The freedom movement in India is one looked upon with great fondness by Indian historians. The accomplishments of Indian freedom fighters have been shared with great reverence in history texts and students must learn of these struggles if they are to clear their examinations.
As a child growing up in boarding school, I despised history. This was possibly because of the manner in which we were taught this otherwise interesting subject. Our instructor only read the pages out and he demanded that we sit in ‘pin-drop’ silence while he thought he regaled us with Gandhi and Godse. And while these central figures have always remained fresh on my mind, I seem to relate to history best when I interpret it from the perspective of automobiles. And in this regard, the unfortunate event that tie Gandhi and Godse bring to mind an automobile relic that continues to exist even today.
Origins of the Studebaker Dictator
It is common knowledge that Mahatma Gandhi is termed India’s Father of the Nation and that he met with a most painful end at the hands of his assassin, a fanatic called Nathuram Godse. His motives aside, I found out in later years that he used a certain American built car as his getaway vehicle after having trained his gun on Gandhi on 30th January 1948. His getaway vehicle of choice was a Studebaker Dictator that bore the licence plate USF 73.
Studebaker was an American brand that was founded in 1852 as a wagon maker. In 1902, they even built an electric car although most such cars of that era soon turned to gasoline powered engines. The company suffered a near death blow during the years of the Great Depression. Its chief executive, however, killed himself in the aftermath of this economic downturn. In later years, even though the company somewhat bounced back, it eventually sold its automotive business in 1966 and with it, a formidable name in automotive history, had walked the plank.
The Studebaker Dictator, central to modern Indian history, was a 1930 6-cylinder variant with a 3500 cc engine. It put out about 35 horse power and although some accounts suggest it was capable of 160 km/hr, this was likely a stretch of imagination. A common Maruti Suzuki vehicle, in comparison, has an engine no more than 1300 cc and typically fires on four cylinders.
This particular Studebaker was specially ordered by the Maharaja of Jaunpur — a princely state that lies in present day Uttar Pradesh. The Maharaja, a staunch follower of the Hindu Mahasabha, had loaned the car to Nathuram Godse and his co-conspirator, Gopal Godse, on that fateful day. The vehicle was parked some distance away from Birla House, on Albuquerque Road. Gopal stayed at the wheel while his brother headed off to fulfil his ‘bloody intent’. In the years since, Albuquerque Road was renamed Tees January Marg.
“The Killer’s” life after 1948
Following the assassination, police traced the Studebaker Dictator after Godse confessed to having used the vehicle. It was kept in their custody for the better part of eight years while the conspirators’ trial was in progress. The police then auctioned the vehicle in 1956 and it was purchased by a wealthy Anglo-Indian from Varanasi called Sunny Calib. Mr Calib used the vehicle for several years and then parked it in his backyard where it lay rusting.
A decade and more later, a former Leyland Motors automobile engineer called Mr. Kamaal learnt of the infamous Studebaker through a broker. He negotiated with Mr Calib and they agreed upon the sum of INR10,500. The vehicle was a wreck by this time and it had to be carted away on a truck to Bareilly. Mr Kamaal then spent extensive time, ingenuity and monetary resources in “resurrecting” the car and his labour of love yielded him great recognition. It went on to win accolades in several vintage and classic car rallies where it was instantly recognisable, thanks to its licence plate that read “The Killer”.
Although Mr Kamaal had initially sworn to never part with the vehicle, it turns out he eventually did. In 2000, the car was purchased by Mr Mujeeb Rehman, a diamond trader. The vehicle possibly exchanged hands for a princely sum because the actual figure was never revealed. What is known though is that the vehicle currently resides in north India. It continues to be driven despite its fuel consumption of no more than 4 km per litre of petrol. In 2004, it was even driven up to the hills in Himachal and showcased at Bishop Cotton School in Shimla.
This Studebaker definitely belonged in a national museum for all citizens to be able to see. It is, after all, central to post-1947 Indian history. But then again, a private car collector will likely shower it with the affection that an old machine deserves. Its maintenance cannot really be entrusted to an unempathetic government appointed curator. As for me, I wish history was taught with a little more ‘colour’ than simply be read out one drab line at a time.