M Tariq Khan & Siddhartha Mathur
Lucknow, September 7, 2003
LONG BEFORE Gibbs Aquada surfed the waters of the Thames in London (making news on Thursday as the 'world's first' amphibian car)-or Ian Fleming conceived a Lotus Esprit prototype (The Spy Who loved Me, 1977) that swims underwater-at least two amphibian cars traversed on land and water alike in the Awadh province.
Today, one of the two special utility vehicles may be lying deserted in a compound in Hata Mirza Ali Khan in Hussainabad, but it has seen glorious days in the past. It was, after all, the prized possession of Raja Mustafa Ali Khan of the Uttraula estate.
“It was more of a utility than a luxury, that was pressed into service in times of flood,” recalls Ali Akbar, son-in-law of Kunwar Iqbal Ali, the younger brother of the Raja. “While traveling to Uttraula, the car would float across the Ghaghra river, since the pontoon bridge was removed during the rainy season.” While one car carried the Raja, his retinue followed in the other.
The two cars, bought some time in the 1940s, played an important role in relief work during the 1961 floods, adds Ali Akbar The relic that stands proud in the backyard of an Old City house with a registration number, USQ 2733, (a number that was surrendered in 1968) carries several tell-tale marks. The petrol tank is marked as 'gasoline tanker' indicating its US make.
A 1946 (probably Ford) model, the 55-horse power MAV weighing 2,000 kilogram is ingeniously designed not only to cruise on both land and water surfaces but is also fitted with a self-recovery/self-winching device.
“In the circumstance when the vehicle was stuck in a swamp, a pulley on the bonnet could be used to pull it out. One end of the rope could be tied to a tree trunk and the other end to the device which would rotate and wind up the rope thus taking it out of the swamp,” says Ali Akbar who spent many of his childhood days playing around/on the car which has been parked in the compound for over three decades.
But the amphibian was not the sole vehicle to grace the compound. “Raja saheb was very fond of cars and his fleet included any car that was a name to reckon in those times, be it a Buick, a Jaguar, or a Pierce Arrow,” reminisces his grandson. In fact, the Raja's father had even acquired an aircraft as long back as in 1925. It is another story that the maiden flight gave him the jitters and he discarded the plane right away!
It is surprising that none of the cars belonging to the scion of the Uttraula estate took part in any of the vintage car rallies that keep happening here for the reason that none of them could remain in ship-shape. Disputes arising from the family's falling on bad days left little for these heirlooms of the automobile kind to be maintained.