India’s oldest automobile company wants to get back into cars, by launching new EVs. Before ‘atma nirbhar’ was a slogan, Kunnath Ayyath Balakrishna Menon built what is perhaps the first fully Indian-made car. Over the years, the Aravind Model 3 faded into obscurity, but his grandson, Ratish Ramachandran, is taking a leaf out of the Tesla toolkit, and plans to revive the brand and launch new EVs, citing Elon Musk as an inspiration.
As Ramachandran spoke about how Aravind Automobiles came into being, he instantly transported me back to the 1950s. In the 1950s post-independence India, Menon saw that there was a huge market for completely reconditioned and rebuilt cars. This led to the establishment of Prompt Motors, his automobile workshop, in 1952. But it was a ride from Kottayam to Thiruvananthapuram in 1955 in his 1947 Studebaker Champion that turned the 38-years-old Menon’s life upside down and led to the creation of what is, perhaps, the first completely indigenously-produced car in India, Ramachandran explained. He told us that Menon met with an accident during the ride which completely wrecked his car and landed him in the hospital for three months. He came out of the hospital to the news that Prompt Motors had to shut down.
When Menon came to know about what happened to his beloved Studebaker, he decided to rebuild it. As Menon would frequently visit the Aurobindo Ashram in (then) Pondicherry, he named the company after the spiritual leader, calling it Aravind. Since the car had to be built again from scratch he decided to change its shape.
The car that he built in a new avatar in 1955 was called the Aravind Iddy Champion, one of the only three cars produced by Aravind Automobiles. In Malayalam, the word ‘iddy’ means hit or punch. The name seemed ideal for the car which took a massive blow but yet managed to make a comeback.
The next car by Menon came almost 10 years later, in 1965. Menon built the second car from Aravind Automobiles, the Model 2: Aravind Palace Special for the Maharaja of Travancore. The Palace Special was built by Menon using the engine of a 1939 Cadillac Fleetwood belonging to the Kowdiar Palace, Trivandrum. The construction of the car which cost Rs. 15,000 back in 1965 took about 10 months to be completed. The Palace Special caught the attention of some important eyes in the automobile circles with an American magazine remarking that they “shudder to think what the costs would have been if American craftsmen had been used for this project”.
In 1966, Menon came out with prototypes of Model 3 specifically for India’s Small Car Project. The car was called the Aravind ‘Baby’ Model 3; the car was like Menon’s baby, according to his grandson, Ramachandran. The Model 3 was a classic sedan. A few parts of the car including the engine and the gearbox came from a Fiat 1100 Delight. Menon’s vision was a car for the emerging India. But what was to come was not so pleasant for Menon. They lost everything in licensing and slowly but surely faded away.