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