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Old 21st May 2015, 08:32   #1
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Default Memoirs of Chandru Arni - Indian Motorsports in the 1950s

This is a story from the early days of Indian Motorsport. An era where the country was reeling from the aftermath of the British Raj, and India was learning to stand on her own two feet. An era where owning a car was for a select few; racing one professionally was too far-fetched an idea to even be a thing of dreams. This is the story of Chandru Arni - the first Indian to build a race car, and race at the Calcutta Motor Sports Club (CMSC) i.e. the 1st Motorsports club in India!

Ramachandra Arni a.k.a Chandru Arni is a motorsports veteran who is now 87 years old. Even in his golden years, his octane obsession is strong as ever. He wishes to have the stories of his life on the track - live on.

It is Team-BHP's honour to have Mr. Arni share old memories from the post independence era of Indian motorsport. We thank him and express our heartfelt gratitude for sharing these experiences & pictures with Team-BHP. Given below are his words, walking us through the experience of his racing days between 1953 - 1955.

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1953: Motorsports in Calcutta

The CMSC was set up around 1951 and was the first motorsports club in India. All of the members were expatriates and they held their meetings in the “whites only” Saturday Club and Lighthorse Club. I was interested in car racing. My father, Jagirdar of Arni, had owned a total of 182 cars during his lifetime, and drove them without any driver! His father collected cars as well.

I used to watch the motor races on the Alipore air strip, held by the CMSC on weekends during the winters, in my Morris Minor. I was so taken by one "Geoff Budd" in a green 1950 Morgan Plus 4, that I wanted to make a special to race with him in that class (e.g. over 2000 cc class).

My first act was to procure a car (economically) that was involved in an accident, with the engine and chassis in good condition. For this, I approached my father’s good friend E.K. Srinivasan, who was the M.D of Hercules Insurance. To my immense luck, the deal went through on 6th June 1953. I got a “completely smashed" 1952 Vanguard for Rs. 2500.

I then had to meet a guy who could build the car. Through frequent enquiries at such race meets, I met a marshal named Nick Cariapet who advised me that his boss - a Shalimar Tar Englishman - could help. I made an appointment and first met him in his factory. He came out of the factory wearing soiled clothes in overalls. He appeared to be quite friendly with Indian technicians in the factory, which was a great sign. I met the Works Manager, Robin Davies and he readily agreed to take up the task at my cost, with minimum labour overheads - which would be supplied by his garage. All Turner Morrison cars were serviced here and I was confident that he was interested and would pay the exact labour costs, provided I paid for the material.

He wanted his friend, Frenchman Henry Ribordy, to assist him. We named it ARD special after our three names . Many foreigners were under contract not to take part in risky sports and hence, they had a deep interest to see me do what they visualized for themselves.
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Old 21st May 2015, 08:32   #2
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A slideshow to begin the story

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Old 21st May 2015, 08:32   #3
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ARD Special: A Closer Look
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A specialist tinkerer and I designed the shape. Due to the Vanguard's rear design, I could not keep the bulk off at the back, and this did affect the driving, especially while coming out of the chicane. The car had no doors and no glass - this was done for safety.
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The chassis was cut, cross-braced for strength and the steering was lowered, apart from some other modifications and additions. Suffice to say, the final cost came up to Rs. 6500 - A big amount in those days for a hobby.
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Quote:
There were also round hollow openings in the front. These were positioned such that, when racing, they acted as ducts to cool the brakes. When not racing, I could fit sealed headlights in them and enjoy my evening jaunts to Calcutta’s Night Life at Firpos, Princess, Golden Slipper and the 300 Club.

Remember, I had two cars now - the Morris minor (1950) was my normal car. The ARD was sometimes parked in the Alipore Shalimar Tar Garage, for there was always something necessary to be done before the fortnightly race meets.

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Old 21st May 2015, 08:32   #4
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The Races and Rivals of Yesteryear
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Even in 1953, there were some crowds, as the Statesman newspaper carried the advertisements and a warning that spectators can come at their own risk. Neither the club nor the drivers would take responsibility in the event of a mishap. We, the so called race car drivers, had to sign an indemnity bond to protect the other drivers and the CMSC against claims.

The races were held at Alipore. The abandoned airstrip where the CMSC held its races had a course length of 1.4 miles (around 2.25 kms) with two hairpin bends and a chicane. Not complicated, but one of the hairpins called for fast gear changes prior to intensive braking to enter the chicane. All the races were not scratch races. The handicaps were based on the best timings per lap, for each car from the previous meets.

About Handicaps: For all your races, your best standing lap and your best running lap were recorded. It assumed that if you and your car were consistent, you could more or less win any race. A great fast lap will place you at a disadvantage on your next race, because if you managed it once, you should be able to do it again. Your bad laps will not be considered.

There were two methods of handicapping when cars from the 1.5 - 3.5 litre class raced.

(1) Start them off one after the other based on the total handicap for the number of laps of the race.

OR

(2) Start them all together and make them take a compulsory pitstop for that time.

The latter delighted the crowds and challenged the drivers, as they also had to do a standing lap. The races were normally of three laps, five laps and ten laps. The grand prix of the season was for twenty laps. Every car was timed for each lap and results were maintained by the West End Watch Company.

The races were held only in the lovely winter months, every fortnight. In my case, after every race, we stripped the engine, examined the chassis, brake linings and several clutch items that had to be changed. The engine cylinder head gaskets were sometimes “fiddled with" to get higher compression ratios, in order to beat (cheat!) the handicapper. For a whole season of racing, it cost me Rs. 200 per race day, when my monthly salary was Rs. 400.

My competitors were all “whites”. Some names that come to mind are: Sandys Lumsdaine, E.Robertson, Eddie Isaac, Billy Dewar, Porter and Alan Ramsay. These men were the pioneers of motor racing in India. Given below are pictures of some of the specials that raced with me at that time.
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Last edited by GTO : 21st May 2015 at 10:44.
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Old 21st May 2015, 08:32   #5
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Three Lap Race
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We didn't always race in our specials / sports cars alone. We also loved racing in our own 'street cars'.

Six cars competed in this race which I won, beating Ramsay while driving more or less the same car model and scratch handicaps. There were three Morris Minors. Mine was two years older to Ramsay's and it was a so called convertible. The other Morris Minor was marginally quicker with an overhead valve and was handicapped 4 seconds. I fail to see why Eddie Issac in his Jaguar SS entered this race.

Though the Statesman paper carried a small note on these racing events, they were extensively covered by a fortnightly named "Sportlight". This magazine was edited by Jack Wilkes, who was a top class motorcycle racer. He also took part in the Isle of Man races in 1952. The official photographers at those meets were the Joshua brothers, who were also famous at the night clubs.

Given below is a snippet from Sportlight and the race statistics prepared by the CMSC.
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Last edited by GTO : 21st May 2015 at 10:45.
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Old 21st May 2015, 08:32   #6
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Five Lap Race
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This was a five lap race for specials. On handicap, Alan Ramsay gave me a 16 second lead as he was inconsistent on this day. See, the Lancia was only 0.1 mph faster than my ARD in average speed clocked (49 mph vs 49.1 mph) and he lost. I'd just pipped Billy Dewar to take 2nd place. The Lancia that Ramsay drove was green in colour. Not a great episode, but still history.
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Old 21st May 2015, 08:32   #7
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Ten Lap Race & The Crash
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It was my 1st ten lap race. Though the distance itself was short, there was a deadly arranged chicane and two hairpin bends and I felt that the brakes may decide the winner. Eddie Isaac had two cars - the Jaguar SS 100 and his own special (E.I.S), which he loaned to his brother, Geoff.

This race comes to mind when I witnessed whilst racing, the crash of my fellow racer - Geoff Isaac. He was coming out of the chicane on the second last lap when he crashed. He jumped off the tarmac and went into the grass. His red car finally came to a rest and Geoff walked out without a scratch. Alan Ramsay was not in the race, but there were both, Eddie Isaac in his Jaguar SS 100 and Robertson in his slick special (Rover 75). I beat Robertson by a whisker, though we were handicapped together and he had a faster car.

Yet again, I managed to win this race as I held my nerve.
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Old 21st May 2015, 08:32   #8
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Ranchi Rally: Ramsay or Arni - Who Won?
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A motor rally was conducted by the CMSC, along with the Automobile Association of West Bengal (WIAA). The rally was from Red Road to the Ranchi club - a distance of about 350 miles (563 kms). It drew 28 participants and among them, were Alan Ramsay in his Jaguar MK VII and I, with my 1950 Morris Minor (Ravi Kumar's father was also among the participants!).
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The rally started early in the morning at around 4 am in order to get around the 8 am traffic in Calcutta and its immediate suburbs. For the foreigners, this was not just a rally - it was a fun event to enjoy driving and dancing at Ranchi and spending two nights there with their WAGS.

I was the last to follow at around 4 am with my co driver i.e. Frenchman Henry Ribordy, who was also co-builder of my ARD special. The rally was no speed test and was to traffic regulations. There were set goals to be achieved and secret marshals watching over. Points were deducted as per the set of rules.

We were first in the rally, losing just 1 point. Alan Ramsay was 2nd, losing 3 points and Willy Dewar (who owned a garage) was third, losing 4 points. So I did win the rally!

Apart from the rally, there were some driving tests to start off, which I think were awry to say the least. They mattered more than the rally (accounted for more than 10 times the rally itself!). Wiggle-woggle through a maze, start, accelerate and stop before a line etc.

The first driving test was an 'acceleration and braking' test. Both, Ramsay and I tied, losing 8 points. So I was still the winner. It was then that Ramsay approached me for the first time, and told me I will win the trophy. I said there is one more to go before the decision. I told him I will personally give him a reward if I won, and we laughed for the first time.

The last test was to drive a wiggle-woggle and not break the clay chatties. Well, my co driver was a Frenchman. He meant 'left' when he said 'right'. That was it. I broke a lot and was badly penalized.

So actually, I won the rally, but he won the trophy! He has the trophy to show, I only have the stats.
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Old 21st May 2015, 08:32   #9
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Relay Races and Slush Driving
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The best departure was a relay race, which the crowd and participants really enjoyed. The race had four teams with three cars per team. Given below is a picture of me in the ARD during the relay race (note: bottom-right of the image). This was the wrong way, as the driver had to get out of his car to hand over the baton. For this, I was penalized 3 seconds.
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In the middle of the monsoons, there also used to be a fun event of “slush” driving outside the tar strip at Alipore. White men and their WAGS covered in slush and having a good time was indeed a spectacle! I was not invited for those events being an Indian! Foreign motor racing films were shown every month at the Lighthorse club, on races that took place in Europe. The famous drivers then were Fangio, Farina and Ascari. I was only invited once! The Saturday Club was also for the whites only.

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Old 21st May 2015, 08:32   #10
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So it happened that I was the first Indian to build a motor car special and race, win an official motor race in India.

I was also the youngest, and being an Indian in those days was not really acceptable to them (except to Robin Davies and Henry Ribordy). Just two years of this “activity” brought an end to my racing history. It was before marriage and my to be wife’s parents strongly expressed to me, that I will have to quit as a result of my new responsibility. The quitting was made easier, as my last race ended in an accident with the right front wheel shearing off its connecting rod and me hitting the fence, walking shamefully back to the pits.
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I was soon transferred. On my transfer to Saharanpur, the ARD car was loaned to Barney Hall (A page 71 report of the January 2012 Auto India makes some mention of this at the bottom). Hall was an English Chief Engineer at ITC, where I was also working. It was for him to start his racing career, with the CMSC at Barrackpore. He ruined my car, for when I came back after two years to see it, it was in a very sad state. I did not want it back.
Thanks again for sharing, Mr. Arni!

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Old 21st May 2015, 10:48   #11
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Thread moved from the Assembly Line (The "Assembly Line" Forum section) to the Indian Motorsports Section. Thanks for sharing!
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Old 22nd May 2015, 12:55   #12
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Wow! Hats off! really amazing. Its amazing how nice your passion was back in the days when barely anyone even knew what a car was!
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Old 22nd May 2015, 17:03   #13
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Blown away. Bookmarked to read at leisure on Sunday. And wow, for team-bhp to keep attracting stories such as these. Enriches our lives, in more ways than one. Superb !
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Old 25th May 2015, 18:37   #14
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Great story!

Calcutta sure was the place to be for racing fans in the 50s. Its too bad that events and tracks like Alipore/Barrackpore could not survive and flourish and grow to be legendary race tracks like we see in the west.
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