Good, bad, ugly, at Autocar India we've tested them all. At times we've tested more extreme machines too. India's Arjun tank was subjected to our full-bore acceleration test and we even V-boxed HAL's Advanced Light Helicopter! But we're primarily into new cars, with second-hand cars, classics and vintages covered less often. The car we've tested this time isn't quite a vintage or a classic. We like to think of it as being more of an extreme machine. This here is the Premier Padmini taxi.
But why test a 20-or-so-year-old taxi you ask? The Fiat Millecento, on which the Premier Padmani is based, has been around forever and there's nothing we don't know about the car. The need to test the car however came about from an argument that I had with one of Mumbai's finest a cab driver. He had tried his best to rear-end me as I stopped for a traffic signal and, to put it mildly, we had exchanged a few words. "When have you last driven one of these?" he'd queried, pointing to his derelict Padmini. This caused me to think of what infuriated me more, the actual accident, or the fact that I had no answer to his question. So just how bad are they? The verdict simply had to be sought.
Now, we often enjoy or suffer an elevated heart rate when testing a new car. Something really fast, a car that sticks to the road like a limpet mine, these get your heart thumping. So did this taxi. Would it break in two, would the CNG cylinder separate under hard braking, how dicey would it be to carry speed and brake late? So in the name of science, humanity and rank stupidity, we got ourselves behind the wheel of a few old cabs, testing equipment in hand. Having owned three Fiat 1100s in the past, I thought I would be familiar with the car. Nothing, not even several recent taxi rides, with blown tyres, free-floating rear seats or severe alignment problems could have adequately prepared me.
Most of these cars are in such a bad state that none of the mechanical bits function like they should. None. Okay maybe the horn works perfectly, but then that's all you have to peg your safety on!
Start-up is a wheezy. . .will it catch. . . . the starter's about to die . . . we may have to push-exercise. Crrrrr, crrrr, crrr, cr, hopeless, almost no sign of life, then vrrrrom IT ACTUALLY STARTED!!! Selecting first feels like you've just shaved half the teeth off first gear as the gear slots noisily, even with the clutch fully depressed. Just like when driving an F1 car, the cab will stall the first time you drive it, every time. Engine responses are glacial. There is a delay of about two seconds between full throttle; any revs on this CNG-fuelled motor and you soon learn that you might as well place a brick on the accelerator. You rev the motor and go to second, as even two-wheelers fly past you from the stop light. Lots of straining and screaming from the motor later, you select third, into the hands of fate. . .
We timed the car from 0-60; it wouldn't do too much more. After proving slower than we even expected, we tested it again. And it was slower still, overheating, stuttering and threatening to shut down. In a performance perspective, non-turbocharged Tata Sumos and Mahindra Armadas were among the slowest cars we've tested. They took between 11 and 12 seconds to do 0-60kph. This taxi took more than twice that time, a sad 25.23sec.
Now you'll probably realise why some Mumbai cabs don't cross 50kph and get into a bad mood if you so much as honk.
Almost all cabs run tyres of different makes on each wheel. That in itself is not a massive problem. Most tyres, however, are on their third or fourth retread, a large percentage are bald and you regularly see others with the ply peeking through. And many cabs are rotten to the core, their chassis bent, their floorpans droop and flap revealing the road below, and the wheels have been ordained to point in different directions. Wheel alignment and balancing are always pending and these cabs possess the directional stability of your local drunk. There's around 30deg of play on either side of the steering wheel and just keeping the thing going in a straight line is a severe challenge. We conducted a full brake test as well and here too the distance traveled was twice the worst figure we've ever recorded.
Driving these cabs gave me new respect for Mumbai's cab drivers. They face a Herculean challenge everyday and need to be commended. Though these Fiat 1100s were fantastic cars in their prime, the condition they are in now means they are today, literally only fit for the junk heap. Excruciatingly slow, devoid of any directional stability, noisy and severely uncomfortable, they are simply unfit for the road. And that's without taking into consideration the poor brakes, headlights, wipers or structural integrity. God help you if you have a crash.