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1919 Wolseley - Past Imperfect

I open the door and enter a room lined with striped upholstery on all the four walls. Fine gold trim runs around the joints and I think to myself, I could spend an entire lifetime in this room, surrounded by my music and my books. I plonk myself on the well-upholstered sofa,covered by an intricate jacquard pattern.Above me is a function-less little oval window, a small Rubens covering it wouldn’t be out of place actually. I could have done with a small chandelier overhead, but there’s enough light streaming through the large windows with polished wood veneer frames. Little fold-out seats, wearing the same jacquard weaves, are spread in front of me for entertaining visitors. Alternatively, I could just stretch and rest my legs on them. Aaah, this is life.Just when I forget my work and sink into a stupor, I am startled by a violent shake, the whole room starts quivering, accompanied by some loud blasts. Oh, nothing to worry, it’s just the car being started. Car? Yes, the automobile I was just describing to you.

The room in which I made myself at home was in fact the passenger area of the 1919 Wolseley, and as you would have figured out, it was so well-appointed that it could have been part of a mansion somewhere in England. I am sure the new Maybach or the new Rolls-Royce Phantom are not a patch on this car when it comes to head room and leg room, or even all their allied sybaritic comforts. That’s because while the new cars have passenger compartments, the Wolseley has a living room. Add a few visitors, a Royal Doulton tea set, scones and cucumber sandwiches and you could have an English high tea party inside.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to see what Anil Ovalekar’s doing in the driver’s seat. Anil, incidentally, is this very unruffled person who takes care of industrialist Vijay Mallya’s cars. Yup, this Wolseley is part of the brilliant Mallya collection, from which we have featured many cars in earlier issues. Anil and I go through the process which we have been through many times before. He takes the cars for a short spin and tells me what I need to know before I take over the wheel. It’s no exception this time, as the Wolseley chugs around, with Anil shifting the long gearshift placed next to the right knee accompanied by grinding noises. Ahead of the windshield is a weird, twisted hood ornament, and to the right is this absolutely kitschy bulb horn-tube-speaker combo done up to look like a snake. So instead of hissing at passengers, you go ‘Pom, Pom!’ I take in all the details on the wooden dash in front of me: there’s an eight-day clock for some reason, a tacho, three toggle switches, a starter button and an immense steering wheel. I can handle this, no problem.

The engine – a four cylinder unit manufactured by Vickers displacing 2600 CC to develop 24 horses – was still chugging noisily while I took over the wheel. I depress the clutch pedal and virtually lean outside the car to engage first. Kerrank! A shudder and the car’s ready to move from standstill. But it’s going nowhere. I am leaning on the accelerator pedal, but there’s no change in the idling engine note at all. Aah, then I realise, the arrangement is different, the brake and the accelerator pedals are interchanged. Which means, um... to move forward I have to thrust my foot on that tiny little pedal buried in the centre, but to stop, I have to lift my knee till it hits my jaw and come down on that long – really, really long, okay – brake pedal. Well, heeere we go!

With what seems to be a tired sigh, the Wolseley moves forward. Anil urges me to shift to second. Well, easier said than done, as I could hardly move the gear lever through the helpfully provided shift gate, it was too tough. We were on a slightly twisty road and the steering was not helping matters either. That’s because for every little millimetre of change in the course, I had to use all my strength to manoeuvre the car. And at the same time I had to get this asinine gear lever into second. And I had also to see where I was going... Grrr! Too many things for my brain to handle. One loud grinding noise later, second gear is engaged. Now we’re getting somewhere. 

We were going down a slope, which meant I could concentrate on steering the Wolseley; that itself required all my driving capabilities, as it felt as if I was steering a brick wall. The only thing my feet had to remember was not to instinctively go for the middle pedal, which in this case would take Anil, me and my joyriding colleagues – Param and Sameer trying to bask in the palatial comforts at the back – all the way down the Arabian sea (we were close to the beach at Mandwa, near Mumbai). That was enough reason to drive this car using my survival instincts alone.

But there was still the dread of having to change gears, the higher the gear, the tougher it was to shift. I girded my loins (I didn’t actually do that, but you know what I mean), pressed the little button atop the gear lever and after one wild all-inclusive yank, the ancient shuddered into third. The Wolseley surges just so slightly forward, and then I decide I can’t endure any more of these gearshifts – my palms and my fingers had turned red and were aching. So I stuck around in third, puttered all over the place, enjoying the violence of the engine and the muscle-building effort of having to steer the car.

Meanwhile in the back, Param and Sameer, instead of lounging about, were vibrating vertically and horizontally, too absorbed in their own discomfort to observe mine. It’s not however fair to blame the hard leaf springs of the Wolseley, remember the car was a full 84 years old. If it’s an anachronism now, it was almost the same in 1919. 

That’s because, after the Second World War, things had changed quite dramatically in the UK. After the war, raw materials were hard to come by, transport was disorganised, factories had to be rebuilt and there was a shortage of funds. Which meant that most European cars after the war were more or less models identical to those manufactured before, using parts which were left over. Not just that. There was a change in public taste too. Gone were the heaviness of the pre-war cars, instead the bodies and chassis of the post-war cars were much lighter. Besides separation between the driver and passengers were frowned upon. So there are chances that the original owners of the car in the UK would be as uncomfortable as my two colleagues were in the car.  

But anyone who had a Wolseley knew his cars and could safely be construed as wealthy. There were over 90 car makers in the UK during the WW I era, with most of them trying to match the US in terms of production by making austere cars. However, Wolseley and other few car makers were conscious of their quality and consequently, a little pricey. Actually, the Wolseley company was in the business of making sheep-shearing equipment and they decided to start manufacturing those new-fangled horseless carriages. For this, they got back their engineer from their Australian branch, a certain Herbert Austin, to develop these new machines. By all means, Wolseley was fairly successful – by 1901, they were already the biggest British car manufacturer, having sold all of 327 cars. And before the war began in 1914, they increased their lead over rivals by selling over 3,000 cars. In 1906, Austin had by then already quit them to set up his own firm to produce cars carrying his name.

Wolseley would chug along for some more time, contributing for the war effort. But then, bankruptcy loomed and it was taken over by William Morris and his Nuffield Organisation. Over time, Wolseley lost its identity thanks to extensive badge-engineering, and the last Wolseley rolled out in 1975. The marque however remains the first among equals for those who know their cars.