Hugh Karunanayake, courtesy of The CEYLANKAN
My previous piece on the “Early Years of Motoring in Ceylon” ( The Ceylankan # 60 Nov 2012) evoked a level of interest which has since prodded me on to reflect on motoring in more recent times. The decade of the 1950s – mid twentieth century Ceylon, could verily be described as the “golden age” of motoring. The early 1950s especially were years when the country enjoyed the “Korean boom”; export commodities mainly rubber were fetching record prices, income tax relatively low, all leading to consumption going on at a gallop. There were no national investment projects of note to capture the surplus that was generated, and most of the money that flowed in, went towards conspicuous consumption largely in the purchase of luxury goods such as automobiles.
The Automobile Association of Ceylon published a monthly magazine called ”The Record”( first printed in 1927) which served as a forum for disseminating news about the auto industry. A popular feature in later years was the listing of new motor cars available for sale with their prices and details of the local agents. In the 1950s one could observe at the bottom of the price list the modest Ford Anglia (agents Richard Peiris and Co) at around Rs 5500, and at the top was the Cadillac (agents Tuckers Autodrome.).priced at around Rs38,000. In between were other cars of which the most popular was the Morris Minor whose agents were Rowlands Ltd.
Car Mart imported Volkswagen and the Peugeot both of which were also very popular and dominated sales within the relevant segment of the price range. Walker and Sons were agents for Austins, also much in demand especially in Jaffna where people were quick to recognise a quality, durable product. Brown and Co were agents for Triumph, and Standard, and Colonial Motors for Fiat cars. CFT Engineering imported Renaults and Tuckers Autodrome were agents for Cadillac, Buick, Vauxhall, Oldsmobile, and Opel. Other than American cars, the bulk of cars imported into the island was from the United Kingdom which dominated the automobile scene. Imports were unrestricted in the early 1950s and on average there were 25 new cars registered each day. Those were the days when people used a new car only for a year, buying the next year’s new model as quickly as it was imported ! Little wonder that the period was called the Golden Age of Motoring.
Strangely enough there were no Rolls Royces or Bentleys listed on the AAC’s monthly publication The Record, but any motoring enthusiast could have imported them through the accredited agents which I believe was the British Car Co an affiliate of Rowlands Ltd. A noteworthy aspect of car imports during the 1950s and thereafter , was the fact that between 1948 to date there were no new Rolls Royce cars imported into Ceylon. Records meticulously maintained by our member and Rolls Royce aficionado Roger Thiedeman of Melbourne indicate that there were around 33 RR cars imported into the country from 1920 to date of which four cars, those imported by Mrs Selestina Dias of Panadura (Reg B 701), Mr JLD Peiris(Reg C 4853) of Colombo. Sir Ernest De Silva(Reg ?) of Colombo, and Mr CEA Dias (Reg X 2365)of Colombo were the only cars imported new. A peg or two lower in prestige but possibly much lower in price than a Rolls was the stately Humber Pullman and the Humber Super Snipe which were the automobiles of choice of the senior directors of the British run mercantile firms of that era. Many of them had liveried chauffers to cart them around town, a sight that may arouse some amusement in the streets of Colombo of today!
The luxury cars of the 1950s reflected values of the growing post WW2 American hegemony spreading across the world, transmitted through American dominated global media networks including the very influential HolLywood movie industry. People in Ceylon were not slow to absorbing the influence of the mesmerising new automobile styles that were emanating from USA. “Mouth organ fronted” grills and the fancy “tail fins” of the Cadillacs, Buicks, Packards, Plymouths were very desirable objects which fascinated local elites. Tuckers Autodrome capitalising on growing demand for automobiles organised promotional events called “Autorama” at which well known models of the day posed beside cars, drawing attention to lines of both types of models!
The photo here from 1957 shows Gunilla Buxton, Eva Wanigasekera, and Rita Fernando standing beside a Cadillac EL1771. It is likely that there were around 15 Cadillacs including convertibles imported during the early 1950s. Among them were two sleek Eldorado convertibles owned by R. G. Senanayake (EY2889) and his brother Upali (EY 1713), homeware retailer Abdul Rahim (EL 6000) S.R. Muttiahpillai of Balangoda, FJ Lucas Fernando (EY 1517) whose Cadillac De Ville had a silver plated cocktail cabinet replete with crystalware fitted into the rear of the front seat. It was purchased by Hentley Joseph from the Fernando estate upon his death in 1958. Arguably the most talked of Cadillac was that owned by Sir John Kotelawala, bearing Reg No 1Sri1 which heralded a new nomenclature for car registration in 1958. It was imported duty free at a landed cost of Rs17000, a considerable sum of money in those days. After Sir John’s death the car was acquired by motor enthusiast Viswa Weerasuriya who donated it to the Kotelawala Defence Academy in 1994 where it is presently on display. Of the Buicks there were two notable convertibles cruising along Galle Road on most week ends of which Onally Gulamhusseins car EL 1555 was strikingly attractive with his wife Yvonne and her poodle seated on the front passenger seat. The other Buick convertible was owned by Ernest Perera. Farouk Abdeen who lived in the USA brought down a new Chevrolet Impala convertible which was the cynosure of all eyes at the time. The car unfortunately met with an accident and was badly damaged and quite possibly written off.
Convertibles were very much in vogue during that period. There were 2 Benz convertibles that I knew of. RGC(Dickie) Pereira the only son of RL Pereira then the foremost criminal lawyer of the country and Dickie himself on the verge of taking silk when he died aged 44 in 1954, owned the cabriolet bearing number EL782. He was on his way to the Anuradhapura courts when he suffered a heart attack and was rushed back to Colombo where he died only a year after he bought the car. This car was later owned by Dr J Sproule. and later by Geoffrey Bawa. The photo here is by courtesy of Asgi Akbarally –Classic and Vintage Automobiles of Ceylon 2012. A Benz 350 Convertible owned by Earl Arnolda was a head turner. It was later owned by Ray de Cost a. Then there were the Austin A40 Sports very popular convertibles in those days. Sydney de Zoysa, Jeff Felix (EL 4444), Basil Rajanayagam were among owners of these models. The MG convertibles too were always able to draw attention. The Series TC TD, TE, and TF had several enthusiast owners . Names that come to mind are our former President Tony Peries who is reputed to have often done the 130 mile trip from Colombo to Passara in a little over 4 hours, Wakely Paul brother of our member and avid motor enthusiast Avinder Paul, Sali Parakrama, and Irwin Dassenaike(EL 2471). The MGA which came in during the early 1960s took a different style from the T series and caught the fancy of the market. Young bucks of that era seen around town in their gleaming MGAs driving along with the hood down included Jayantha Fernando, David Silva, Faisal Abdeen, Killie Maharajah, Ranjit Wijewardene, and Tooty Rahim. Another attractive convertible was the Sunbeam Alpine . Rajah Jayakody the “Rajah of Balagalla”as he was light heartedly referred to sometimes, owned a sleek yellow coloured model bearing No: EL 5005. It had the dubious distinction of going off a winding up country road only to fall several metres below but firmly on its wheels on to a section of the same road ! Perhaps the most notable of the Hillman Minx convertibles of which there were a few, was that owned by Douggie Robert, who earned the title Mr Ceylon in 1951. His car EY6163 was a familiar sight with its hood lowered and Doug wearing a tee shirt to enhance display of his biceps, driving along. A car that was described as a sports saloon was the two door Hillman Californian hardtop which after a couple of years popularity went the way of all things transient. Karmann Ghia manufactured by VW was also a very desirable car of which possibly a dozen or so were imported. One used by Arjuna Dias was ubiquitous on the roads of Colombo. Another highly regarded car the Citroen a good example of which belonged to our member Scott Dirckze now resident in Colombo whose enthusiasm for its capability, it was rumoured, almost convinced the Government to set up an assembly plant for Citroen vehicles. Other continental cars that were imported in smaller numbers were the Simca, Borgward Isabella(Agents Steurts Motors), the DKW with its two stroke engine,and the Javelin Jowett. Peculiar to those times was the penchant for some motor enthusiasts to arrange to have a chosen registration number for their cars. Examples are Gunam Thambipilai of Deniyaya who had EY 7777, EL 7777, and EN 7777.and Sir Razeek Fareed who had CL 5, CN 5 and EL5.
In those days long before violence stalked the country, politicians had no necessity to travel in bullet proof cars. It may be of interest therefore to note the choice of cars of politicians of that era. Apart from Sir John ‘s Cadillac, SWRD Bandaranaike had a Chevrolet and later an Opel Kapitan EN 6161 used after his death by Mrs Bandaranaike. She later used a Mercedes Benz, and also the Prime Minister’s official car a Cadillac. Dr NM Perera was always a diehard Peugeot 203 enthusiast (owning at least 2 consecutive models) as was Pieter Keuneman. Dr Colvin R de Silva car of choice was a Wolseley Sedan, having more than one car, and he having a considerable investment in the British Car Co. R. Premadasa had a Morris Minor gifted to him by the vegetable mudalalis of the Pettah Market. He used to drive this car for many years till he was elected to Parliament. The car bearing Reg: No EN9729 is said to be restored and presently housed in the Premadasa home in Kehelwatte. General Secretary of the UNP of those days Sir Ukwatte Jayasundera owned a Humber Pullman which replaced the Chevrolet he owned earlier with the registration No CY1. Prime Ministers of Ceylon in the early years DS Senanayake and his son Dudley used as their official car a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith which was later shipped to London for use by the High Commissioner. There was no registration number assigned to the official car of the Prime Minister, instead a symbol of a gilded crown stood in place.
With liberalisation of imports in 1977 the automotive sector in Sri Lanka entered a new phase. The dominance of British manufactured cars had declined considerably during the intervening period 1961 to 1977 which prohibited new car imports. In its place, the global market had seen the emergence of Japanese made cars which displaced major manufacturers even in their domestic markets in the USA, UK.and Europe. With the gradual opening up of car imports which commenced in 1977, Sri Lanka too adapted itself to the drastically changed global scenario. Entrepreneurs like Freudenberg representing Toyota, Associated Motorways representing Nissan soon took the dominant share of the market displacing the former market leaders like Walkers, Rowlands Car Mart etc. Although Sri Lanka has not reverted to “open imports” as prevalent prior to 1961, there is nevertheless a substantial inflow of new and used cars mainly through the burgeoning diaspora now settled across the globe but still with family ties and interests well established in the old country. The national fleet continues to grow, and there is much evidence to indicate increasing interest in vintage cars including those from the 1950s, although it is sad to note that many of the cars discussed here have unfortunately ended up in the scrap yard.