Millennium Post

The time traveller

If anyone from the years gone by who may have spent any part of their life in the national capital is given these hints, it is for certain that they might have difficulty initially to ascertain what is being talked about here. But if we are to tell them that these plied from Fountain Chowk in Chandni Chowk to Connaught Place majorly and had the look of the e-rickshaws that can be seen on Delhi roads now, they beyond doubt would instantly associate them with the black and yellow, diesel guzzling Phatphatiyas with the three digit numbers.

But what were these Phatphatiyas and why have they been so eloquently written about? If we were to get an answer for the same it becomes pertinent to first make you understand why they were called Phatphatiyas and then take you back memory lane and land you in the America of World War I and II. They were called Phatphatiyas because of the high decibel sound they made while getting started and plying on the road.

The American side of the story goes like this: Harley-Davidson, the famous American motorcycle manufacturer had produced about 15,000 military motorcycles for the US Army in the 1st World War and by 1920 it became the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world with more than 28,000 machines and dealers in 67 countries. The company, founded by William S. Harley and his childhood friend Arthur Davidson in 1901 at Milwaukee, Wisconsin went through the rough patch in the Great Depression which began in 1929. It sales dipped from an astounding 21,000 in 1929 to a paltry 3,703 in 1933. However, the company which now is an institution in itself unveiled a new line-up in 1934 which included a flathead motorcycle with Art Deco styling. On 1 September, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland; Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later.

The United States knew that the calling could be immediate as its all weather ally Britain had entered the war. Preparations began in the United States and the military started placing orders for large scale production of arms/ ammunition and motorised vehicles for the war effort. Meanwhile, the effects of the Great Depression began to wane and Harley-Davidson emerged as one of the three surviving American motorcycle manufacturers, the other ones being Indian and Excelsior-Henderson which produced its first bike in 1905. On the eve of World War II, the iconic American motorcycle brand was already supplying the Army with a military specific version of its 45 cubic inches (740 CC) WLA line.

It is interesting how these motorcycles were christened as WLA. While W stood for the latest incarnation of the flathead motorcycle, L stood for low compression and A stood for the Army. These motorcycles began to be produced in 1940 in small numbers. 90,000 units of these motorcycles were eventually produced. On 11 March 1941, much before the Japanese bombed the Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, American President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease bill under which supplies worth a total of US$ 50.1 billion were shipped to allies Britain, Soviet Union, France, China and the other remaining allies. As a consequence, the 1942 WLA Harleys that we later saw as Phatphatiyas on Indian roads came to India too. These were used by the British Army in India and were subsequently abandoned after India gained independence.

In 1947, after India had gained independence, it is believed that the then Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru worked out a policy to use these left behind motorcycles. Delhi in particular was also witnessing an influx of refugees which were mostly Sikh people from Pakistan. Considering the nascent status of his country, Pandit Nehru decided to give a large number of refugees employment by the way of doling out MCR commercial permits, where MCR stood for Motorcycle Rickshaw.

Satwant Singh Gaba, is one of the two original owners (by way of family) of these Harley machines. Born in 1956, Gaba is a lifetime member of the Heritage Motoring Club of India (HMCI). He says that his association with these machines began when his elder brother obtained a licence to operate one of the many machines that the family owned. Known as ‘Kuki’ in the vintage motoring family of Delhi he further explains why and how these motorcycles were converted into their present form. ‘These motorcycles were initially petrol driven. In those times too, when petrol was relatively much cheaper then what it is today, it was still expensive to drive them. Diesel engines have always been more powerful as compared to petrol engines and with the motorcycle being converted to a four-seater, it was decided to swap the petrol engines with 850CC Lombardini Greaves diesel engines.’

Gaba further says that these machines had to be custom built and at that point of time, Roshanara Road, near Subzi Mandi close to Delhi University was the place where the chassis was made. As far as maintenance was concerned, Hardinge Library near Fountain Chowk was the place where these machines were regularly brought and taken care of.

With the original hand gears still intact, the machine is very much in operation. However, there was a time when they were regularly used, dusted, cleaned and pruned as well. The machine now remains parked at the RWA parking in Pitampura, which Gaba manages. Proud to show off his piece of history, Gaba was kind enough to dust and water the machine for its pictures to be taken and looked immensely happy at the results which came out.

In the late 1990s came the Supreme Court order to convert public transport from diesel to gas-based. While the TSRs (Taxi Scooter Rickshaws) managed to metamorphose, there was no way that the MCRs could. The Sheila Dikshit government in the Capital came up with a rehabilitation programme, replacing the ageing MCRs with Mahindra jeeps. The service continued to be called Phatphatiya, but the turn of the century announced metro services for the capital. A new era in public transportation had set in and Phatphatiyas were to be the part of the bygone.
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