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Book review: 'The Automobile' by Gautam Sen – India Today

by Nov 3, 2022Blog0 comments

At a time when Japan, South Korea and, of course, China had no automotive industry to speak of, India was already assembling Fords, Buicks, Chevrolets, Wolseleys and Morris cars, among others. In the 1930s, India was already the eighth-most important automotive market in the world, while Japan, for instance, manufactured a mere 500 cars in 1930. Since then, the automotive pecking order has been upended and is today dominated by China, followed by the US. While we have resumed our global position as a major automotive nation, the journey was far from smooth, but no less exciting.
Very soon after the first rudimentary automobiles started trundling around in Europe, Indian royalty acquired them, initially as playthings. Soon the automobile became an expression of their wealth and taste, leading to some of the greatest cars ever made and the most exemplary coachwork coming to India from the finest automotive marques—Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Talbot-Lago, Invicta, Farman and Delahaye. From then on, there was no looking back as the automobile transformed from novelty to utility. A large subcontinent like ours means everything is about scale, which is why manufacturing automobiles became a requisite. Today, the Indian auto industry contributes to a substantial seven per cent of our GDP. So, how did we get here?
The Indian automotive story starts very early and is absolutely unique. It involves priceless automobiles, eccentric maharajas, engineering geniuses, automotive dreamers, political scions, speed-thirsty racers, wily bureaucrats, car-crazy film-stars, giant-killing small cars, Big Brother interventions and, of course, massive corporations that very often ate humble pie. Many of them feature in The Automobile: An Indian Love Affair by veteran automotive writer Gautam Sen. The book is an important addition to our knowledge of Indian automotive history, though by no means is it exhaustive—nor is it meant to be. Sen unearths a horde of interesting nuggets from our past—not just the automotive jewels, but also our independent attempts to manufacture automobiles ground-up. In fact between the two chapters—‘Make in India’ and ‘A Car for the People’—you get a sense of the trials and tribulations a young nation endured to develop an independent automotive industry catering to the masses. ‘A Love Affair Begins’, ‘A Love Affair Continues’ and ‘A Love for Speed’ are three chapters that will thrill automotive enthusiasts. The author’s own involvement in making sports cars in India, like the San Storm or the De La Chapelle Roadster, are also chronicled.
The book is written with the lay reader in mind—one who is fascinated with machines on two or four wheels and who believes that the automobile is not a mere appliance. Reflective of Sen’s enjoyable, gossipy tone in some parts, The Automobile will come as a revelation, especially to younger Indian readers who are at present enjoying the fruits of a mature, competitive automotive industry while it gets ready for a fundamental shift towards zero-emission mobility. Perhaps the book should have come with the note: ‘Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear’
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