with an engine, pump, boiler and gears made in-house at Simpson’s facilities. Sometime in the 1920s, a Calcutta-based entrepreneur, Bipin Behari Das, made an all-Indian car. Named Swadeshi, which means self-reliance in Hindi, and echoing Mahatma Gandhi’s self-reliance sentiments, this car was made from locally available materials and lashed together in a garage with very basic equipment. Nothing seems to have come of it and the car remained just a one-off.

Despite British rule, the amusing fact is that the first set of ‘made in India’ cars were American automobiles. In 1928, two assembly plants were set up in India, both by rival American carmakers: General Motors and Graham-Paige. The latter, founded as recently as 1927 by brothers Joseph and Robert Graham and their Canadian partner Ray Austin, by taking over Paige-Detroit Motor Company, went international rapidly. Of the several assembly facilities that Graham-Paige set up across the globe, one was in Calcutta, when wealthy Barrister Sushil Chandra Chaudhury decided to invest in a car assembly facility.

Chaudhury’s nephew Anil Kumar Mitra had studied automobile engineering in the US and then worked with Ford, before signing up with fledgling carmaker Graham-Paige and heading back home to Calcutta to set up the assembly facilities in the city, next to their tyre service centre, International Tyre & Motor Company. Initially, Graham-Paige was very successful, selling very well as taxis because of the car’s rather compact turning circle, but the investment was considerable and, within two years, International Tyre & Motor was in trouble when Graham-Paige themselves bankrupted in the US.

General Motors, on the contrary, had a very successful run in India. Though its assembly facilities near the Bombay Port, was inaugurated in December 1928, series assembly began in earnest in 1929, with several of the many GM brands, including Buick, Chevrolet, Oakland, Oldsmobile and Pontiac, rolling off the lines at the same time. Trucks with the GMC branding were also introduced.

Ford set up its first assembly plant in 1931 in Bombay, followed a few months later by similar facilities in the port cities of Calcutta and Madras too.

Following GM and Ford, only one other car assembly set-up came up in the 1930s, that of Addison in Madras, to assemble British Wolseleys.

Extracted from “A Million Cars for a Billion People” by Gautam Sen, published by Platinum Press, Mumbai

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India: A History of Automotive Manufacturing