Noted poet and academic Rabindranath Tagore needs no introduction. He is among the world’s leading literary figures – one who was even awarded a Nobel Prize for his contributions to English literature. In fact, he was the first non-European to win the coveted award in 1913.
Among numerous distinctions, Tagore’s compositions have been adopted as national anthems of two countries – of India and Bangladesh. His works have even inspired Sri Lanka’s national anthem.
Rabindranath Tagore is also credited with establishing the Visva Bharati University in Shantiniketan, West Bengal. It grew to become a renowned centre of learning for arts and culture, and continues to command influence to this day.
Tagore’s twin Humber sedans
While much is written about Tagore and his many accomplishments, I wanted to delve into his penchant for automobiles. And this interest was born of a newspaper article that I’d first come across in 2003. Apparently, Tagore’s elder son Rathindranath Tagore had purchased two 1933 Humber sedans in 1938, for his father. One vehicle was lying in a dilapidated condition in the university and its officials had decided that they would restore this vehicle. The twin vehicles were possibly pre-owned units that had been imported into India.
The vehicles were purchased from Humber’s store in Park Street, Calcutta. This was the only dealer that catered to undivided India (which then also included Burma) and Sri Lanka. The vehicles were purchased for GBP400 each. In terms of purchasing power parity, this sum is the equivalent of approximately GBP26,000 currently or about INR26,00,000 each. One vehicle was sent to the family home in Jorasanko in North Calcutta, while the other was sent to Shantiniketan.
Humber is a now defunct English marque that was founded in 1887. The company began operations as a cycle manufacturer and in due course, they began manufacturing both motor cars and motorcycles. They were renowned for numerous innovations that were introduced in their vehicles but unfortunately, their motorcycle division ceased operations during the Great Depression. In 1937, the company was taken over by Chrysler Corporation, a US headquartered conglomerate that still exists today. Only a few years ago, Chrysler, in turn, was taken over by Fiat of Italy.
Restoration attempts on the Humber
Now back in 2003, a London based expatriate and a Tagore enthusiast had come forward, offering his assistance in restoring the historic vehicle. Besides the Nobel Laureate himself, the vehicle is said to have ferried several luminaries such as Subhash Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. However, the restoration never went ahead and this, as I would later find out, was not the first time that its restoration was stalled.
Authorities at Viswa Bharati University had made the first bid for a restoration as early as 1979. At the time, the Howrah Motor Company had been contracted to complete the extensive overhaul. Now, vintage and classic car restorations are not only a labour of love but they also demand infinite levels of patience and innovation. Unfortunately for the Humber, the restorers threw their hands up after committing a couple of years into the project. They cited unavailability of spares and the car, therefore, was left to gather dust at the university campus.
However, another report suggests an interesting perspective. In 2017, Raghunath Dey, Chairman of the Howrah Motor Company stated they were on the verge of actually completing the restoration. The body had been restored and the mechanicals were taking shape when ‘higher-ups’ asked the workshop to hold off. The thought behind stalling the full restoration, as cited by Dey, was the car could possibly be misused. The workshop, therefore, handed over the non-running vehicle to the university but not before they’d hung a board next to its display area that bore the name of their firm.
Not too long after, a retired IPS officer and then president of the Bengal Motor Sports Club also attempted to restore the vehicle but it did not materialise. It is a pity indeed that the next restoration attempt was only made some two decades later, albeit a failed one.
Thereafter, in 2008, there was word that the much-delayed restoration would begin. A corporate firm called Xenitis came forward this time to foot the repair bill. A thorough estimate was chalked up and a figure of INR4,00,000 was quoted to once again enable the Humber to cruise the streets of Shantiniketan. The decision received much coverage and driving Xenitis’ decision was its chairman, Santanu Ghosh, a young entrepreneur from West Bengal. In separate news, Mr Ghosh fell from grace in 2014 when he was apprehended for his role in financial embezzlements. This restoration attempt was also not seen through to completion.
The most recent attempt
The Humber again hogged the spotlight in 2017. This was because Subhash Chandra Bose’s German origin Wanderer W24 had been restored and was unveiled by late former President Parnab Mukherjee. The Wanderers were manufactured by Automobile Union of Germany and following World War 2, the company had broken up into four parts. One went on to become Audi — the makers of uber luxury automobiles.
When the Wanderer received its second lease of life, there was much deliberation on also restoring the Humber. The only major difference was that this time round, the estimated cost of a full restoration would cost some INR25,00,000 — over six times the figure estimated in 2003. Unfortunately, the car continues to remain immobile and one account surmised it thus: “it isn’t the resources but the will that has reduced the car to junk.”