Hugh Karunanayake, courtesy of The Ceylankan
First motor car to be imported to Ceylon 8 hp Rover Edgar Money at wheel
Foremost among the many technological changes that impacted on Sri Lanka and the way of life of its people during the 20th century, was the introduction of the motor car. Motoring not only revolutionised transport in the island, it influenced the growth of the economy, changed existing social conditions, and linked together the hitherto disparate urban and rural sectors of the country.
The first motor car imported to Ceylon was an 8 hp single cylinder, steam driven Rover locomobile imported by Edgar Money in February 1902. He was then a partner of Boustead Brothers of Colombo, the company which introduced electricity to the island and owned the Colombo Electric Tramways and Lighting Company formed in 1902 which was later purchased by the government. When Money’s car was imported in 1902, the roadway system in Ceylon barely linked the principal towns and meant for horse-drawn carriages and bullock carts. Roads were not covered with a macadamised surface thus making driving quite a hazardous adventure. Little wonder then that Money had to struggle his way across the country driving at an average 10 to 15 miles per hour! Twenty five miles per hour was considered extremely fast and was the legal speed limit for the next few decades. Money’s Rover took three days to reach Nuwara Eliya having failed to scale the Ramboda Pass at his first attempt and having to spend the night at Ramboda.
The first petrol driven car in Ceylon was a 5 horsepower Oldsmobile imported by G.C.Gnapp in 1904. He later became a dealer in motor cars based overseas. E.L.F de Soysa was the first Ceylonese to own a motor car, N.D. B. Silva, the plumbago magnate was the second, and both owned Oldsmobiles. Although there were only 21motor cars in the island in 1904, there were many motor enthusiasts, prompting Harold North, a tea planter from Gampola, to convene a meeting of enthusiasts to be held at the Queens Hotel, Kandy. There were a 100 members enrolled not long after that meeting held on 12 November 1904. The newly formed organisation was named the Automobile Club of Ceylon. Its first President was Brig-Gen. C.C.L. Money with Harold North as Secretary/Treasurer. The first 100 enrolled as members were deemed Founder Members. There were only three Ceylonese Founder Members,namely, F.J. de Saram (Jnr) a partner of the law firm by that name; his son Leslie de Saram; and Dr Van Rooyen. F.J. de Saram (Jnr) was the first person in Ceylon to own a Daimler car. His son Leslie succeeded his father as the head of the legal firm in 1918 and is remembered as the generous donor of the land on which St Thomas College, Gurutalawa stands. The Daimler Co. was established in England in 1904 and within a period of two years had supplied cars to the British Royal family as well as prominent Maharajahs in India. It is believed that the Daimler owned by F.J. de Saram (Jnr) was imported in 1910. It was a double sleeve valve 4 cylinder tourer with finned radiator. Daimler was never a mass produced car. Its models were almost always built to order by customers.
In 1904 there were four Locomobiles owned by Messrs Cokerill, Rawlinson, Skelton, and H.A Dixon; two Turner Mierse cars owned by E.G. Beilby and Harry Storey, a Wolseley owned by Lieut Skelton, three Humber Voiturettes owned by R.J. Farquarson, E. Hamilton and Boustead Brothers; a Weston Steam by E.G. Money; and nine Oldsmobiles owned by E.L.F. de Soysa, E. Skinner, D.R.Marshall, N.D.B.Silva, E.J.Hayward, R.J. Farquarson,, G.C. Gnapp and two others.
It is believed that of these cars, the Wolseley first owned by Lieut Skelton is still in Sri Lanka in running condition. Another unique car, a hand painted Pipe manufactured by Pipe Bros in Belgium in 1913 (see back cover) is most likely the only surviving Pipe of that vintage in the world and is in well maintained running condition owned by the one family (the Obeyesekera /Deraniyagala family) for the past 99 years.
All the other pioneering vehicles appear to have gone the way of most things that succumbed to emerging modern automobile design, and cannot now be traced, having been either reduced to dust or ending up as scrap metal.
With interest in motoring growing rapidly during the early years, the Automobile Club of Ceylon held its first race meet in1905. There were, however, only four cars competing – those owned and driven by E.J. Hayward, G.C. Gnapp, Rev Stanley Bishop and A.T. Shank – the thrills of motor racing apparently not having really caught the fancy of motorists.
Although the number of imported motor cars rose rapidly during the ensuing years, membership of the Automobile Club of Ceylon was below 300 even after 10 years of existence. A membership drive, however, resulted in a quick rise. The club headquarters which were in Kandy till 1925, shifted to Colombo (when its membership numbers reached over 1000) to the Chamber of Commerce building in Chatham Street which it occupied until its present building was constructed in 1962. During the early years the Club was affiliated with the Royal Automobile Club of England and members enjoyed the facilities of the Club in England when visiting there. Membership of the club entitled members to affix the Club badge on their cars. The badge, designed by the Club in Ceylon and manufactured in England, was made of brass in the early years and thereafter in both brass and nickel. It is now a sought after collector’s item and quite rare. Affiliation with R.A.C. of England was shown prominently on the badges of those pioneering years. A photo image of one of the early badges is featured on page 11. The prototype of this badge was later to change in design reflecting the change in name of the Automobile Club of Ceylon to the Automobile Association of Ceylon.
In the early years, motor car registration marks on number plates indicated the location of the car – A for Colombo District, B Kalutara, C for Colombo Municipality, D Kandy District and so on. In the 1940s the letters of the name CEYLON were used as a prefix to numbering on plates commencing with the letters CE, and continuing with CY, CL, CN, EY, EL, and EN. In 1958 the Sanskrit equivalent of the word SRI was used to begin a new series of registration numbers. Former Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala’s new Cadillac commenced the series with the registration number 1 SRI 1. This nomenclature caused some controversy and has since been discontinued, with an entirely numerical–based system replacing it.
In the early years of motoring, most of the larger motor car companies were on Steuart Place, the Galle Face area and Union Place. The picture shown here is of the showrooms of the Ceylon Motor Supply and Agency Co which was located opposite the Galle Face Hotel on the site on which Galle Face Court was built in 1922. Other motor showrooms including those of Lover Bros, Edemas and the Ceylon Automobile and Engineering Works were located on the stretch of Galle Road from the Galle Face Hotel area to the Kollupitiya Junction. Lover Bros were agents for Minerva, C.M. Wright and Co for Studebaker and Renault, the Ceylon Motor Supply and Agency Co for Wolseley, Ch Bohringer for Adler.
It is now over 110 years after Ceylon imported its first motor car. Many changes have occurred during the intervening period to make the original scenarios of the motor industry unrecognisable. While Britain and Europe dominated the motor industry in the early years, the national fleet now consists of over 80 per cent of Japanese and Korean manufactured vehicles. The major companies providing services to the motorist are no longer British owned, reflecting changes in the economic environment as well as the growth of local entrepreneurship. The delightful old rest houses of Ceylon – a haven to the tired motorist of a bygone age have now given way to five star accommodation. Today’s Sri Lanka is once again up with the best in the world as in the early years, in provision of facilities to the motorist, with well-maintained roads, highways replete with flyovers, and much more state of the art features hopefully to come in the future.