The Early Years of Motoring in British Ceylon

 Hugh Karunanayake, courtesy of The Ceylankan

5 hp Mauslay with  Mr GC Grapp (left)  & O.John. Other car is Edgar Money's 8 hp Rover. 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.

First petrol driven car 5hp Oldsmobile - GC Knapp at wheel & O. .John passengerThe 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.

First Daimler in Ceylon with FJ de Saram at the wheel 7 passenger at rear is likely to be young Leslie de Saram First Daimler in Ceylon with FJ de Saram at the wheel 7 passenger at rear is likely to be young Leslie de Saram

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.

Automobile Club of Ceylon Badge AA insignia 5 hp Mauslay with  Mr GC Grapp (left)  & O.John. Other car is Edgar Money's 8 hp Rover. 5 hp Mauslay with  Mr GC Grapp (left)  & O.John. Other car is Edgar Money’s 8 hp Rover

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.

Showroom of the Ceylon Motor Supply & Agency Ltd. Galle Face 1913. Showroom of the Ceylon Motor Supply & Agency Ltd. Galle Face 1913

Hand-painted Pipe  made by Pipe Bros. of Belgium in 1913. Imported new by the ObeysekeraDeraniyagala family in 1913 & was with them for 99 years. The car is now carefully conserved in Colombo. Hand-painted Pipe  made by Pipe Bros. of Belgium in 1913. Imported new by the Obeysekera-Deraniyagala family in 1913 & was with them for 99 years. The car is now carefully conserved in Colombo.

34 Comments

Filed under historical interpretation, life stories, sri lankan society, unusual people, world events & processes

34 responses to “The Early Years of Motoring in British Ceylon

  1. Charles Payne

    Sir – I have just been reading you text on Early Motoring in Ceylon and was wondering if you could please help – I own a 1924 AJS 350 motorcycle that was originally sold in Ceylon to, I believe a Mr T M (U) de Silva (registration Number C5260 which I believe to be a Colombo number). I have a registration Disc dated 1935 and it appears he resided at the Government Training College, after that I don’t believe that it was registered again. It was purchased and brought back to Britain in 1982 and I acquired it 2 years ago and rebuilt it and it is now back on the road.
    Sir, Is there anyway I can find the history of this bike whilst it was in Ceylon and who Mr de Silva was?
    Thank you for your help
    Regards Charles

  2. Hugh KARUNANAYAKE

    I remember a T.U.de Silva a lecturer at the Govt Training College, who wore a national dress, and cant picture him riding a motor bike.My memory of him dates back to the 1940s however and it is possible that he wore trousers earlier in his life given that the bike is a 1924 model. TU de Silva was a well known Buddhist activist born in 1892 and who died 31 May 1965.

    • SENAKA WEERARATNA

      I knew T.U. de Silva. He was a close friend of my father. Both my father and I attended his funeral held at Kanatte, Borella sometime in mid 1965.
      T.U. de Silva was a well known Ayurvedic Physician. So was his wife Mrs. T.U de Silva. Both were close friends and supporters of Mrs. Srima Bandaranayake, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.

      T.U. de Silva was a well known Buddhist activist and was a Secretary of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress in the 1940’s and a Vice – President of the Bauddha Jathika Balavegaya (BJB) under L.H. Mettananda, in the early part of the 1960s.

      T.U. de Silva might have owned a Motor Cycle in 1924. I cannot comment on it. I was not born then.

      T.U. de Silva couple had a large and beautiful house in Nugegoda in the 1960s.

      Senaka Weeraratna

      • Hugh

        Thanks Senanayake. We May however
        be discussing two different TU de Silva’s here. The one I referred to was a govt teacher and a leading light of the teachers trade union. Very unlikely ( although not impossible) that he was an Ayurvedic physician too.

      • Hugh

        Sorry Senaka,your name was vandalised by auto correct in my response below.!

      • Charles Dixon-Payne

        Senaka Weeraratna
        Thank you so very much for this information, most interesting.
        Did Mr T U de Silva have any children or any other relations, that you know of, that might have photographs of him on his motor cycle?
        Or maybe they have more information about him, I would like to find as much information about him as possible.
        Again thanks
        Charles

  3. Charles

    Thank you Hugh, most interesting – regards Charles

    • NS

      Charles,
      As you point out the C prefix in the registration number does denote the Colombo district. C 5260 falls within a series of numbers issued in 1924 so your bike was very probably exported brand new to Ceylon. In case you were wondering there are still a few C 5XXX series cars left on the island (but no motorbikes as far as I know).

      Will you please post a photograph of your bike. Would love to see what it looks like.

      • Charles Payne

        Thank you for the information, really useful to find the history of the bike, If you find any other information I would be really grateful. Is it possible to get photocopies of the original registration documents that your registration office may hold, I don’t know where to apply?

        I would love to post photos of the bike but I am not sure how to do that
        Regards
        Charles

  4. Roshell

    Hello Sir,

    You mention a one Harry Storey owning a vehicle. Can you quote your source of this information? I’d like to know for my own research on the fellow.

    Look forward to hearing from you

  5. Lam Seneviratne

    Hi Hugh,
    Thank you for that informative recount of the introduction of the motor to Ceylon. Between the A B C series and CEYLON series I am sure you will recall the full X and Z series.
    Kind Regards
    Lam

  6. Lam Seneviratne

    Hi Hugh,
    That was great information.
    Before the CEYLON series you may recall the full X and Z series..
    Regards
    Lam

    • Hugh Karunanayake

      Hi Lam
      Thank you for your interest in this subject. the X and Z series pre dated the introduction the CE series and was introduced in the 1930s when British manufactured motor cars dominated the market. I believe there were ten thousand cars registered under X and Z series.
      Regards
      Hugh

  7. Very interesting history.

  8. Roy Karunanayake

    I read this with lot of interest. Thank you Hugh Aiya.

  9. Peter Jasinghe

    Dear Hugh, Sincere thanks for the delightful feature which is indeed very interesting. I am the Editors of the Vintage Car Owners Club of Ceylon and would be delighted to include this feature in our quarterly newsletter. Hope this is fine with you. Best Regards! Peter Jasinghe

    • Hugh Karunanayake

      Dear Peter
      You have my consent to publish it in your newsletter with the authorship and source duly acknowledged.
      Regards
      Hugh

    • Dr. Farhim Jameel

      Dear Peter
      My Grand father owned a Rugby D40 Touring by Durant Motor Company NY ,USA in and around 1932.
      It was one of the earliest cars to be owned by a Ceylonese in Kandy in the Central province.
      I have a family photo of the car but unfortunately the car numbed is not clearly visible.
      wander is you could help me in trying to find the registration and number of the car.
      I was also wandering who could have been the agent for Rugby.
      Regards
      Dr Farhim Jameel.

  10. Amit Tailor

    Hello All,
    My grandfather was a fez manufacturer from Gujrat in Ceylon in the 19 teens-1940’s period. My father remembers that they owned a car in the 20’s but not which. His name wa Vasanji Bhanabhai (?Darji). are there any histotical records that can be searched for further information.

  11. This post presents clear idea in favor of the new users of blogging, that genuinely how to do running a blog.|

  12. Highly energetic article, I liked that a lot. Will there be a part 2?|

    • Hugh Karunanayake

      Thanks Carey. There is a part 2 which I will send to Michael after I sort out the accompanying illustrations. It appeared in The Ceylankan #62 Of Aug 2013 with the title of “The Golden Ageof Motoring in Ceylon”

  13. Anil De Silva

    Can you please help me to find Citron car legacy in Ceylon? My grand pa had one (as I understand) with number M96. I would like to explore on that. any information is welcome.

    • Pl approach HUGH KARUNANAYAKE via Facebook. I know bugger-allabou t cars

      • Hugh Karunanayake

        Hello Anil
        The registration No: by itself is not enough to track down more information. Please let me know the name of your grandfather, and I can try to find out more.
        Regards
        Hugh

  14. JIM FELTON

    I found your site doing some follow up of a October 1902 article describing the use of an automobile for mail delivery in Ceylon, but no names in that article appear in your post. And I can’t find anything about a Rover steam powered auto except in your post. Are you aware of or interested in that 1902 article? Can you point m towards info on some other early autos in Ceylon?

    Jim Felton

  15. Jim Felton

    It was in the October 1902 issue of St Martin’s Le Grand — digitized and on-line at google books pages 418-419.

  16. Hugh Karunanayake

    Thanks Jim. Will follow up.

  17. Sameera

    Dear Mr. Hugh,

    I would like to know the condition of Colombo roads in period of 1940 to 1970. Do you think there were personal cars driving on the roads in 1940 and if yes what models?

    • Hugh Karunanayake

      Sameera
      By 1970 the country would have had at least around 200.000 cars on the road. Up to about 1p60s the main cars were British manufactured. During the 1950s many luxury American cars were imported including Cadillacs, Pontiacs, Buicks etc. However we had Rolls Royce running on the roads from the 1920s.There were at least 3 brand new Rols Royces imported during the 1920s.

  18. Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam

    Hugh,
    My father S.S. Nagalingam owned 3 small busses in Colombo on Colombo – Mt Lavinia, Col – Kelaniya and Col – Ratnapura in late 1920s. (I was born in 1934 in Jaffna) Remember 3 or 4 small busses that are started by cranking. He used to name his competeters as K.B.L. Perera, Ebert Silva and 3 or 4 others. He left Colombo in 1930 and started a Bus company in Jaffna called KVAT operating in the North and A’Pura andTrinco. Later in 1944 formed the Company called NOB until it was nationalized 9n 1958. Rennet the early busses were A series. Later busses were Z and C series and later. Where can I get more information on his busses etc. eg Is there a list of busses and value when the busses were acquired by CTB?

    • Hugh Karunanayake

      All motor vehicles were legally required to be registered at the RMV Office (Registrar of Motor Vehicles) which was originally located facing the Lipton Circus roundabout adjoining the entrance to Ward Place. It later moved to offices at Narahenpita. You may have to correspond with them or better pay a personal visit and request inspection of their archives. I am not aware of any other published source that could help you in this regard.

Leave a Reply