NOSTALGIA Rustom Dastur on his biker friends, speeding through deserted roads on flamboyant bikes and riding the wind on Tiger Moths
The early 1950s were friendly times for a biker. Agencies for some of the finest marques were concentrated in the heart of the city. The Union Motors (for BSA), Addison & Company (for Triumph motorcycles) and an agency for AJS and Norton bikes were located on Mount Road; and another for Royal Enfield and Ariel bikes in Broadway.
People also directly imported bikes. In an eight-member gang of bike enthusiasts, I had the fortune of riding epochal bikes from around the world — those I swung a leg across include a 1000cc V-twin Vincent HRD Black Shadow, a 1300cc Red Indian and a Douglas. With roads as desolate as deserts, we throttled up fearlessly and achieved bone-shattering speeds. On numerous occasions, I rode my 500cc Triumph Speed Twin at over 100kph throughout the stretch from Marina to Nungambakkam High Road.
Our gang’s hang-out was near a lamppost opposite Queen Mary’s College. Turned out in our dandiest clothes, we cooled our heels there for hours on end. It was not time wholly wasted — between flattering girls with admiring looks and teasing stray strands of hair into place, we discussed bikes. Out of these intellectual exchanges was born the Twin Wheelers Motor Cycle Club (TWMCC). Founded in 1951, it is the first biking club in Madras. From a clique, TWMCC soon graduated to an open club. By a majority vote, TWMCC was renamed Challengers Motor Cycle Club (CMCC). A friend and a club member, Hari Rao went on to finish third at a motorcycle race in 1964 at Brands Hatch, a racing circuit in England. When the Madras Motor Sports Club (MMSC) was founded in 1954, CMCC merged with it.
Two MG car enthusiasts, Rex Strong, a Briton, and K. Varugis first broached the idea of a club and a racetrack for Madras’ car and bike enthusiasts. Prior to the formalisation of MMSC (in 1954), a couple of automobile events were conducted. In the later part of 1953, a car and bike racing event was conducted at the abandoned Sholavaram airstrip.
In the drag race for motorcyclists, John Dye did the fastest time, riding a Triumph Speed Twin. Until he arrived at the racetrack, I had clocked the best time. Dye said, “I wish I had a bloody bike!” I asked him to take mine, not knowing that he used to race bikes in England.
The early Fifties were also the best of times for amateur pilots. As the city’s airspace was free of intrusive skyscrapers, it was buzzing with Tiger Moths. These aircraft lent themselves to performing acrobatics; but daredevil performances were forbidden. Defying the rule, I did three spins over our house in Nungambakkam — I asked my cousin Phil Clubwala to stand on the terrace to witness the feat.
Aircraft were a hot topic even for youngsters who were not lucky enough to fly them — especially in the early part of the 1940s. With the threat of Japanese bombing dangling over the city, P61 Black Widows (American night fighter aircraft) were stationed on a runway, near the Reserve Bank, that extended into the beach.
These fighter aircraft was just one aspect of the preparedness strategy for the city. Anti-aircraft guns were stationed at Lake Area, Nungambakkam. In Foreshore Estate, a huge box of concrete with small slits for guns was placed. Absolutely bomb-proof, this box was meant to be used in any offensive against flying enemy aircraft.
Certain people in Madras took measures to protect their houses. Sand bags were stacked up to the first floor at my aunt Mary Clubwala Jadhav’s house at Nungambakkam. As a kid, I was not fully alive to the danger. It was like being part of an adventure. (As told to PRINCE FREDERICK)