Maruti, launched in 1980s, took the fun and adventure out of driving. The country knew only Fiat and Ambassador till the advent of Maruti. A small minority, who had the privilege of driving imported cars did not, and still do not, know what they have been missing. Poor things would simply switch the ignition on with a half turn of the key and commence a boring journey with a criminally fine tuned softly humming engine with no sign of trouble. How boring.
Dad had acquired a first generation car just before independence. I don’t recall what make it was. I was too small to care anyway. It had spoke wheels, a stepney mounted vertically next to the bonnet and a running footboard. A canvas top which could be folded if so desired. There was a sort of a rack jutting out of the back of the car on which our British masters probably made their servant stand. Commoners like us used it to lash our luggage on. It was fun to watch the driver every morning. He would lovingly clean the car, open the bonnet, check brake fluid and water level in the radiator. Then he would use a handle, a must have gadget for every car those days, and try to crank the engine to life. If he was lucky he would succeed in a couple of attempts. More often, it took better part of an hour. Sometimes it took even more. The car used to ferry us children to and from school. Sometimes we would get lucky. The car would refuse to start giving us a solid reason not to attend school.
Fiats and Ambassadors, the second generation cars, dealt a death knell to handles. Cranking up the engine was not required anymore, which also saved the drivers’ hands from blistering. The manufacturers, surely with the welfare of auto mechanics in mind, produced cars which, on getting delivery after years of waiting, had to be taken to a good mechanic before it could be proudly presented to the family. The mechanic naturally extracted a hefty sum of money to make the car roadworthy. Radiator water and brake fluid still had to be checked daily and battery had to be topped up once a week, as before. Even then, breakdowns were frequent. One took the car cross country at his own peril.
I had inherited my Fiat after it had been used by several members of the family for more than a decade. Being recklessly adventurous, I would frequently drive from Delhi (where I had moved) with wife and daughter to Dehradun (where my sister lived). And, believe me, each trip provided its share of excitement. If the fuel pump did not malfunction, the fan belt would snap. If the radiator did not leak, the distributor would go on strike. If nothing went on the blink, we will have a flat. All in all, a fun filled exciting adventure. Sometimes, the car would decide to stretch our fun loving adventurous spirits to the limit. Like the last time we took it to Dehradun.
We had left Delhi before day break one May morning and were serenely cruising along at a sedate 60 kilometers per hour, the maximum speed it could attain, and crossed Modinagar in time to see the birds start looking for the proverbial early worm, and the cows venture out in search of fresh pastures. Suddenly a volcano erupted under the bonnet sending volumes of steam skyward. The radiator pipe had burst. No mechanics were in sight, nor was there any traffic that early in the morning. The three of us were hotly debating what course of action could be taken. Just as we were on the verge of coming to blows, I espied a car coming from opposite direction. I waved to it and it stopped. Leaving wife and daughter to guard the car, not that anybody would want to steal the ancient contraption, I hopped on and got down at Modinagar. No shops, least of all an auto repair shop, were open so early in the morning. I waited and waited and waited. Finally, after an hour or so, I found a shop being unlocked. I hurried to it and begged for help. The only help offered was to sell me a roll of cotton tape with which I repaired the burst pipe as best as I could. Refilling the radiator out of a twenty liter can of water I always carried for just such an exigency, we set out again. Of course, the radiator had to be refilled every few kilometers.
By and by, we entered Roorkee cantonment. The volcano erupted again, this time spewing smoke. With a loud protest from the engine the car shuddered to a halt. The distributor had short circuited. There was no way the car could move, unless pushed. We pushed, my fuming wife and daughter from behind and I, in control of the wheel, from the side. Noticing a peddle rickshaw after a few minutes of this vigorous exercise, I sent the two girls to my brother Narendra’s house, a professor in the university and sat down to wait. It was a long wait. An hour or two later, help arrived in the shape of my brother with a couple of men. We resumed our journey the next morning, driving a car just repaired and confident that the short hop from Roorkee to Dehradun would be trouble free. We could not have been more wrong. The radiator sprang a leak, this time from a tiny hole at the bottom. The twenty liter can was proving to be an asset. Soon after, the engine decided that it had contributed enough and handed over the baton to a wheel which went flat in the middle of the hill road.
But no fun, excitement or adventure can last forever. We reached our destination. This was when it was decided that the time had come to say sayonara to the old faithful. We sold the car. My wife and daughter had enjoyed pushing the car so much that they refer to it every time our current Estilo gives even the slightest hint of misbehaving.
Coming back to the new generation of cars I started this discourse with, I must say they are no fun. I have done of tens of thousands of kilometers’ dull, eventless and unexciting driving in the Marutis, and Hyundais, and Hondas, and Fords and a dozen others. The only excitement, if you choose to call it an excitement, they offer is a rare flat. Gone are the days of fun and adventure. How boring.