The vintage charm
How does one feel to travel in a Stoewer, a 103 year old German car? The vehicle is owned by Pratap Chowdhury, famous vintage car collector and restorer in Kolkata. Some days back I was travelling in the vehicle. It was evening and the roads were crowded. Home bound commuters were looking at the vehicle with awe and reverence. The car does not have modern gadgets like disc brakes, or power steering or power head lights but despite that it could compete with the modern cars. Frankly speaking, because of superb German technology the vehicle has survived so long.
Ishwarchandra Chowdhury, Pratap’s grandfather, who was a landed aristocrat of Mallighati in West Midnapore went to England in 1901 to buy a car. He was tired of coming to Midnapore town in horse driven carriages or sometimes on horseback.
However, he was not satisfied with the vehicle he saw in England and moved to Germany where he got a vehicle of his choice. Stoewer Company of Pomerania was famous for manufacturing road
rollers. The company used to manufacture type writers, bicycles and qudra cycles. During World War II, the factory was heavily bombarded. After the war ended Mercedes Benz tried to revive the factory and finally it was closed down.
The car came to Kidderpore dock in huge wooden boxes along with two engineers and two mechanics. Chowdhury then drove it to Mallighati crossing Kansai river. It was one of the early cars in whole Midnapore district.
From 1912 to 1952, for 40 years the vehicle gave service. After Ishwarchandra’s death his wife Bishnupriya Chowdhurani, who became the owner of the property, used to travel in the vehicle.
Travelling in the vehicle was her favourite passion and after sunset wearing costly sari and ornaments she often went out of the palace in Stoewer. But with the passage of time the vehicle developed mechanical snag and the wooden wheels became unavailable. Pratap’s father Shantinath replaced the wooden wheels and used the vehicle with the wheels of Ford Model T. But the problems in the engine could not be ironed out and finally the vehicle got grounded in 1952.
Pratap, who had childhood memories attached with the vehicle, often dreamt of driving it and because of his initiative the car was given a new lease of life in 1999. Fitted with a 15 HP engine, the sidelamps are lit up by Kerosene and the headlights by burning Calcium Carbide. If there are no street lights then the head lights work perfectly fine. The car does not have a battery and a handle is used to start the vehicle. One could be amazed on how regularly the car is driven. In 2015, the vehicle joined the grand 21 Gun Salute show in Delhi and bagged the Concor de Elegance award in 2015. Wending through the roads in Delhi it reached Noida and completed the stipulated route on time.
Pratap has a collection of 10 vintage cars and 10 more are in the pipeline. He has in his possession a beautiful Chevrolet Bel Air manufactured in 1957. It was used by the US Ambassador in Delhi, John Kennth Galbraith. It is a pillarless vehicle and travelling on the rear seat is a life time experience. Galbraith was very tall, nearly 6 feet 5 inches, and the vehicle was built in such a way that he could stretch his legs without any strain. The long vehicle has a pair of rockets on the bonnet to cool the car. Painted in red and white the vehicle is always a star attraction in any vintage and classic car rally. It has been always a crowd puller and whenever the vehicle is parked in the city, one finds people thronging around it in seconds. “Bel Air is still preserved in the United States of America and Americans have great respect for the vehicle,” said Chowdhury.
His another prized possession is a Chevrolet Styleliner. Built in 1949, the vehicle was very popular in Europe. Some of these vehicles came to India and were used by the Maharajas. There are good vintage car collectors in India but Chowdhury’s unique feature is that he uses his old vehicles regularly and maintain them so well that they can very easily compete with modern cars.
Chowdhury is a connoisseur of jeeps. He has restored several war jeeps and use them regularly. People often see him driving an old war jeep on Mumbai roads on his way to his house in Midnapore.
Thousands of war jeeps came to India after World War II stopped suddenly. They were used by the government departments and purchased by the zamindars who used them during sikkar. War jeeps were built in such a way that they could be destroyed easily. The soldiers were instructed to destroy them so that the Axis power does not get a vehicle and manufacture jeeps. Neither Germany nor Japan could manufacture jeeps during the war. The jeeps carried the soldiers to the war front. Fitted with three gears some of the jeeps could be driven in waist deep water.
“These jeeps are really tough vehicles and when I first began restoring them I was fascinated by the unique engineering brilliance which Ford and Willy’s companies had,” said Chowdhury.
The vehicle which was first restored a few years back was in shambles. The meters were stolen and body was badly damaged. He took several months to get the meters and the body was rebuilt. The tyres were also imported from the US.
Pratap Chowdhury attended a grand jeep show at Effingham off Chicago in 2014. In this grand show, jeep collectors from all over the United States come and display their vehicles. “Though I did not take any of the jeeps restored by me, I showed them the photographs which they appreciated. It was a unique experience to talk to the jeep restorers in the US,” said Chowdhury. Now, Chowdhury is busy restoring a Ford Mercury Commet manufactured in 1963. The six cylinder vehicle is a store house of power. “Money is not the only factor in restoring an old vehicle. One needs patience, passion and the old vehicle should be treated like one’s own child,” said Chowdhury who proposes to set up a car museum, the first of its kind in Bengal at Unsani, in Howrah. The cars belong to a particular time and is a part of history. Automobile history is an important subject taught in the West. For example, if one looks at vehicles manufactured by the United States in the early 1950 one is amazed to see the colours of the vehicles and the use of Chromes. These were done just to attract people and help them to come out of the war depression. “It is good that many youngsters have come forward to restore old cars and keep them. Our young generation is trying to preserve heritage and no city’s history is complete with a reference to motor cars.”