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Madurai awaits the homecoming of this beauty

The century old Benz Model 8/20 PS Runabout Tourer car. Photo: Special Arrangement  

The car with the registration number plate “MDU 2819” is once again famous and will soon go places. Bringing back the 100-plus years old car back to life is akin to rising like a phoenix from the ashes.

After five decades, the 105 years old 1912 Benz 8/20 is up and about to showcase herself. It was garaged in the early Sixties and spent the last 30 months in the workshop of Chennai’s well known vintage and classic car restorer, C.S.Ananth. And now the iconic model is ready to participate in two prestigious back-to-back car rallies.

The car has been invited to the prestigious Cartier Concours de Elegance, a unique automobile show held every two years. This year it is being held at the Taj Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad, on February 4 and 5 following which the Benz model will travel to Delhi to participate in the 21 Gun Salute International Vintage Car Rally and Concours show-2017 from 17 to 19 February.

“After the two rallies, the car may come to Madurai,” says Dr.G.Vasudevan, the Executive Director of Hotel Fortune Pandiyan, who had the fortune of driving his grand father’s car in Chennai. “It was taken to Chennai from Madurai in 1964 for a car rally, I remember. The rally got cancelled and I took it out on the streets,” says Dr.Vasudevan, who was preparing to leave for the US then for higher studies. “Driving the gorgeous classic car, I did some sight seeing in Chennai,” he says, clearing not denying the fact what a matter of pride it was!

His other recollection of the car dates to the period when the car was actually not in running condition. It was brought back from Chennai in 1964 and due to wear and difficulty in obtaining spare parts was garaged in Madurai till 2014 January.

“Replacing parts is easier but a full restoration is simply mind-blowing,” says Dr.Vasudevan, giving full credit to Ananth for his research and patience.

The family has spent a small fortune on the restoration but Dr.Vasudevan says, the sentimental value attached to it is more than what we spent. But then he also realises the gigantic task of maintaining it now. If so much effort and resources have gone into it, we should be able to periodically run it and also protect it from the vagaries of weather, he points out.

The family has been discussing the future of the car after it returns from the two rallies in coming February. There is a growing consensus on showcasing the vehicle in Madurai, primarily for two reasons. The original owner and a member of the Madras Legislative Coucil from 1920 to 1927, Paramasivan Chidambaram Muthu Chettiar was from Madurai and built himself to a stature here and since the PCM family owns the city’s first luxury hotel in operation since 1968 which is now branded as Fortune Pandiyan Hotel, being a member of the ITC’s hotel group, it is best to keep it here for more people to see one of the oldest recorded Mercedes Benz car in India. There are only three more of this model in the world now, two with private collectors in the US and one in Australia.

For 84-year-old P.C.Santhanam, the youngest son of PCM Chettiar, memories of his father and the iconic car are many – but also fading, he laughs. He remembers how the colour of the car underwent many changes from the original dark chocolate to deep maroon to deep blue to black and now to a vibrant red after the restoration. Though he spent his growing up years studying in Chennai when his father was using the car in Madurai, Santhanam remembers he would get a ride in the car when he came during holidays. Though he quickly and impishly adds, I was the only one among my seven brothers who was allowed the luxury of travelling in the car or even school bus, for that matter.

Since we used to go from place to place within Madurai in bullock carts those days, the idea of hopping into a car was grand enough. “All cars were imported then and the brand did not matter the way it does now,” he says. He remembers hearing anecdotes about how his father bought the car from one Mr.Srinivasa Iyer in 1914 for Rs.1800. The first owner had it for a very brief period before PCM Chettiar purchased it and regularly used it. “It must have been a sight. Imagine the Vaigai in full flow and this grand lady sticking out on the streets amidst horse and bullock carts,” he says.

P.C.Santhanam also remembers a story about the car when the licence was cancelled in 1940 because his father’s drive overtook a car driven by an English man who was enraged. It returned to the roads post-independence and Santhanam drove in it last in 1960. He also remembers the special garage his father built in their ancestral home on East Marret Street. For some time, it was stationed in their guest house at Viraganur and later in Chokkikulam.

Quotes:

This car is part of history and quite some story. As a child, I heard this was the first and the only car seen and driven by an Indian in 1914. It has been a herculean task to resuscitate it – P.C.Santhanam, the youngest son of PCM Chettiar and Managing Director, Hotel Fortune Pandiyan

Everything about the car was – and still is – a delight. As a family, we are swept with sentiments of the past to see the car come back to life. It is a happy feeling and we would now like to keep it for the next 100 years – Dr.G.Vasudevan, grandson of PCM Chettiar and Executive Director, Hotel Fortune Pandiyan, Madurai.

Tidbits:

The Benz Model 8/20 PS Runabout Tourer Car started the “Brass era” cars and was in continuous production throughout World War I and was discontinued in 1921. In 1926 Benz & Cie merged with its competitor DMG to form Daimler-Benz AG and the launch of Mercedes Benz.

This 1912 model averaged 35,000 miles per year at its peak. It had a tank capacity of 35 gallons and ran 20 miles to a gallon. The maximum speed it could touch was 40 miles an hour. The brakes and the gear shaft are placed outside the driver’s door. A small lever helps to slide open the car doors and the two front seats have two extra foldable seats attached behind. Acetylene gas lamps form the headlights and the engine has to be cranked to start. The steering wheel has the three-level speedometer where the needle is pushed forward to the next level of speed as there are no accelerator pedals. The car has air horn and the tyres have wooden spokes. The compelling aesthetics make the model so grand and elegant in modern times that one of the grandsons of PCM Chettiar attired like his grandfather for the launch .


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Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 5:37:15 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/Madurai-awaits-the-homecoming-of-this-beauty/article16075691.ece

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