Long ago in the dim and distant past, when red tape and the license raj ruled behind a curtain of misguided socialism, industrial progress was held to ransom. You couldn’t start your own radio station, couldn’t spend your hard-earned money abroad and you certainly couldn’t do something as irresponsible, indulgent and frivolous as introduce a new car. As a result the descendants of the cars you see here became big frogs in their secluded little pond, the mainstay of the Indian car industry.
Most of us distinctly remember a time when all we saw, drove, or sat in were Fiats or Ambassadors. We grew up learning to drive them, went to school or college in them and some of us even rallied and raced them. Yes, even the Amby has done the odd Himalayan Rally. Each of us has our own unique memories of either or both of these cars.
1954 was the year for pioneers. It was the year the world first rocked to the powerful voice of Elvis, the year Boeing cracked the perfect four-engined jet with the 707, the year the Lockheed F104 took the world of military aviation past Mach 2 and the year both the Landmaster and Millecento were launched in India. When it was launched in 1954, the Morris Oxford II or the Hindustan Ambassador as it was called in India was little more than a year old! Not a dowager or hand-me-down, but a relatively rosy-cheeked lass.
Fiat’s revolutionary Millecento, literally 1100 in Italian, was only a year old at the time too. Displayed at the Geneva Show in ’53, this well-proportioned but compact car reflected the growing confidence of post-war Italy.
In their day, when launched, these cars were as current as Suzuki’s new Swift or the new Hyundai Sonata. To fully understand how far car design had progressed, you have to understand that this was only a decade away from World War II! To begin with, the cars of this generation were the first to fully do away with the ‘upright-radiator-and-fenders’ look we correctly associate with vintages. Now evolving into more organic shapes, both these cars actually have similar profiles. Mildly bulbous bonnets, rounded fenders and passenger compartments, and that distinctive ‘bustle back’ drooping rear. Detailing was similar too. Both have prominent chrome grilles (the one on this Landmaster actually comes from a Mark II Amby), mild wheel arches and skirts, oval rear windscreens and tiny rear lights.
Darius Hodiwalla’s showroom-condition Fiat 1100 is a Series 103E, from 1956. You can tell by the elongated driving lights below the headlamps as well as a host of other features. Boasting a higher compression ratio and more power (40bhp), its 870kg kerb weight gave the car a decent power-to-weight ratio. Like all later Fiats, it used a single barrel downdraught carburetor, either from Solex or from Weber. Using twin carburetors and higher compression heads, some versions produced as much as 55bhp! Particularly interesting is the drum-type air filter, a feature not seen on later cars.
The Landmaster’s motor made 40bhp too, but from a larger 1500cc engine. The Landmaster used a side-valve engine as against the OverHead Valve motor that was later used on the Ambassador. Using a bottle-type SU carb placed at a jaunty angle, this motor is a refined, smooth-running unit that is happiest when cruising. The SU was replaced by a Solex on this car as it is difficult-to-meet emission norms with the original, a shame.
I grew up driving younger examples of both these cars, but it’s been years since I’ve gotten behind the wheel of either, especially the Oxford that I actually learned to drive on. The first few kilometres behind the wheel of the Landmaster are pure terror. After modern cars, you need a considerable amount of time to adjust, and this is doubly true if you need to mix it in traffic. Going over a large hump and merging with traffic across the road quickly apprised me of how far modern cars had come. Even though the Landmaster’s steering had no play, I discovered that the car only changed direction after a considerable heave and several twirls of the wheel. Remember, there’s no power steering. Just getting the revs up, climbing over a hump and stopping to wait for a gap in traffic left me cold.
The car was not pointing in the direction I had intended, despite the flaying of arms, I had barely managed to brake before the main road and now every gap I saw in traffic felt insufficient. I felt like a terrified learner, not sure about how long it would take me to get across the road. Butterflies in the stomach, heart in my mouth, I nosed into a gap, swung the car around, like one does on a ship, and nailed the throttle. The Landmaster moved majestically forward. More twirling of the wheel, expletives and beads of sweat later, we were on our way, cruising effortlessly.
Everything in this car seems specifically designed to make this car a great cruiser. The torsion bar-and-leaf spring suspension is pliant enough to swallow the worst of the post-monsoon roads, the cabin is as wide as many luxury cars and because this is an old- school design and your sat upright, legroom at the rear is also great. The driving position with the offset steering, done to accommodate a third passenger up front, is not good in the traditional sense, but strangely it felt more comfortable than many modern-day cars. The driving position is almost Harley-Davidson cruiser style, feet out in front, arms relaxed and backrest perfectly reclined. Rear seat comfort is legendary. You sit slightly higher than the front row and these old seats are so much better than those on the newer cars I’ve been chauffered in. India couldn’t have asked for a better combination of comfort and affordability. What can I say, our members of parliament really are smart.
The Fiat is less comfortable, but it isn’t uncomfortable either. There is much less space and you do feel hemmed in, but again the front driver’s bench seat is very comfortable. Ingress to the front seats through the unique suicide doors is extremely easy as well, as you can slip in and out of the car without bending and contorting yourself much. Plus, I simply love the characteristic ‘clop’ with which the doors shut. The rear of the Fiat is nowhere as comfy as that of the Landmaster, lacking legroom and headroom in comparison. However, it feels modern and twice as agile to drive in comparison. Double wishbones, coil springs and anti-roll bars give the Fiat direction poise and good body control. No heart attacks here. The steering is light, the car turns beautifully into bends, goes where it is pointed and actually stops. It does roll more than a modern car, but the amount of driving pleasure that can be still derived from a Fiat really surprised me. And to top it off, it’s rear-wheel drive.
The Amby in comparison feels as agile as the Queen Mary in rough seas, bodyroll reaching titanic levels if the car is turned into a corner with gusto. Even the motor felt unhappy when it was pulled hard, struggling to make more power at the revs rose. And, of course, the loose and vague ‘lottery’ gearbox is possibly the worst ever. Boxes like the Landmaster’s gave the column shift a bad name. But you only have to drive the Fiat to see how good this system can be when the ’box is tight, precise and the gears click home happily.
It’s actually a smarter solution as you don’t need to keep moving your arm back and forth between the steering wheel and the centre of the car. Fiat called one of the later 1100 models the ‘Delight’, obviously a reference to the engine. Free-revving, responsive and blessed with a strong midrange, the 1100 motor rounded off the package superbly. No wonder Enzo Ferrari chose to power his first car with two 1100 engines, joined end on to make a straight eight. If only Mumbai’s cabbies, who went crazy looking at the car, could see how well a perfect example runs. English motoring sage LJK Setright has seldom praised a car more heavily.
“By the standards of its time, the 1100 was a prodigy in handling, ride, comfort and performance: it was the only people’s car that was also a driver’s car”. I’ll just leave it at that.