Chrysler was one of the oldest companies to make vehicles in India, in as early as the 1940s. In partnership with the Walchand group, it launched a Plymouth car and Dodge truck. Later, local auto maker Premier tied up with Fiat to make the Fiat 1100. While both Plymouth and Fiat 1100 are favourites among collectors of vintage models, latest cars from the now-merged entity are mostly missing from India’s crowded roads.
Owner of a 1960 Fiat Super Select, Damodaran holds the key to Premier Padmini’s past
In the pantheon of timeless Fiats, the 1100/103 occupies a minor throne. It can’t be mentioned in the same breath as the Alfa Romeo, the Grande Punto, not even the Il Topolino. The 1100/103 was among cars Fiat S.p.A began to make for third-world markets in the 1950s. Functionality was the watchword. The frills were kept to the minimum.
But the Italian automobile major tried to make the 1100 as nice-looking as a limited budget would allow. A spurt of models from 1953 to 1960 is evidence of this effort. These models differed from one another in a minor way.
The changes primarily involved the grille, the rear lights and the car’s overall shape, which gradually moved from slightly round to strikingly rectangular.
Introduced in India in 1954, a year after its launch, the 1100 was known by many names, depending on the changes. So, we had the Millecento, Elegant, Select, Super Select, 1100 Delight, Premier President and Premier Padmini.
When the Premier Padmini was in production, it was easy to maintain the older 1100s. Owners used mechanical parts manufactured for the Padmini. Padmini’s meters also made it to the dashboard of these cars.
K. Damodaran’s 1960 Super Select does not use a tape, but a pointed needle to indicate speed. Not just the speedometer, the car has borrowed the whole dashboard from a Padmini.
Damodaran bought the Super Select in 1990 and sourcing a Padmini dashboard, complete with the meters, was not a challenge. As he runs an automotive garage and consultancy, fitting in the alien piece and making the corresponding alterations were not difficult either.
He has given the driver’s corner a makeover — the sporty wooden steering and a cabinet are some of the elements of this alteration.
In his defence, he has preserved certain features that are highly characteristic of this model. They include the side beadings, thinner than those of a Padmini. The car retains its emblem — a stainless steel rod that bisects the bonnet and is crowned by the shape of a bird. Most 1100s such as the Elegant have emblems that are not crowned by any intricate artwork in metal.
These features, together with the front-opening front doors, the less pointed taillights and the convex grille with checks, help you distinguish this Super Select from any of its closely resembling cousins, older and younger.
Following on from the story I found about the Fiat 1100 on The Hindu website / newspaper, I checked out to see if there were any more. And, given the prevalence of the Fiat 1100 up until more recently, it’s no surprise there’s more stories available from that publication.
Jayaram and his sons patiently sourced one part after another to give their Fiat Millecento a fine makeover
In the 1950s, the Fiat 1100/103 was subjected to a series of changes and re-launches. Despite the redesigning frenzy, the models were not radically different in their core design. Yet each variant has special features which attract serious collectors, who generally have preferences for one model over another. Knowledgeable collectors, Jayaram (in picture) and his sons Srikumar and Jaikumar love the Millecento more than any other 1100.
“In contrast to any other car in the 1100 family, the Millecento supports the spare wheel on an L-shaped bracket in the boot. The upper and lower portions of a taillight are uniformly red. In the Elegant, the upper portion is orange and the lower, red. We also loved the triple slat grille and the dashboard which sported a Millecento badge,” says Jaikumar. “We resisted offers of Selects and Super Selects for Rs. 20,000 and Rs. 30,000 and waited for a Millecento.”
They found their car in Puducherry; but the 1956 Millecento displayed signs of capricious maintenance.
“A square lattice Super-Select grille had taken the place of the triple slat grille. The dashboard was studded with Ambassador Mark IV meters. The knobs on the dashboard were not Millecento’s. All lights, on the front and back, had been replaced.”
Patiently, the men sourced one Millecento part after another. “Millecento knobs are of ivory colour. We sourced from eBay knobs that come close to the original.”
From paint to upholstery, the Millecento underwent a thorough change.
When Jaikumar and Srikumar went to Puducherry recently on a rally, the mechanic who had sold the car to them was stuck with disbelief. “He took our permission to take the Millecento and show it to his friends.”
They consider this the best compliment they have ever received.
The Premier Padmini is what the Fiat 1100 is known as in India. It is a story from The Hindu website / newspaper. Even in India, where the 1100 was made for years after it was discontinued elsewhere, it seems that finding spare parts is as much of a problem as it is for me here in Ireland.
Praveen sent his Premier Padmini to the scrap yard to free up space in his garage. Today, he regrets that hasty decision. Many can relate to this. Premier Padminis and other Fiat 1100s have become a rare sight; and those gripped by nostalgia for these cars can’t easily get hold of one. The situation is not unique to Chennai. Every other metro has been registering a sharp fall in Fiat 1100 numbers. To protect and cherish this Fiat, a synonym for car travel to generations of Indians, exclusive 1100 clubs have been formed in Bengaluru, Mumbai, Pune, Lucknow and Hyderabad.
Among their objectives is preventing these cars from going to the scrap yard. After saving the Fiats from this familiar fate, these clubs face the challenge of providing support to owners in restoring these cars.
“Sourcing Fiat 1100 parts is becoming an uphill task. The body and rubber trims are impossible to get,” says C.S. Ananth, who has a 1989 Premier Padmini. “Morris Minor, which is found in plentiful numbers around the world and has humungous owners’ clubs, is helped by companies prepared to make their parts. Because they are considerably fewer, Fiat 1100 don’t evoke a similar response from auto parts manufacturers. Even in Mumbai, where a small number of Padminis still ply as taxis, such help has not come for the 1100.”
“A few parts that are being specifically made for the Fiat 1100 are not of a quality that matches the original. A North-India based company has made 1,000 Millecento taillight lenses available. A pair of this lens sells for Rs. 400 to Rs. 1,500 around the country. While such products may not meet high standards, the underlying attempt to provide parts for the 1100 is heartening,” says Jaikumar, owner of a 1956 Millicento.
Only if the 1100 goes up considerably in the estimation of classic car collectors, production of parts specific to them can be expected. At present, except for the Elegants, the Millecentos and other 1100s from the 1950s and early 1960s, a Fiat in running condition fetches a price somewhere between Rs.20,000 and Rs.30,000. Ananth says a well-restored Fiat 1100 will fetch an attractive price. “People are slowly waking up to the ‘classic’ value of the 1100.”
Jaikumar strikes a less optimistic note. “Only the earlier 1100 models evoke considerable interest. It will take some more time before all models appear equally interesting.”
Among positive signs is the fancy for the S1, Premier Padmini’s swansong. This car, which was manufactured in the second half of the 1990s, is desired due to some of its unique features. “It came with the 118NE’s gearbox. It had the stock 1098 cc engine, but got a new head that was made in collaboration with an Austrian company,” says Jaikumar. “The coming generations will find it more interesting than we do. But the Fiat’s future lies in our hands.”
A rush of memories
For many, the Fiat 1100 is imbued with nostalgia. This is especially true of those who were into car rallies a few decades ago; and also car racers at Sholavaram. C.S. Ananth used to rally and race in a 1971 Fiat, which he gave up when Maruti 800 came on the scene in the Eighties. Ananth preserved the past by keeping all the special equipment, indispensable during rallies and races. Three years ago, Ananth picked up a 1989 Fiat and modified it into a rally car. The preserved parts, including a Halda special pilot, roll cage, a circuit breaker, and a sump guard, went into the new Fiat.
Ranjit Pratap, who has some of the choicest classic cars, is specially attached to his 1957 Fiat Elegant for the torrent of childhood memories it brings. Ranjit took a lot of trouble restoring it. When he went to inspect the car in Salem, there was nothing in it that he could write home about. After setting it on its four wheels, he faced the headache of sourcing parts unique to Fiat Elegant. It is customary for owners of Fiat 1100s to make do with parts from other Fiats within the 1100 family. Instead of taking the path of least resistance, he made arrangements for sourcing Elegant parts from various places in the country. For a few others, he made contact with Fiat associates in Italy. The restoration took two long years. For a car that now takes him decades back, says Ranjit, this was not too big a task.