The Golden Age of Motor Cars in Ceylon

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.




Filed under commoditification, cultural transmission, economic processes, heritage, historical interpretation, island economy, landscape wondrous, life stories, modernity & modernization, sri lankan society, transport and communications, Uncategorized, unusual people

8 responses to “The Golden Age of Motor Cars in Ceylon

  1. Eddie Wijesuriya

    Some of the registration number are incorrect. For instance the first Cadillac mentioned with Gunilla Buxton, Eva Wanigasekera and Rita Fernando modeling , . E. L 1771 is really . E. L 7117, which is the late Cyril gardiner’s car. The registrations of . R. G’s and upali Senanayake ‘s have been mixed up. There are more, too many to mention here. When I have the time I shall send the corrected ones to my old friend Michael Roberts.

  2. Hugh Karunanayake

    Eddie Wijesuriya
    Thank you for the corrections. It would be interesting and useful to have the source of your information. I am relying on memory, which can always not be very reliable. I hope your sources would be more reliable. Looking forward to it, and thanks again.

    • Hugh

      I think Eddie Wijesuriya has made some unfounded statements here to get some publicity. The Rego numbers of the Cars belonging to the Senanayake brothers are correct. He says that some of the numbers are incorrect but so far no response regarding which cars had incorrect no’s.. Is it a case of “all fart”!

      • David Webster

        Jesus Christ. Not worth the read. What a bullshitter! 1902 Rover was a bicycle manufacturing company, their first ever car (rover 8) was manufactured in 1904. Looks like fabricated stories coupled with few actual facts and some photographs. Speaking of Locomobiles, The Locomobile Company of America (One referred as “nickel-plated fraud”) was manufacturing since 1899 till 1902 (Ref. but not by rover.

      • David Webster

        Jesus Christ. What a bullshitter! 1902 Rover was a bicycle manufacturing company, their first ever car (rover 8) was manufactured in 1904. Looks like fabricated stories coupled with few actual facts and some photographs. Speaking of Locomobiles, The Locomobile Company of America (One referred as “nickel-plated fraud”) was manufacturing since 1899 till 1902 (Ref. but not by rover.
        David Webster

  3. Anthony Lambert

    Remember Sir John’s pale yellow Cadillac, which was prominently displayed the showroom for a while, visible from the street through the large glass front.
    In those days, I often came to Tuckers before closing time, to join my friend Maxie Don, who was foreman of the Battery shop.

  4. Interesting article. Can anyone tell me how and why C.E.A. Dias’s Rolls was burned, as apparently it was, in the 1915 riots?

    • Hugh Karunanayake

      Hi Richard. It is not possible for CEA Dias Rolls Royce to have been burnt in 1915 as the car was imported new in 1930 and bore the Rego No: X2365. The car went through a few hands and was purchased by Peter White of Anglo Ceylon Estates (Bois Bros) who took it to Mauritius in 1963. It may still be there.

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