Aborted Take-Off

India’s cancelled project to build a people’s car of its own.

Image: team-bhp.com

In different circumstances, Hyderabad could have been the birthplace of India’s first indigenously designed and manufactured car. In the early 1950s, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), a company unrelated to the well known Indian car manufacturer, Hindustan Motors, started work on a rugged and simple people’s car for India. In the end, it was not to be and the country instead went down the route of producing tried and tested foreign designs under licence.

The company, which was originally named Hindustan Aircraft Limited, was incorporated in 1940. In cooperation with the American Intercontinental Aircraft Company, HAL started its business by manufacturing under licence the Harlow PC-5 trainer, the Curtiss Hawk fighter and the Vultee bomber. HAL also designed and developed its own aircraft, starting with the 1951 HT-2 trainer. Over 150 of these were manufactured and supplied to the Indian Air Force and other customers.

During the 1950s, the Indian government started to take an increasing stake in HAL and, in 1963, the company began construction of the Soviet MiG-21 aircraft under license for the Indian Air Force. The Anglo-French SEPECAT Jaguar would follow. At present, HAL is mainly involved in the repair and overhaul of military aircraft, helicopters, jet engines and related systems, and collaborates in the Indian space program.

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Pingle Madhusudan Reddy, a designer and engineer at HAL, was the driving force behind the development of what was planned to be India’s first indigenous car. Unveiled in 1956, the first prototype was not constructed at HAL in Bangalore, but in Hyderabad, at a facility named Praga Tools Corporation. One or two additional prototypes likely followed: there are photos of vehicles with front doors opening in rear-hinged ‘suicide’ fashion as well as in the conventional way, and a photo where India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, is seen inside a car with a different front end arrangement.

Named after its designer, the front-wheel-drive Pingle displayed a rotund interpretation of the then fashionable ponton styling theme. Some similarity with the Claveau Descartes of 1948 is also apparent, but is probably coincidental, as is the similarity of the large logo in the grille to the one that, decades later, would be adopted by Toyota.

The fibreglass body of the Pingle was mounted onto a steel chassis, with all-round independent suspension via torsion bars. The Pingle was powered by a twin-cylinder two-stroke engine with a capacity of 700cc and delivering 21bhp, mated to a clutch, gearbox and final drive in a single housing. At slightly over twelve feet long, the Pingle feautured hydraulic brakes, a 12v electrical system, rack and pinion steering, and weighed just under 600Kg.

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The estimated price for the Pingle was a low 4,600 rupees before taxes, which was about a quarter of what an imported car of comparable size would have cost. HAL claimed it was able to keep the projected price this low because much care was taken to keep the construction as simple as possible, and the two-stroke engine had far fewer moving parts than a regular four-stroke powerplant. A second prototype with a more square-shaped front end was produced in 1961. This was fitted with a larger three-cylinder two-stroke engine with a capacity of 828cc and maximum power output of 33bhp.

Unfortunately for HAL, the central government of India declined to allow the company to set up a full production line for the Pingle. The precise reason is unclear, but it seems that the government was of the opinion that the manufacture of proven foreign designs such as the Morris Oxford III and the Fiat 1100D under licence by experienced companies in the field like Hindustan Motors and Premier Automobiles was both economically more attractive and a safer bet in terms of sustained commercial success.

Rumours also circulated, however, about financial incentives being offered by the foreign carmakers to influence decision makers in the Indian government, in order to gain access to the market. As HAL was never able to build and sell the Pingle, we will never know if the company might have had a winner on its hands. What we do know is that both the Hindustan Ambassador and Premier Padmini would turn out to be both long-lived and popular, outliving their European progenitors by many years.

A surviving initial prototype of the HAL Pingle was on display in the company museum in Hyderabad for many years, but mysteriously went missing in 2017. This would have made for a fitting if undeservedly poignant end to the story of what could have been India’s first national car, were it not that, just recently, the third prototype built has been discovered. As can be seen in the photos, it is in a more square-cut style, ironically rather similar to the Hindustan Ambassador. It is also in a sorry state and will require a substantial amount of work to be restored, but there at least appears to be a chance that this chapter of Indian automotive history will not now sink without a trace.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

6 thoughts on “Aborted Take-Off”

  1. Good morning, Bruno and thank you for another school day at DTW. Apart from the Hindustan Ambassador all the information is new to me. I do hope this piece of automotive history will be saved.

  2. Good morning Bruno. Another interesting automotive curiosity unearthed, thank you.

    I find it interesting that, despite its apparent advantages in weight saving and non-corrosion, fibreglass never became a material chosen for the manufacture of true mass-production cars. The closest something similar came to this was the Trabant with its Duroplast body. I suppose the increased complexity of construction, which required a supporting skeleton of some sort, was a major deterrent.

    I wonder if there was also a suspicion amongst automakers that they might be acting against their own commercial interests by producing a car with a corrosion-proof body? Back when I was a youngster, a few visible rust scabs often provided a strong incentive to trade in a still mechanically sound car against a new one.

    It’s a theme that was explored in the excellent 1951 British satire / comedy film ‘The Man in the White Suit’. A scientist invents a synthetic fabric that is completely indestructible. This provokes uproar amongst his colleagues and management at the textile company where he works, all fearing that the everlasting fabric could put them out of a job. Well worth a look, if you haven’t seen it.

    1. Fibreglass has some big disadvantages, the biggest being that it takes too much time to make parts.
      Most parts have to be made from mats that are laid into a form by hand and then are impregnated with resin, again by hand, using brushes and spray guns.
      Fibreglass then takes a long time to cure and the form is blocked and cannot be used for another part.
      Steel is stamped very quickly, takes no time to cure and blocks the tools only for a short time. Lots of steel parts therefore can be made in much smaller space than lots of fibreglass parts.
      Plastic parts also cannot be bent or adjusted for tolerances – you can push them around on oval mounting holes but they cannot be adjusted in contour by a short blow with a rubber mallet. The Citroen BX with its fibreglass bonnet and hatch is a good example for the large panel gaps needed to compensate for the lack of flexibility in that material.
      Fibreglass also does not allow parts with sharp creases in them.
      You also can’t make dents in fibreglass, the stuff will simply crack and then is difficult to repair.
      There have been many attempts to make resin impregnated fibre material suitable for mass production like KMC, the Kevlar-carbon fibre compound that’s suitable for injection moulding and was used to make the bonnet for the 916-type Alfas. Compared to steel KMC had much lower tooling costs but more expensive production processes.
      Or Duroplast, which was not fibreglass but surplus cotton wool pulp from Soviet Union cotton production. It also used a phenolic resin which was an even bigger risk for health than the standard polyester stuff.

    2. In addition to the Trabant, spontaneously the first three generations of the Renault Espace come to mind, as well as the Bagheera and Murena.

    3. The Espace went to steel when it was established in the market and production numbers reached a level too high for GRP.

  3. One thing that perplexes me regarding the post-war Indian Motor Industry would be why the larger Oxford III based Hindustan Ambassador was able to do well in despite of being a 1500cc-sized car, whereas the smaller Minor based Baby Hindustan never reached the same heights in India as say the similarly sized the Fiat 1100 derived Premier Padmini?

    In comparison to the long-lived Ambassador and Padmini, production of the Baby Hindustan appears to have only lasted from around 1952-1959 and likely being equipped with 800-950cc engines.

    It is not clear why the Baby Hindustan failed in India or if it simply did not get a chance to evolve into a more suitable long-lived car for the market had it remained in production a few more years (where it would have benefited from post-1962 1100 Series V upgrades), though if it was simply a lack of potent engines (either in terms of suitability or perceived social status as a poor man’s vehicle e.g. the Tata Nano’s lack of success) that would certainly not help the cause of the two-stroke HAL Pingle.

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