August 09, 2009

Premier Padmini, The Workhorse

Murad Panjwani shifted in his seat and leaned over for a peek at the preview screen in the seconds after I had leaned out of his brand new Japanese model taxi and clicked the overloaded Fiat to our left. I had asked Murad to slow his taxi down as it drew parallel to the black and yellow Fiat cab leaving the Dadar vegetable market on Senapati Bapat Marg with more load than it was ever designed to carry.

However the older taxi drivers who’ve been plying the streets of the city for a decade or two will tell you that if ever there was a taxi made for Mumbai roads then it had to be the Fiat, locally known as the Padmini Premier. Premier Automobiles Limited or PAL as it is better known was owned by the Walchand Hirachand Group, assembling the Fiat’s Fiat 1100 series of cars beginning 1950s after starting out in 1944 with license from Dodge and Plymouth. PAL now no longer manufactures Fiats, their Kurla plant ceasing production in the late 1990s.

“Striking worker unions hastened the end for the PAL’s Kurla plant,” a cab driver once told me.

The 40 hp, 1089 cc engine packed the Premier Padmini with sufficient power on Indian roads, and it came to survive the demands Indian consumers placed on it, least of all ferrying vegetables from wholesale vegetable markets to retailers elsewhere.

While it has all but disappeared from view in private hands elsewhere, excepting for an occasional sighting like the one above, Bombay taxi drivers still prefer the Fiat 1100D over the newer non-Fiat models: Maruti 800, Maruti Omni, Santro, TATA Indica and the like. A new rule promulgated by the Maharashtra Government seeks to get black and yellow cabs over 25 years old off the road. As a result several thousands landed up as scrap in city compounds a few months ago. And more of them are now counting their days. When the last of the black and yellow Fiat 1100D cab is off the road an iconic symbol of Bombay will have passed into history.

However with Fiats aged 25 years and above now off the roads it has helped make spare parts from cannibalized taxis available to those still on the roads. “Engine blocks were hard to come by before and as a result costlier. It is easier to source them now that parts from scrapped Fiats have made their way to city garages. It is the same with these doors,” a taxi driver from Kurla once told me, tapping the sturdy door. “Who makes these now anyway? It’s all over.”

Another taxi driver I hailed outside Dadar said, “Many of us held on to our Fiats waiting to see which way our appeal to the courts for relief from the 25-year rule would go, asking for exemption from the rule those taxis that met traffic safety standards which many, many of them did, and that was our undoing. The courts held fast and when they struck down our appeal thousands of taxis flooded the scrap yard, the prices plummeting. Only a month earlier they fetched more than double at over Rs. 25,000. Now you’ll be lucky if your Fiat fetches Rs. 12,000.”

“These new taxis that we are now forced to buy will not last beyond 2-3 years on Indian roads.” Then he went to say that while the latest models were very comfortable as compared to the Fiats, they are not strong enough to last the 12-14 hour shifts that taxi drivers typically demand of their cabs, come rain, come sunshine.

To a Bombay cabbie his cab is a provider, sometimes a home as well. It is not uncommon to find dashboards decked with garlanded deities, a signature sight in Fiat taxis plying Mumbai roads. If you're lucky the steering will be no less colourful either.

An elderly Sikh cab driver I once rode with to Nana Chowk tapped the door and said, “Look at this metal, it is sturdy. The new ones are all plastic. There’s nothing on the road like the Fiat.”

His taxi had only three months to go on the roads. “Only three months more,” he sighed. And suddenly the traffic signal at Tardeo assumed a new meaning. The Sikh taxi driver was not alone in his emotions.

When Ahmed, an elderly Muslim taxi driver originally from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, leaned across the seat of his new Maruti Van, attempting to open the door for me he struggled against the seatbelt holding him back. Irritated he spat, “This is like a noose that I’ve to wear else I’ll have to shell out Rs. 100/- to the traffic cops. This is a curse.”

After a few moments he concedes that his old Fiat was better even if it did not afford him the luxury of space that the Maruti Van does or the comfort that new shock absorbers provide on bumpy city roads in the monsoons.

“The Fiat taxi is a 4-Cylinder car unlike some of these on the roads,” he commented.

Ahmed was none too pleased to give up his Fiat for the Maruti Van that he purchased with a loan of Rs. 200,000 after a down-payment of Rs. 40,000. He was bitter of the Rs. 4,600 bribe he has to pay each year to an official of SIDBI for the duration of the loan in lieu of the official approving his loan application.

SIDBI (Small Industries Development Bank of India) states its mission thus: To empower the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) sector with a view to contributing to the process of economic growth, employment generation and balanced regional development.

“That’s how it works here,” he said before continuing, “Many of the officials recruited in the Govt. now have no culture or integrity, or shame. They’ve no culture you know, it is not in their blood. They consider their posting an opportunity to skim off public money. What are we to earn after paying off bribes, and loans?”

I remained silent, eyes fixed on the maelstrom of honking vehicles on the road ahead.

I offered him a platitude: The rich will buy their way out of the system while the poor will bear their way out into further misery.

Ahmed nodded. I sneaked a quick glance at him. He was thin and cut a dignified figure in his sparkling white Kurta Pyjamas. Wrinkles creased his face. Cropped short his grey hair lent his years an ‘elderly respect’. He sat erect at the wheel, leaning forward. His oversized watch slipped down his wiry wrists each time he worked the gears.

Now retired his children manage his retail shop “in the neighbourhood” while he plies his Maruti taxi for a few hours each morning. He said, “It keeps me alert and fit. It is important not to slacken too much once you’re through your working years. Slacken, and you’ll find your body quickly giving away.”

It is strange how commiserations shared can make acquaintances out of strangers.

And on the road I find that reflecting on the obvious often helps one cope with the noise outside, sometimes with the noise inside as well.

Related Posts

1. Black, Yellow, and Shades of White


Prats said...

very Beautifully written....Aptly capturing the essence of Bombay Cabbies...

Mridula said...

I was wondering if Bombay cabbies overcharge? I mean I am scared of hailing a Delhi cab ...

Anjuli said...

This one hit me straight in my heart!! Whether it is on the roads of Mumbai or Accra- we see the stiff soldiers who keep going on despite whatever obstacles are put in their path....and now I am in the West- I grow tired of the 'whining'

Anonymous said...

As a passenger I hate these taxis.They are most ratteling junk and provides uncomfertable bumpy ride. there is no AC and old taxis with Tecnology of 50s dont have pick up or speed for even Mumbai's sluggish traffic.only thing that has kept them on roads is their unions dadagiri.i do not regret demise of PAL/Fiat Padmini though it was our family car from 1953 to 1985 when Maruti replaced it.--PK

Cynthia Pittmann said...

I haven't traveled much in taxis because everyone has a personal car to deal with...which is how I can relate to the struggle you describe.

Why is the government so involved in these decisions? Is it because the environment is harmed by the old taxis? It seems like all of the recycling helps the environment.

The loss of independence in decision making is difficult to deal with.

I was charmed by your retired taxi driver's attitude...keep active in retirement or your body will give out. He's definitely on to something...but those roads seem to wear on the body too! <3

Steve said...

I enjoyed the post. Gave me a little insight into the taxi business and the situation with the Fiats. Great read.

Rouchswalwe said...

Driving a cab already has to be one of the most difficult jobs I can imagine. But even in a disheartening situation, this driver has held on to his dignity. You were fortunate indeed to ride with him for a little while, Anil. Thank you for letting us share the ride with your wonderful prose.

Ugich Konitari said...

What a lovely post about a lovely car . We still have ours which is 36 years old this month, and I once did a post in its honour Here..

Sara at Come Away With Me said...

It never fails to amaze me at all the different worlds out there, and so I do enjoy reading your posts...from so very far away and such a different culture. And yet, the human element does not change from culture to culture...we really are sisters and brothers under the skin.

Anuradha Shankar said...

very nicely written... and at the right time too...... one of our regular cabbies is getting a new one too, but is sad indeed to think that the rattling piece on wheels that we are so used to will soon disappear off the roads.... or, being India... just might manage to stay on for another 50 years!!!!!

karen said...

That first photo is a real classic! It is interesting to read some more about the iconic Premier Padminis.. I enjoy your word portraits of the inhabitants of Mumbai, too. :)

Anil P said...

Prats: Thank you.

Mridula: It usually depends on where you hail the cabs. Outside airports or Check Naka where you change over municipal jurisdictions it is common to find the more 'ambitious' among the cabbies in wait for 'long distance' fare, and chances are high that their fare meters will be tweaked to 'run' fast, mostly that is.

Elsewhere in the city, a vast majority of the Mumbai cabbies run fair meters, running charges appropriate to the distance and charging approved tariffs.

The one exception is cabs that run the second shift, typically through the night. The meters are most likely tweaked to run fast.

7.5 times out of 10, Bombay cabbies are fair with what they charge which I believe is a good ratio for such a big city.

Most of the city cabbies, particularly the elderly, are very courteous, and helpful. And jovial too, and not averse to hearty conversations, especially those from Uttar Pradesh, particularly the elderly brahmins among them who can be garrulous at times, smiling away merrily, chewing on paan and regaling you with stories.

Anjuli: Being a cab driver is among the most difficult of tasks. Here, they take the rough with the smooth, rarely complaining to the passengers they ferry. They're often stoic with the cards that life has dealt them. Many come from underprivileged backgrounds and perform their job with dignity. Sure, there're rotten apples, but the good outweigh the bad by a long way.

PK: Perceptions will vary from person to person.

To many, the Padmini Premier will remind them of the city they love, a symbol that was all pervasive, ubiquitous.

They will remember their ride in a Premier Padmini to their first interview, their first date, their first job, and some, as their first car. To them it is not so much about the comfort of A/C or technology as it is about the emotions it has come to symbolize and the city it has come to be identified with.

It is iconic for the era it came to symbolise, an era that prized idealism over consumerism, where humanity demanded that you put you neighbour first, before self. Oh, the chawls too are on their way out, perhaps it is only apt they’re following the Padmini Premier.

With generations that came to identify with the Padmini Premier Fiat, it became a part of the family so to say. And some will say so in so many words.

Cynthia: I have never owned a car. Taxis and Public Transport are all I know.

Ahmed was charming. They are four brothers, each runs his own business. Ahmed owns a garage that his son now looks after. He was very upright in his mannerisms, a trait you're likely to find in elderly Muslims from up north.

The roads are bad, more so in the monsoons.

Steve: Thank you.

Rouchswalwe: Yes, it is very difficult. Ahmed was a fine gentleman. I ran into him, again, today.

Ugich Konitari: Thank you. Maroon coloured Fiat cars were rare even in the days when Fiats in private hands were plenty. Delightful memories, yours.

Sara: Thank you.

Like you rightly said the thread of humanity is common to geographies and cultures.

Anu: Thank you. I believe they can ply outside city limits.

The Fiat cabs will survive provided the parts are available. One cabbie said that were Fiat to set up a plant to manufacture the 1100 series they will be first choice of the city cabbies.

Karen: Yes, I got lucky with the first picture. I have rarely seen a Fiat taxi loaded with vegetables like the one that morning. Ever since that day I’ve kept my eye out for another Fiat load that would beat the one in the picture. No luck so far.

I doubt if the newer models the cabbies are switching to can stand such battering for long. Time will tell.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post! The first photo is my favorite. I love how they have managed to fit EVERYTHING on the car. ;-) Thanks for visiting my blog.


Darlene said...

It doesn't seem to make much sense to force the retirement of a 4 cylinder car that gets good gas mileage for a Van that has poor mileage.

Everything is built to wear out now and shoddy materials are used. Plastic is really terrible because of the environment and the fact that it doesn't degrade.

Sarah Laurence said...

I like you make these personal connections on your travels and place it in a larger social context. Thanks for taking us along for the ride.

Fishbowl said...

Thank you for reminding us...

Renee said...

Anil, I can't remember did you win best blog for travel?

I have never come here and felt disappointed about anything.

The pictures are a feast for the eyes and how you write, well, I love how you write.

Love Renee xoxo

Mari Mansourian said...

Hi Anil, I remember Fiats when I lived in Armenia, dad had one, they were small but did the job quite well. anyways enjoyed your post, and thanks for stopping by at my corner.

Granny J said...

As ever, Anil, a fascinating window on Mumbai. Ut;s a pity the govt. is so intent upon forcing modernization, especially when it is so expensive for the cabbies.

Celeste Maia said...

What a fantastic entry, thoroughly enjoyable, very, very interesting. I loved the photos too. Last time I went to India I used a taxi and then liked the driver and arranged with him to take me to several places and he drove me for a whole week. His car was an Ambassador, based on a 1952 Austin. Maximum speed we were able to get, on the road, was 30/40 kms/hr. It had a diesel engine with about 40 horse power. Very comfortable.
Realy enjoyed your post and you write beautifully.

Unknown said...

Thank you for finding me. Your photos have taken my breath away.


As usual, a great read, and excellent pictures. The first pic says it all. I have not been blogging or visiting blogs lately, and yours is one I loved to catch up with.

Reader Wil said...

Well written. Amazing how overloaded cars as you show in your pictures, are allowed to ride around.

bindu said...

Great piece. I didn't know about this phasing out. I'm sure the auto industry had a say in this decision to phase out the Premiers. What a waste it is.

PNA said...

Beautifully captured and written, I like the steering wheel and ....if this car just had a voice to tell its story, it would have been really interesting to know it's pov.

Cya Anil


MRagunandan said...

nice photographs,nice writing.

lisasarsfield said...

Whooa! That big load would carry a big fat traffic fine over here! Interesting load he has on though!

Anonymous said...

taxi drivers always intimidate me.

Coffee Messiah said...

Very interesting post, and the folk art in the cabs is pretty amazing and nice to look at also.

I've never envied can drivers anywhere, not only what they have to put up with in some customers, but roads like that, mentally they'd need to treat each day like a dance in and out of traffic ; )

Enjoyable insight once again, many thanks & Cheers!

Rolling said...

"I remained silent, eyes fixed on the maelstrom of honking vehicles on the road ahead"
this wd remain etched in my mind as an image of your made the words capture your mood, your attitude, the tenor of the situation, the eloquence of this silence at this point, your intelligence.

"It is strange how commiserations shared can make acquaintances out of strangers."
only happens in the case of men, with women, they think, we are fast or prostitutes or something.

I am alive, tho my life is racked with storm, mnanaged to find few minutes refuge in happy memories of books that shaped my psyche. Do come and read if you would at Ebloggers, where I decided to post only my happy thoughts :) t.c.

Val said...

hello again - enjoyed your post on the taxis - those drivers must have nerves of steel! fascinating insight into one of the many Mumbai lives - taxi drivers. fabulous pics too - thank you

Val said...

'commiserations shared can make acquaintances out of strangers'
i love that and its so true

Anonymous said...

What wonderful writing on the Fiat. I was remembering a friend from school who had a '59 Fiat 1100 that transported quite the unruly crew - hard on the car we were. I last talked with him several years ago and he still had the car and drove it occasionally - over 35 years he had owned the car and never a "major" overhaul.

unpretentious said...

so many facts:) nice to know some bg work has gone into a post..

i ve heard my dad talk of this all the time saying nothing can stand indian roads like the old cars and scooter..just like cars, apparently the recent bikes are absolutely worthless..

in a way i guess it could also be that these people are finding it difficult to accept the change for various reasons among which one is the fact that the recent cars are not sturdy's like that i guess..u adjust or not adjust and also crib is what i would say

Anil P said...

Paz: Thank you. The Fiat Padmini Premier metal body is known among Mumbai Cabbies to be strong, and capable of carrying heavy loads. Actually some taxi drivers pride in demonstrating this.

Darlene: I agree with your assessment. Though I'm not quite sure how the Fiat Padmini Premier mileage compares with the Van, more so now that all Mumbai taxis are fitted with CNG cylinders from the earlier petrol driven.

Padmini Premier car models seen on Mumbai streets are mostly from the 1990s.

Sarah Laurence: You're welcome. Thank you. The cab drivers in Mumbai make do with tough driving conditions driving these taxis.

Fishbowl: Thank you.

Renee: Nope, not the overall Best Travelogue title, but did win the audience poll round.

It's a pleasure to learn you enjoy the writing here.

Marinik: Interesting to learn that Fiats were sold in Armenia. Some Fiat models were indeed small. They were sturdy even if a bit jarring as the cars grew old.

Soon the Fiat Padmini Premier will be antique in India, to be sold in used car markets or passed on as second-hand car models for interested buyers.

With Fiat taxis older than 25 years now off the roads, garages have received a fresh stock of Padmini Premier car parts taken from those scrapped, benefiting those still on the roads. Availability of car parts was crucial to the survival of the Padmini Premier on the roads in the years their production ceased.

Granny J: Thank you. Agree with you. Modernisation for the sake of it does not serve much purpose.

Some cab drivers of Mumbai have told me that there're enough Padmini Premiers in excellent roadworthy conditions, well taken care off, and which can survive the roads well, and yet just because of the 25-year rule limit they are being scrapped.

They insisted that the government rule on each taxi based on whether they are maintained well for the roads since they are public carriers instead of a blanket ban.

Cabbies find it expensive to buy a new taxi from the fancier car models available in the Indian market.

Celeste Maia: Thank you. The Ambassador is another legend of the Indian road. In Mumbai the Fiat Padmini Premier cab rules the road as public transport, while in Calcutta it is the Ambassador.

The Ambassador is comfortable to sit in, enough leg space. Indian politicians use the Ambassador, painted white, as the official car in most places.

I do not get to see many Ambassador cars on Mumbai roads.

Claire: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

Raji Muthukrishnan: Thank you. The Fiat is loaded to the brim for sure.

Reader Wil: Not by law, but they carry on nevertheless. Vegetable vendors hire taxi to ferry produce to their retail outlets elsewhere in the city. The taxi fare in Mumbai is cheaper compared to say hiring a larger vehicle for the same purpose.

However the taxi fare was raised last month, from a minimum fare of Rs. 13 to Rs. 14.

Bindu: Thank you. Some cab drivers will point to a conspiracy and tell you that large Automobile companies have cajoled/pushed the politicians into phasing out the Padmini Premier so that their cars can replace the Fiat as cabs.

It is not uncommon to find taxi drivers sad at seeing the Padmini Premier sold as scrap.

Pins N Ashes: Thank you. The steering wheels of Padmini sometimes sport colourful grips.

The dashboards in these taxis will probably sport deities, incense stick, and occasionally garlands.

I'm sure if it had a voice it would have its own point of view.

Raghunandan: Thank you :-)

Anil P said...

Lisasarsfield: A very interesting load the Fiat in the picture is carrying. If you look closely you're bound to find most types of vegetables to be found in the vegetable market.

Kamana: Some taxi drivers might intimidate, but there're many who are warm and friendly.

Coffee Messiah: Thank you. Some taxis here sport colourful art / stickers on the back, mostly invocations to gods they worship, and occasionally about films and film actors / actresses.

Art on trucks is more colourful.

Sure, the taxi drivers lead tough lives, being on the road at the break of dawn to when the last soul makes his way home.

Rolling: Thank you. On Indian roads, like most of us will affirm, emotions can change from traffic light to traffic light. A world passes us in the pauses.

Sure, I will. Thank you.

Val: Thank you. :-)

Seamus: Thank you. The Fiat 1100 series is quite a cult for the memories associated, generations really.

The Fiat Padmini Premier, a cab driver once told me, costed him only a few hundreds of rupees a month in maintenance. This after the hard years his taxi logged Mumbai roads, day in and day out. The Fiat Padmini Premier does not need much maintenance he told me, unlike "some of these new cars".

It would be interesting to see how the Fiat your friend owns looks like now.

Unpretentious: Oh yes. The Hamara Bajaj range of scooters, the Priya scooter model, the Chetak and the like. Very sturdy.

It's part emotion, it's part loyalty for the services their cars gave them, their growing-up memories associated with their cars. And yes, the era - the 1960s, the 1970s, and the 1980s were special. Idealistic, yes, but incredibly special to those who lived and dreamed through them.

magiceye said...

a beautiful ode to the pld 'kaali peeli'!

aMus said...

the fiat brought back was our first car, growing up..

loved this post as well as the ones catching up on everything i missed reading!

Anonymous said...

What a great resource!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the outstanding posts