For a long time, scientists have been studying fossils of a fish called the Coelacanths, a name derived from the Latin word Coelacanthus, meaning ‘hollow spine’. These fish, believed to have become extinct 65 million years ago, are considered to be the missing link between fish and tetrapods. Naturally then, fossils of these fish were intently studied and many theories, including what these fish looked like and how they lived in their habitat, were formed on the basis of the findings of these studies.
So why exactly am I telling you about a fish in BSM? Well, that’s because the world thought that these fish were long gone. Kaput. Extinct. Ta ta, bye bye. Till one day, in 1938, off the coast of South Africa, a Coelacanths was fished out of the Indian Ocean – alive. Yes, a live specimen of a fish that was otherwise considered to be as dead as a Dodo – another species which has been considered extinct, but with the Coelacanths episode, you never quite know.
Which brings me back to the point – why am I telling you all of this? Here’s why – this vehicle was last produced in 1957 and today, it’s hard to find one even in automobile museums in the west. Visitors to these museums gape and point at the three wheeler standing seemingly lifeless behind a sheet of glass, as if it were fossilised.
Oscar Vidal and Sohn founded Tempo Work in 1924 to build utilitarian three-wheeled transport vehicles in Hamburg, Germany. The rugged reputation of these Tempos grew by leaps and bounds and by the 1930s, pick up versions, called the Hanseat, were being sold with 200cc or 400cc two-stroke motors.
Post-independence India was still coping with the transition from British rule and the need for cheap yet reliable transport was felt. On seeing the potential of the Tempo pick-ups in meeting that need, the Firodias signed an agreement with the Vidal and Sohn Tempo Works in 1957. In 1958, manufacturing of the Tempo was started by the then newly formed Bajaj Tempo Limited, and the model chosen for production was the one powered by a 452cc two-stroke, twin cylinder motor that was good for all of a claimed 80 kph, with its 20 horses of power.
Although the western world thinks the age of the Hanseat, just like the dinosaurs, is long gone, venture into rural India and lo and behold, they’re crawling all over the place, lugging everything from people to cattle and sometimes both in the same vehicle! Their drivers wait at major intersections, enticing travellers into paying a nominal fee for a ride to their destinations.
Seating for these passengers consists of long steel benches shackled to the loading area of what were essentially pick- ups, with a sheet metal roof supported by angles welded on to the chassis. In there, you might sit beside a human or a goat, depending on how your stars line up that day.
Paint schemes vary from a discreet (if you can call it that) yellow and black number, typical to the taxis and rickshaws congesting Mumbai’s streets, to almost kaleidoscope-like collages of every colour known to mankind, making you wonder whether that cup of chai that you just downed was laced with a substance whose consumption can get you a stint in the slammer.
After some cajoling and plenty of pleading, I convince one of these Tempo drivers to let me have a go at his tri-wheeled contraption. He walks me to the front of the vehicle, opens a pair of latches that seem to have been borrowed from his neighbour’s bathroom door, lifts the beak-like bonnet open and places a stick below the hinge to keep it from crashing onto our heads. Removing a rolled-up rope from his pocket, he loops it around the only shiny bit in there, a pulley of the forward wheel-mounted engine. Having wound one end of the rope around a pulley a couple of times, with the dangling end, he pulls the rope towards himself and the Hanseat clatters to life with the sort of cacophony only a diesel motor sourced from a pumpset can create. In this case, it was a Greaves single-cylinder motor. On asking him where the petrol engine went, he said that it was chucked a long time ago in favour of the diesel, obviously for the substantially lower running costs. As the Hanseat vibrates at idle, I climb into the driver’s seat.
If modern small cars seem cramped, wait till you spend time behind the wheel of this thing. It’s like sitting in the glove box. Ergonomics in that era seemingly appeared to be limited to placing a steering wheel in front of you and a padded rectangle below your bottom. The accelerator, brake and clutch pedals emerge from the floor board at a painfully upright position and the large radius steering wheel digs into my stomach, threatening to impale me in an instant.
To my left is a small lever protruding from the dashboard. ‘Pull it towards you and turn it to the right,’ my driving instructor yells to me, trying to be heard above all the din of the diesel motor. I do so, and then, I let out the clutch. The Hanseat lurches... in reverse. As I found out, pulling the handle back all the way and turning it to the right, as I had done, engages the reverse gear. Oops!
After the panic-stricken people seated at the back jump out, yelling and thanking the Gods for making it out alive, I try again. This time around, I pull the lever out a tad less than before, and just like that, the Hanseat is primed in first gear and all ready to go. Letting out the clutch slowly again, the Tempo begins to move ahead.
The sole purpose of the first cog in the Hanseat’s gearbox seems to be getting things in motion. Almost instantly, the Greaves up ahead is yelling out for second. A flick of the lever to the left engages the second cog and by now, we’re surging ahead. Of course, in Hanseat terms, that’s more like 20 kph. Third gear is engaged by first turning the lever to the centre position, then pushing it forward and then tapping it to the right. Before I know it, I’m tearing down a national highway near Indore, and the fourth and final toothed wheel is summoned by wresting the lever to the left. I must mention that I have yet to sample such an effortless shifting gearbox on any sort of motorised transport – a touch was all that was required.
The surprisingly well-paved road ahead veers to the right and I suck in my breath to release my paunch’s contact with the steering wheel. The steering play is incredible, allowing nearly 20 degrees of motion before the front wheel even begins to respond. At rest, steering this thing requires muscles pumped up with steroids, but at speed, it’s light. Make that too light, since gauging where the front wheel is and what it’s up to is pure guesswork. As if all of this wasn’t exciting enough, a herd of buffaloes (they could very well have been heavily pigmented bulls – what do I know, I’ve been brought up in the city) decide to cross the road.
I pull my foot off the throttle and tap on the brake pedal. Nothing happens. My co-driver begins to throw nervous glances at me, wondering what I’m going to do next. As the distance between the potential steaks and the Tempo decreases, I stand on to the brakes and then, just when I begin to lose hope, the Hanseat slows down enough for me to manoeuvre the three-wheeler safely out of harm’s way.
These Hanseats are virtually indestructible, and the way these things are used – no, abused – is testament to that fact. Ingenuity is partially responsible in keeping these vehicles on the road, from the abundant use of jeep and other parts to the generous heapings of hand-beaten panels that hold a lot of components together.
Sadly, the rest of the world has finally caught up with Tempo Hanseat. As the owner of the vehicle mournfully attests, the RTO of the area isn’t renewing the registrations of these vehicles any more. After their time is up, they’ll either meet their end in a scrap yard, waiting to be melted in a furnace, or will move deeper into the heart of India. Whichever way you look at it, the Tempo Hanseat is finally on its way out; extinct forever, this time around.