King of the road

How the autorickshaw took over our roads.

January 18, 2022 02:15 pm | Updated 02:15 pm IST

D’Ascanio probably would have never dreamt that his humble transport vehicle would become more than a passenger and goods vehicles.

D’Ascanio probably would have never dreamt that his humble transport vehicle would become more than a passenger and goods vehicles.

Tam-Tam. Tempo. Tuk-Tuk. Auto. Depending on which part of the country or world you come from, you would know the autorickshaw by one of these names. This taken-for-granted vehicle has quite a chequered history and continues to re-invent itself even today.


The story of the auto rickshaw, as we know it in India, begins around 80 years ago. Italy was badly hit during World War II. As part of the post-war revival effort, it was important to get people and goods up and running. However, Italy typically had narrow urban streets and steeply sloping narrow hilly roads, which were in a poor state. Piaggio, an Italian company now known across the world for its scooters, was a big manufacturer of fighter jets during the war efforts. Its jet manufacturing facility had been bombed and, in any case, there was no demand for fighter jets.

Corradino D’Ascanio, Piaggio’s talented aircraft designer, came up with the idea for a two-wheeler, which he called the Vespa (meaning wasp in Italian). The scooter got people moving but the problem of transporting goods remained. D’Ascanio again put his skills to use to design a three-wheeled ‘Ape’ (meaning ‘bee’ in Italian) in 1947. The name from the humming sound made by the engine. The Ape had from the bee like sound it’s engine made with a flat goods carrier at the back.

In India

Around the same time, a newly independent India was looking for self-reliance and self-respect. N.K. Firodia, a doyen of Force Motors, a freedom fighter and industrialist, saw the photo of this ‘three-wheel’ goods carrier in a trade magazine. He bought a Vespa and a couple of Apes, studied them, made several modifications and showed them to Prime Minister Nehru and Home Minister Morarji Desai, both of whom were impressed. In collaboration with Piaggio and Bajaj Auto (then known by a different name), production began in Pune.

The Ape became the Auto Rickshaw and transformed into a very popular passenger vehicle. It soon spread other countries as well. By 1971, Bajaj Auto began manufacturing autos independently. While it continues to have a major share of the manufacturing, other companies include TVS, Mahindra, Atul Lohia and others. Piaggio shifted its Ape manufacturing to India.

D’Ascanio probably would have never dreamt that one day his humble transport vehicle would become more than a passenger and goods vehicles. Today autos are used as sales carts and even mini fire engines. Any surprise then that EV versions are also coming up?

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