Meet Aravind- The long forgotten Car Made in Kerala

Square

In 1962, the king of Thiruvithamkoor, Sree Chithira Thirunal, wanted to have a car of his liking. It was the time when the Portuguese had been driven out of Goa. A visit to Goa would help procure elegant European and American cars, the king was informed. The king’s private secretary P V Thampi and a well-known automobile engineer of that time A K Balakrishna Menon set off to Goa to be back with the concept of Aravind, the first ever car to be built in Kerala.

The mostly-forgotten, under-reported story made it to the Illustrated Weekly of India in 1966. In the recent past, social media picked up the story. Here is the story of Aravind that ought to find a place in the history of the automobile industry in India, courtesy the report that appeared in the Illustrated Weekly without a by-line.

Thampi and Menon, who reached Goa by road and air, hit a dead-end soon after their arrival. They couldn’t find a car that the king wanted from Panaji and other areas of Goa. Disappointed, they planned their return journey in their hotel. Though Thampi had lost hope, Menon was not willing to return empty handed. He ordered paper and pencil from the hotel’s reception and prepared the sketch of a car that they thought would appeal to the king. It was basically an amalgamation of all the features and design elements from the cars that they saw in Goa. He then showed the sketch to Thampi and asked him, “Should I make this car for the king?” Seeing the sketch, Thampi could have smiled. But that sketch led to the birth to Aravind.

When they returned to Thiruvananthapuram, Menon prepared a detailed sketch and blue print, and presented before the king. He told the king that if the unused 1939 model limousine (no details about the brand available) that was lying in garage was given as donor car, work can start immediately. Though taken aback, the king decided to give Menon a chance. A contract was drawn up, which said that if the king doesn’t like the end-product, Menon was to bear all the expenses. Besides, the old limousine was also billed Rs 10,000. The contract was signed, and Menon started work on the new car.

Six blacksmiths at Menon’s workshop worked as his assistants on the project. There were no mechanised equipment then, and everything was done by bare hands. Besides, funds were also hard to come by. Menon had to face barbs that compared him to Henry Ford, and he was even branded as mentally ill. The Illustrated Weekly reporter has noted that even the officials of the palace did not have much faith in Menon. But Menon didn’t give up, and in 10 months his baby was born. It was a large car. It was not named Aravind but Palace Special. Menon drove the car to the portico of the palace.

The king came out and was surprised to see the car of his dreams parked in front of him. He showered praises on Menon and was ready to get behind the wheels. But it was Menon who drove then; the king occupied the front passenger seat and royal family members the backseat. They went for a drive and though monarchy had ended Menon got paid in true royal style.

Menon’s fame reached foreign shores and even the US. Media hailed him; even Automobile International magazine carried stories about him. However, what happened to Palace Special is not known, but the success encouraged Menon to make a car on his own. That was how Aravind took shape; it was much smaller and looked much like American and contemporary British models. One such car is still around, though more info regarding it needs to be dug out. It is also not clear if Menon built more than one car.

The prototype of the car was made using the engine and other mechanicals that were taken from a dumped car (records show that that the engine was Fiat made). It had a 22-guage steel platform and a box chassis that used 18-gauge steel plates. Doors, fenders, bonnet, dash and steering wheel were built in-house. The beautiful grille and headlamp unit were inspired by the then luxury cars.

The plan was to sell the car for Rs 5,000. For that, work on a manufacturing unit had also started. However, after the death of Menon, it is said that the unit was handed over to a cooperative of his workers. The car, a testament to the ingenuity of the country, was the only thing left behind.