Ratan Tata’s dream of making a people’s car (Tata Nano) may have come closer to reality. But for the third generation of the Kulkarni family in Ichalkaranji near Kolhapur, the Nano has revived memories of their late grandfather Shankarrao Kulkarni, who also came close to fulfiling a similar dream fifty years ago.
Shankarrao, like Mr Tata, dreamt of making a small car for the masses, which he wanted to make available at Rs 12,000 in 1975. He created the prototype of his small car in 1949 and then went on to create five more improvised models over the next two decades, says Mr Kulkarni’s grandson, Hemant Kulkarni, who currently looks after engineering company Kulco.
The last model, developed in 1970, was a fully working model of his dream mini car and was much smaller than the Nano, says Hemant. “My grandfather had a keen interest in automobiles and had developed the small car which he named Meera,” he said. “This car has many similarities with the Nano: both have a rear engine, single wiper, five-seater capacity, and similar mileage at 18-20 km per litre,” he added.
Although Shankarrao studied only till standard 7, he was well-known in Ichalkaranji for his expertise in engineering. “He was working with the Kirloskars under the late Shantanurao Kirloskar and had a team of 10-15 people who worked on different parts of the car. All components of the car, including the engine were made locally and some parts like the tyres were sourced from the market,” said Hemant.
The press components were made in a factory at Bhoglewadi, rubber suspensions were sourced from the Swastik Rubber factory in Pune; Tyres were bought from Ceat, the electric components were from Lucas, while the glass products came from Ogale Glassworks. He had an engineering workshop where the first two-seater model took shape. It was passed by the RTO and was given the registration number MHK1906. Meera then went through a lot of improvisation over the next twenty years and the sixth model, which was registered as MHE192, was the final model, Hemant explained. Mr. Kulkarni had introduced rubber suspension, adjustable ground clearance, three doors and tilting wheels in a four-wheeler, for the first time in India.
Work on the small car was started in 1945 and the first model — a two seater — was out in 1949. He made a three seater car in 1951 and started working on the fourth model from 1960. In an interview to a local newspaper, Mr Kulkarni had said that rubber suspension reduces the need for “over 100 spare parts and also ensures that when you cross a stone, the shock is not transferred to the other wheel as is done by the shaft.
“It also increases the life of the wheel. The ground clearance of the car can be kept from 6 to 11 inches. It should be increased when travelling on a rugged road and reduced when travelling in speed on a smooth road,” Mr Kulkarni had added. While the small car now runs on petrol and gives an average of 20 km per litre, Mr Kulkarni had said he could make a commercial model that would run on diesel and give a mileage of 25 kms to a litre. According to the interview, Mr Kulkarni had made arrangements for starting commercial production and had also tied up with companies to make spare parts available.
According to Mr Kulkarni’s grandson, red tape and bureaucracy were responsible for the failure of what would have been India’s first small car. “Mr Shankarrao Kulkarni wanted to start commercial production, but needed government approvals as it was controlled by the government. He took the car to Mumbai where it was exhibited at the Gateway of India. He drove the car to Mumbai, crossing the Khandala Ghat which was much steeper than it is today,” said Hemant.
The Jaysinghpur municipality in the state had offered to put up a plant for manufacturing the car and had also offered him land free. Mr Kulkarni had approached the central government, but by 1975, Suzuki had also planned to come in India and Mr Kulkarni’s proposals were rejected. He had spent more than Rs 50 lakh on the car at the development stage and later could not pursue the matters with the government. “So our efforts started declining and eventually the project died out. He had made, five more cars, but they were not permitted on the road as the excise duty hadn’t been paid,” said Hemant. “He had his limitations and could not pay it,” he added.
In the fifties, Shankarrao and the Meera were a familiar sight in Ichalkaranji. The car was also used by many eminent personalities like Shankarrao Chavan, Rajarambapu Patil, Mohan Dhariya and Shantanurao Kirloskar, said Hemant. It also attracted a lot of attraction at the Belgaon engineering exhibition, according to another news item published in a regional newspaper then.
The Kulkarnis are now happy that their grandfather’s dream is being realised. The family plans to pay homage to Shankarrao on his birth centenary on January 26. “We are touched that his dream has finally seen the light of the day, on his birth centenary and we are extremely happy that a big group like Tata Motors has a role in this. Our only wish is that we turn out to the first buyers of Tata Nano,” said Mr Kulkarni with deep emotions.