A taxi driver I once hailed in Dadar not too long ago made a strange comment when our conversation turned to the recent directive the Maharashtra Government had issued to banish taxis older than 25 years from Mumbai roads.
He was behind the wheel of his Premier Padmini, the car of choice for Bombay taxi drivers.
“Actually the ban has helped,” he said as he kept his eyes on the road ahead. I had expected him to criticize the decision like many of his brethren had. It was a contrarian view in the best tradition. I kept silent and waited while he threw his weight behind the wheel to swerve past a Municipal Corporation truck that had suddenly backed up to the middle of the road while maneuvering to a garbage dump on the side of the road.
“Helped? How?” I responded, surprised. I remember Taxi Unions berating the Government while mobilizing support for its appeals process challenging the directive in the Courts. Several taxi drivers I spoke with subsequently bemoaned having to take loans for the newer but costlier alternatives to the Premier Padmini.
In a city like Bombay a status quo often means a lifeline to survival. But the Government was determined to change it. The appeal was thrown out.
I was interested in his perspective given that he did not have much time left either with his own taxi.
“The older Premier Padmini cars, 25 years and above, are headed for the scrap yard, fetching low prices, resulting in relatively cheap spare parts now available in city garages. Spare parts for the Fiat model were not as easily available before this ruling came into force, and prices were steep as well,” he said. “Now I can replace this door if I wanted to. Gear boxes are easily available again.”
While steep import duties on imported parts had ensured that the Indian Auto Industry survived the 1950s, and through the 1980s, the Premier Padmini had other things going for it as well. It was robust, cheap, no frills, and easily serviceable. Bombay taxi drivers took to the Premier Padmini in a big way until the last of the Premier Padmini rolled out of PAL’s Kurla plant in 1997.
Earlier, the production of the Premier Padmini, a variant of the Fiat 1100 that originally entered the Indian market in 1954, ensured a steady supply of spare parts that owners of earlier Fiat models in the 1100 series could use, prolonging their road worthiness. And there were several Fiat models to the Fiat 1100 series – the Fiat 1100/103, the Fiat Millecento, the Fiat Super Select, the Fiat 1100-Delight, also known as Fiat 1100D, the Premier President and finally the Premier Padmini, a close relation of Fiat 1100D. The Premier Padmini was available in a Deluxe-BE version as well. However, not all modifications resulting in a newer version of the Fiat were substantive, some were minor.
Fiat models other than the as yet ubiquitous black and yellow Premier Padmini taxi cabs are a rare sight on Bombay roads, so when a brilliant red model pulled alongside at a traffic signal I could not resist leaning out the rickshaw I was traveling in to capture the moment.
There’s little to do when negotiating Mumbai traffic. Occasionally I let my eyes roam the dashboard, seeking distinctive features that might differentiate the interior from that of another Premier Padmini taxi. Usually there’s none excepting of course the deities that ride on the dashboard.
Occasionally, an innovative use of dashboard space will see an incense stick holder attached below the deities, surely a better choice than using a bar of soap to stick the incense sticks in.
And if the taxi happened to use spare parts cannibalised and modified from another car model there is no way I would know of it unless it was visible upfront, like the steering wheels that come to steer the Premier Padmini though I need to make an allowance that some of them might be an original fit, some that is, not all.
So when I slide into the seat and stop short on spotting a fancy steering wheel it turns into a premier morning moment of the day. Of the steering wheels, and there are not many that deviate from the standard issue common to most Premier Padmini taxis, the transparent one I saw upon hailing a cab last August must rank among the more memorable ones I’ve seen over the years.
It stood out up front, its translucence contorting the life outside, tiny figures moving along the circumference as the taxi pulled ahead. The gear shift was fashioned likewise.
The wood-textured steering wheel ran the transparent, fibre-glass version close. It had the smallest diameter of the rest. When I asked the cabbie on a warm February morning last year if the smaller diameter presented difficulties in steering the taxi, he smiled and philosophized thus.
“Like in life, one gets used to everything,” before emphasizing, “eventually that is.” I did not open my mouth any further.
His hand comfortably spanned the wheel and he used it to good effect to rest his hands at traffic signals or when caught in a jam.
“This car belonged to a Doctor before I purchased it from him,” the cabbie I hailed one sultry Bombay evening announced with some pride as he reached down to the floor to throw the gear forward while steering the taxi with the other hand. The steering wheel had a bulbous character to it, and might’ve been in good company with rich upholstery, and that might’ve well been the case. It was September of the year before, and the rains were showing no signs of relenting.
Unlike most steering units in black and yellow taxi cabs on Bombay roads, the gears in this taxi were mounted on the floor, a feature the taxi driver favoured over those mounted in the steering unit. I could not help reflect on what the philosopher cabbie had opined earlier about everything making sense, in time.
“A doctor used it earlier,” he repeated, expecting me to acknowledge his good fortune.
A good fortune it is for, a doctor’s car is valued in India and probably commands a better resale value from the rest. It is generally believed, and not without reason, that doctors are careful creatures, preferring discretion over bravado, and can be relied upon to avoid clambering over road dividers in drunken stupor from late night partying. Still better if they’re running a clinic of their own for, it’ll leave them with little time to canter over long distances, ensuring fewer kilometers on the odometer.
Why, there’s just a chance the tyre is original and possibly the threads are intact as well.
Likewise, doctor brides are equally valued, and so are doctor bridegrooms.
The Premier Padmini is spare, austere even. There’s nothing inside that is not essential. So, even a hint of style occasioned by metal raises the mood within by a notch. And it helps there’re not many instances of this version of the steering wheel about. The metal plates shone.
I was tempted to ask him where he had sourced the steering wheel from or if the padding had been stripped off to expose the metal though it seemed unlikely to be the case. It might even be original to the model. Maybe he would not mind my asking him. Maybe he might welcome it even, pleased to learn of a stranger taking interest in the fittings, for there’re not many who take kindly to Premier Padmini testing the elasticity of their backsides on bumpy roads.
For some reason I remained silent, letting the city outside drag my thoughts with it, into the crowds from which there was no returning.
There’s much that is routine on an average day out in Bombay, common like the wheel above, yet helping steer life ahead, bumps notwithstanding!
Note: If you’ve any pictures of a car you owned from the Fiat 1100 series and would like to share them along with your memories, I’ll be glad to run them in a post with due credit. Mail me at my contact listed in the side-bar.
1. Black, Yellow, and Shades of White
2. Premier Padmini, the Workhorse