Amit Paranjape’s Blog

An Indian Road Trip in the 1980s – We sure have come a long way!

Posted in Cars, Travel by Amit Paranjape on May 24, 2009

I recently made a long road trip from Pune to Goa, a distance of nearly 500 km (320 miles) in around 7 hours. The scenic route has a combination of nice 4 laned highways and beautiful winding mountain roads that descend down to the sea coast. The average highway speeds were comparable with the US average 60mph. I was driving a nice car – with ABS, multiple airbags, climate control, powerful engine, and great suspension & handling.

So what’s so great and special about this? Young readers in India, as well as the readers in the US will not understand my sheer joy in driving in these conditions with these ‘basic’ features! You folks have been taking the roads and the car features for guaranteed, for way to long. To appreciate my experience, you will have to step back to India in the early 1980s. (A rough analogy might the pre-freeways US roads in the 1950s…).

To bring you upto speed, let me sketch a typical driving trip in India, a quarter century back.  Sit back and enjoy the ride…if you can🙂

Our family’s car of choice (not that there was any choice during those days…only Fiats and Ambassadors were available. The new phenomenon ‘Maruti’ was just around the corner) was the Fiat 1100, sporting a ‘powerful’ 47 HP engine with a 4 speed (non-synchromesh) gearbox. It was made by Premier Automobiles; but was rarely referred to by its official name, ‘Premier Padmini’. Visitors might still see a few of these cars upon landing at Mumbai Airport – some of these vehicles still serve as the ‘yellow & black’ taxis.

In those days, a Fiat was the standard car…the Ambassador, a big ‘luxury’ car! Note – any ‘car’ in general was not for the masses, and there was no talk about a Nano. The real ‘people’s car’ was the bicycle! Even a 2 wheeler in those days was expensive and tough to buy. (Some people might remember those times when it took 10 years to get a Bajaj Scooter..).

A road trip was an ‘event’…an adventure. Someone has said ‘It is the journey that is more important than the destination’. How true! I will not bore with you all the details; rather let me just highlight the ‘high-points’ of a typical road trip from that ‘era’. In my preferred style, I will highlight 10 points:

1. Before  you set-off, there were a series of ‘checks’ that may have rivalled a ‘pre-flight’ checklist of an aircraft. There was the car radiator that needed constant filling up. Same with the car batteries water level. And the engine oil level check. Infact, opening the front hood was an extremely common occurence.

2. Talking about car batteries – they were as reliable as the cars in those days…needless to say ‘Dhakka Start’ (people pushing the car to get it started) was common.

3. Refueling in the city was a must – there were no guarantees about any highway side fuel stops.

Once you were off, the only positive thing compared to the present, was the traffic – It was orders of magnitude lower than you would encounter today.

4. 6 people would be comfortably seated in the car: 3 in the front, and 3 in the back. Yes, this car had ‘bench’ seats in the front. The carrier on the roof of the car was packed with all kinds of stuff. (I vividly remember a Kokan trip where we had sets of those ‘old style’ Mango Crates tied down on the top..!)

5. Flat tires were extremely common…cannot remember a single long trip where we didn’t have a tire ‘puncture’. We all were quite adept at changing the spare tire (‘stepney’ as it was called in those days..). This was followed by a stop at a small town ‘tire-walla’ to get the tire fixed. Oh..in those days, tires had tubes in them. (I am assuming that the reader knows that majority of the cars today have tubeless tires…if you are not one of them, then ignore this para all together :)  )

6. Frequent mechanical breakdowns were common as well…and these too for ‘new’ and ‘well maintained’ cars. You were lucky if it was a case of a simple over-heating … in this case you simply poured more water into the radiator, let it ‘blow some steam and cool down’, and then drive on. If it was more serious, then the only option in most cases was to hitch a ride with a passing-by truck/bus to the nearest town…find a mechanic, and bring him back to the car. The saving grace was that these cars were ‘easy’ to repair and after a few hours – you could move on! Oh..and the only ‘phone’ we knew those days was that big black box like device with a round dial on top of it, that made an irritating ringing sound (when it used to work). Today’s cellphone would have looked straight out of Star Trek in those days.

7. Ofcourse the cars were luxurious…well relatively speaking🙂 Airconditioning was unheard off. The standard cooling solution consisted of those innovative ‘triangular split’ windows that diverted wind into the passenger cabin. And there was no music-system either. Music (if any) was (as they say in the web 2.0 world today) ‘user-generated’. The background score was typically provided by the cacophony of the engine and suspension rattling.

Did I mention that the Fiat 1100 had no power steering, no power-brakes? But driving with all those aids is for wimps… right🙂

8. The lack of airconditioning created interesting problems during rainy weather. The front wind shield glass used to get fogged rightaway, with the condensate. The only option to get rid of that moisture was to have the ‘co-pilot’ constantly and skillfully wipe-off the wind shield, without distracting the driver.

9. There were no highway side McDonalds or Food Malls in those days. There were some good restaurants or more appropriately ‘food shacks’ (Tapris) along the way. Some people will vividly remember that Khopoli favorite on the old Mumbai-Pune Highway, ‘Ramakant’ – famous for their ‘Batata Vadas’.

10. If you were driving off the highway on the country roads, the experience used to be even more interesting. A car was a rare sight in rural India in those days. We felt ‘important’🙂 Like a VIP motorcade driving by! Proper tar roads were often times non-existent. The car used to leave a huge storm of dust..literally throwing it into the onlookers’ eyes. I am sure those villagers must have been cursing us ‘city folks’.

After all this adventure when you finally made it to your destination, there was this immense satisfaction about a ‘big achievement’. The driver used to really earn his ‘stripes’ those days…and so did the car… Since for all its short comings and problems it was a great way to travel!

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  1. mcurie said, on May 24, 2009 at 1:55 am

    Hilarious.

    I remember my own long car trip in 1996 with my family. While traveling from MP to central Maharashtra, we found a signboard along the highway, with message: “17 KMs of smooth road ahead. Drive carefully.”🙂

  2. Sanjeev Kelkar said, on May 24, 2009 at 2:05 am

    This brought back a flood of memories! I guess you drove a Fiat. We also had a an Ambassador occasionally and the best way to start the car was the front jack that we used to yank furiously several times to start the car. My dad used to drive around in the country side of Bengal and Assam where my dad was building gas pipelines. Also, believe it or not, in one of our cars, we had airconditioner! It was manually installed by an enterprising mechanic; it was a stand-alone unit that was actually stuck to the ceiling of the car and make the car extremely cold. I don’t remember what it ran on.

    Each time we would stop into a village for some food, immediately there would be crowd of people – mostly kids – who would circle our car and gawk at us. We looked pretty different to the villagers of Bengal and Assam I guess (we have the Kobra look all the way!) and the city clothes and the car I’m sure did not help. And you are right; we as little kids felt very important! 🙂

    Thanks for stirring the memory!

    Rajan

  3. Sujayanti said, on May 24, 2009 at 9:55 pm

    thanks for taking us down nostalgia lane🙂

  4. Amit Paranjape said, on May 25, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    Mcurie, Sanjeev, Sujayanti: Thanks for all your comments.

    Thanks for reminding me of that front starting crank in the old Ambasaddors! Those were quite interesting🙂

    Amit

  5. Sam said, on May 25, 2009 at 8:13 pm

    That brings back memories. Used to travel in my uncle’s ambassador all over maharashtra. Can’t imagine how we traveled w/o AC ! Only way to cool the car was to close all windows and pour bucket of water🙂 But the traffic used to be so less that traveling at 50-60 and overtaking few trucks on the way was still an adventure.
    Sam

  6. Suhas said, on May 26, 2009 at 12:17 am

    Geez this is like only 20 years ago or so! Thanks for making feel old!

    BTW, I too got back from Pune-Goa-Pune road trip recently. Although as you say we traveled in style in a high end Linea (again a Fiat, mind you!), I still recommend not traveling by road as we were fortunate enough to avoid accidents twice by few seconds.

    -Suhas

  7. Trevor Miles said, on May 26, 2009 at 1:04 am

    I simply have to come and visit. I have never been to India, and this sounds like my kind of trip.

  8. Osho said, on May 26, 2009 at 8:34 am

    What a trip down the memory lane. I remember trips with my grandfather in “aambabai” as he used to call his ambassador. cooling was provided by “walyache tatte” ( curtains made from fragrant roots)!!!

  9. Amit Paranjape said, on May 26, 2009 at 9:46 am

    Trevor – You definitely should! However this time around your road trip would be a lot different🙂

    Amit

  10. Vijay Ramchandran said, on May 26, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    Amit – I am also reminded of those mini table fans installed in cars to compensate for the lack of air conditioning and poor ventilation. And also how the Ambassadors would come up with “new models” – Mark I, Mark II, Mark IV etc and the only discernable change was maybe a different colored turn lamp.

  11. Amit Paranjape said, on May 26, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    Vijay,

    Thanks for the additions.

    Yes, I remember those ‘tiny’ fans on the front dashboard. When in 1985, the Premier 118NE made its debut, one of its touted ‘luxury’ features was an in-dash air blower!

    BTW – does any remember those ‘Standard’ and ‘Gazelle’ 2 door cars that were in existence till the late 1970s? Also the super-luxurious ‘Contessa’ that came in the late 1980s?

    Amit

  12. LaNell Boemia said, on May 27, 2009 at 12:47 am

    Hi Amit,reading your Blog caused many smiles. I
    remember some of the same things(no a/c,flat tires,breakdowns etc.)the US was similar to India in many ways back in the late 30’s and 40’s. I remember traveling from Louisiand to California in the 40’s with no a/c, my Dad would stop and buy blocks of ice and put in a bucket, turn the side vents to blow on the ice to keep the inside cool boy did we feel special. Yes, we’ve come a long way baby. It’s
    always good to take a trip down memory lane to
    become thankful for what we have today.
    Thanks for sharing your trip with me.
    Love ya,
    LaNell

  13. Amit Paranjape said, on May 27, 2009 at 11:06 am

    Hi LaNell, Thanks for the feedback!

  14. Deepoo Galgali said, on May 27, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    Amit
    That was great. We owned an Ambassador ( Mark 2 ). The “Dhakka” start was common as you mentioned. I remember that i used to despise a fiat those days…only for one reason…which was the child lock feature of those days…the rear windows of the Fiat could be rolled down only half the way.That was irritating.Compare that with today…cannot roll down the window a n inch…forget half.

    DEEPOO

  15. Sridhar O said, on June 1, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    Reading your blog posts always makes me feel nostalgic🙂.
    Do you know remember of the 2 door padmini like car in which to get in/out you had to fold the seat next to the driver?

    ” Music (if any) was (as they say in the web 2.0 world today) ‘user-generated’”
    is being witty to the ‘t’😉

  16. Amit Paranjape said, on June 1, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    Thanks Sridhar for the feedback!

    Yes, I definitely do remember that 2 door car…a neighbour had one. The famous 2-door car from the late 70s/early 80s period was the ‘Standard’ (as I had mentioned in my post).

    Amit

  17. […] An Indian Road Trip in the 1980s – We sure have come a long way! […]

  18. Prasad Joshi said, on October 6, 2010 at 4:06 am

    That’s a great one……really brought back memories from my first big road trip with my family from Pune to Belgaum (Tho it was the mid 90s and I was a kid). My dad owned a 1964 (2nd Gen Fiat 1100, I guess the one before the common 1970s model which), which was an old lady even then. I remember, the pre Golden Quadrilateral days roads were a war zone with over-taking being as exciting and dangerous as a WRC corner at full blast-with cranky ST drivers and Truckers headed ur way in the same lane. The air-conditioning, I remember was done by modified “walyache tatte” on the roof. The music though was through a “customised” home casette player stuck onto the dash by my dad😛. The old lady braved a few punctures, a broken belt, battery conk out and a host of niggles to complete an adventurous trip in style. Things have certainly come a looong way….. with the array of snazzy features to choose from like these road-tracking bi-xenons, GPS, climate control, airbags, ABS-EBD,ESPs, intelligent engines, power everything, air suspensions, run-flats et al to aspire, I believe a trip into memory lane was really required!!!

  19. suranga said, on February 3, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    Just saw this post on your blog, and it took me back to identical trips with identical happenings. Our 38 year old Fiat just “retired” and I wrote a post in her honor. You might be interested .

    Read it :

    http://kaimhanta.blogspot.com/2010/12/return-of-fighting-fiat.html


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