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1905 Darracq - Chariot of fire

Imagine studying and discussing the options list with the English coachbuilder for this Darracq back in 1905.
Carbide lamps? ‘Sure.’
Kerosene lamps? 'Yes, why not.'
Tail lamps? 'I guess one for the numberplate will do.'
Speedometer? 'Not necessary.'
Gauges for temperature, oil and fuel? 'No, I don't want them.'
A speaking instrument to instruct the driver? 'But of course.'
Bulb horn? 'Huh, huh.'
Wood and leather trim? 'The least you can do.'
Additional wheel for the stepney? 'No, just mount the tyre, that should do.'
Will that be all, sir? 'Yes, that's about it.'

To sum up, sir, your Darracq will be a convertible coupe de ville, where your poor driver will be exposed to the hot sun, the wet rain, biting cold and everything in between; he will have no instruments to see how fast he’s going; he will have no idea when the eagle hood ornament is going to shoot up from the boiling steam of the radiator or when the fuel is going to run dry; he would have to replace the tyre instead of the wheel in case of a puncture; and all this while you and your wife will be basking in the refinement of the passenger cabin, and you will be shouting orders to him through the speaker, cursing him and telling him how to drive. It’s bloody inconsiderate of you sir, if I may say so!

Of course, he wouldn’t have said this to the customer, but it was a sentiment I was going through, driving this almost 100-year old machine – perhaps the second oldest car in India after the cute 1903 Humberette runabout, both which belong to industrialist and automobile connoisseur, Vijay Mallya. First of all, you can get in or get out at the front only from the left side of the vehicle, as the handbrake, gear lever and spare tyre (without a wheel, remember) are all mounted on the right running board. Then you sit high up, with only a roof above for protection, while your passengers – in my case, my esteemed out-for-a-jolly-ride colleagues Param and Sameer – sit in wood-and-leather drawing room sofa set comfort. In fact, it’s virtually a drawing room right out of the Victorian era inside, with enough headroom to allow a tall man on stilts wearing a top hat to sit without brushing the roof.I shouldn’t be complaining anyway, since this was the first time in my life I was going to drive a car this old, and secondly, the sofa set I was seated on wouldn’t be out-of-place in Mr Mallya’s mansion. Now to figure out how to drive this horse carriage without the horses. Indeed, I think one of the accessories the English coachbuilder James Young left out in the list was a pair of horses. Seriously, don’t you think this object on wheels would look more complete with those two animals? 

Instead, this 1905 Darracq was powered by a busy, unbreakable 3100 CC four cylinder engine displacing 18.5 cheerful horses. Busy? Cheerful? Words you wouldn’t normally use for a great-great grandfather of a car, would you? But that’s true, the Darracq is so spunky and the engine feels so vigorous that it looks like it would happily be partying all night on its hundredth birthday in two years! And keeping the neighbours awake with the noise it generates.

Anyway, here I was, thanking Alexandre Darracq for keeping the pedal arrangement familiar for me. To my right – outside the body – was the three-forward speed/reverse gear lever with a helpful shift gate. Though the clutch pedal is surprisingly smooth, shifting was bit of an effort, especially for an arm which is usually used only for pressing power window buttons in a car. The Darracq’s engine responds with enthusiasm to my prolonged gearshifts, and I am soon on third and cruising decently at about um, decent cruising speeds. There are no instruments in front of me, you see, only one bare wooden panel that helpfully, or rather hopefully, prevents the elements.Actually, it really didn’t matter to me not having all those confusing gauges, because the Darracq was happy puttering around the landscape without missing a beat, riding on leaf springs and Dunlop Cord 810x90 rubber around wooden spoked wheels. As far as whatever instructions would come from the speaker next to my right ear go, they would be drowned by the noise of the engine. Yet it was a complete car, and even at its age, was doing what it was meant to, perfectly. Which makes me wonder: is automotive evolution only about the introduction of safety features, airconditioning, power windows, power steering and power what-nots then? Funny, huh?

But here’s where I do an about-turn – in my new above-mentioned theory and my drive. Power steering should have come much early in evolution of the automobile, it’s an absolute must... I had to take a three-pointed turn with the Darracq, you see. The large wooden pliable-in-motion steering wheel instantly turned to lead. And the only sounds louder than the engine were my grunts. It took such an effort that I almost convinced myself to either work-out daily or enrol in a gym – thankfully, sense eventually prevailed. At least I didn’t have to reverse much, because visibility was zilch. Perhaps the ancients thought that you don’t have to see where you’re reversing.

One of these ancients was Frenchman Alexandre Darracq, who chucked a thriving bicycle business to get into the manufacture of self-propelled vehicles – in fact, most of his earlier machines showed bicycle parentage. However, that did not stop him from making good automobiles (which always were shaft-driven rather than chain-driven) or from experimenting, as he even displayed an electric vehicle at the Paris Salon in 1896. Racing Darracqs did well for themselves, and in 1904, a Darracq even broke the land-speed record. 

In 1905, however, Alexandre Darracq sold his interests to a British firm, and retired by 1912. The cars did well but the firm’s path was full of twists and turns, merging with Talbot and Sunbeam over time. As one of the automobile encyclopaedias puts it: ‘The cars were always designed and built in France, the company was financed in England during and after its golden period (1905-1925), then it was merged with a French concern formed to make Italian cars and subsequently acquired American affiliation.’ And to top that, in 1909, the Milanese branch of Darracq decided to go its own way, leading to the creation of a new marque, Alfa Romeo.

This 1905 Darracq came with a new chassis that was developed thanks to English funding, and was priced quite modestly. But that perhaps was not enough for the original owner who must have been a spendthrift. It looks like he didn’t want to pay much to the coachbuilder, considering he left hired help like chauffeurs to fend for themselves. But then, for a small amount of money, a little driving pleasure and stronger arms, I wouldn’t mind being the chauffeur myself.