Vanishing vintage motor relics of Jaffna | Daily News

Vanishing vintage motor relics of Jaffna

Travelling in Ceylon is laced with beautiful memories and steady development, of both cars and roads. Thankfully those of us born in the 1970s still got a glimpse of the sturdy and reliable motor vehicles that once dominated the roads of Ceylon, in an era long before the advent of time-efficient expressways. Seniors born before us have recounted travelling and seeing horse-drawn carts and bullock carts symbolizing various forms of status.

The beautiful vintage cars made great impressions in all provinces of Ceylon. Those who are keen on this topic will appreciate the excellent work of the Classic Car Club of Ceylon for encouraging and uniting owners of these magnificent cars.

Jaffna was a very vibrant town in the 1920s, in all aspects of what people perceive a major town to be. Of course, I did not witness this era but have spoken to many elders who recall the happy memories of the peaceful town. As we all know the bullock carts were the backbone of transport in the Northern Province at that time. Today the bulls are replaced; the primary reason being that feeding them and caring for them has become a costly exercise. Another reason is that there is a social stigma that tends to relegate the carter to a lower rung in the caste system that has been here for centuries. In this narrative, we will discover how the old cars such as Austin Devon, Morris Minor, Morris Oxford and Austin Cambridge once transformed this province and impacted lives. We will also realize the issues faced by the last remaining owners and drivers of these amazing vehicles.

The first time I went to Jaffna was in 1982, along with my grandfather who was a government staffer and my parents. The journey by train was fascinating. Once we reached the Jaffna Station as the sunlight lit up the Northern sky, I was mesmerized by the line of cars outside the station. As a child, I probably did not know the term vintage car. I still remember the drivers, some young, others old, beckoning us. The cars were fitted with iron luggage racks, as passengers from Colombo often brought various things for relatives and friends. I think we got into an Austin Devon and headed to the residence of our kind host, travelling on quiet roads with clusters of palmyrah trees appearing every now and then. During our stay in Jaffna, we travelled in these ‘hiring cars’, as they were known and stopped now and then to drink nelli crush.

Long before my visit, the cars in Jaffna served an assortment of purposes. Their role and task was almost on par with a foreign jeep of that era. By the way, I wish to enlighten readers on the perceived origin of the word jeep. When the Willies General Purpose vehicle was introduced to the US Army all the documentation was written as ‘GP’ – denoting general purpose. Within a few months, military clerks coined the phrase ‘jeep’ from the abbreviation Willies ‘GP’. Now back to Jaffna. So the reliable cars in Jaffna transported wealthy businessmen around the town and their children to school. Prominent civil servants travelled in the Austin Cambridge and Austin Devon. Senior doctors exerted their authority by getting down at major hospitals from these cars. When there were major religious events, the cars ferried invited ‘Colombo’ dignitaries from the Jaffna town to kovils, churches, temples and mosques.

The people depended on these cars to move pregnant mothers for their delivery and the women returned home jubilantly from hospital with their babies, back in these cars. I must pause here to say that many mothers also delivered their cute babies at home with the trusted midwife in rural villages. Tamil seniors also told me that the cars acted as ambulances to transport critical patients to the main government hospital in Jaffna.

The drivers obliged even at night. It must be noted that during some stages of the conflict, these faithful drivers, sometimes under stress, remained on ‘hiring’ duty to help move patients to hospitals when the roads were safe. In happier times, the cars took a significant role during weddings, mainly taking brides to churches. Sometimes these obliging drivers took letters from the Jaffna town to distant villages, including special textbooks for university students, when such books were posted from Colombo. I was told of a more hilarious story of how an aspiring Romeo had somehow manipulated an unsuspecting driver to help him ‘smuggle’ out his lady sweetheart from her residence to another village, from where the lovers went to be married.

Time changes things. The modern years unfolded new challenges. Since 2012, according to some of these vintage car owners, their cars began to lose their ‘hiring’ charm. This was obvious as modern cars, vans and trucks steadily invaded the Northern roads. In the past 10 years, young men and women always depended on their motorbikes. Another pattern of thinking developed that these vintage cars were slow, a rather strange thought which must have been inculcated by comparing them to modern cars. Another factor was the absence of special spares for these relics in Jaffna, unlike in Colombo where you can still ‘hunt’ and buy. Perhaps the final deciding factor is that these proud car owners are now old, many between 65 and 75 years. Their families are doing well and the children have asked their dads not to go on hires. Two years ago, I saw some of these cars adjacent to the Jaffna Teaching Hospital. One shy driver told me they are now called to deliver bodies to private funeral undertakers. This is okay, but the once opulent hiring cars are now transporting the dearly departed.

Of course, there are wealthy families who maintain the old cars once driven by their grandfathers and fathers. They sometimes appear on Instagram posts. It would be nice if all these vintage cars can be wisely used to promote tourism in Jaffna. These stunning cars captivate locals and foreigners. During my last visit to Jaffna in February 2020, I saw one vintage car driving on the causeway that leads to the island of Karainagar. My friend Niranjan had spotted two old cars in a Northern village, and duly photographed them.

These vintage cars proudly served the people of Jaffna and enhanced their lifestyle. The owners and drivers have retained many memories of a bygone era. In a few years from today, they will drive into the sunset of Jaffna’s motor history.

Austin Cambridge cars (Picture by Emma Bolye)