Ode to a Beloved Clunker

MPA 4634 and DIA 8499. Those strings of alphanumeric characters, as might be surmised, are licence plate identifiers. More precisely, they were the licence plates for the same car, a Fiat 1100D that was our family car for over twenty years. Over those years, I graduated from the back of the car to the front, to riding in the back with my brother (a sometimes quarrelsome existence), to driving in the front. (Sadly, I never was able to use the car on a real date.) In it, we–my parents and my brother and I–drove distances as short as those to the local vegetable market, and as long as to the Kashmir Valley. It broke down many times: most terrifyingly, on a deserted stretch of the Grand Trunk Road, a mishap which sent my father hitchhiking looking for help, and brought two Good Samaritans to our rescue. But it also surprised me by making its way through long, winding, twisted roads in the Himalayas, with steep falls down to deep river gorges on one side. It had no air-conditioning, no power windows or steering, but it still managed to seem luxurious. When I missed its attainment of the 100,000 kilometer mark, I was heartbroken, and all attempts at consolation–‘it just became zeroes all over again’–failed.

My father, of course, was its most skilled driver. He drove with aplomb, nowhere better exemplified than in his mysterious ability to open a pack of cigarettes and light up with a match even as he continued down the highway or around a bend. But he was never reckless; indeed, when I felt compelled to ask him to drive faster, his answer was a laconic ‘This is fast enough.’ Perhaps it was all the ‘ol Fiat could handle.

I was told, as I grew up, that the car had been purchased ‘for me on my birthday.’ That was an exaggeration, of course.  More likely, something significant in its history with my family had occurred close to my birthday, and my parents elevated that event to make me feel the car was somehow mine. It worked: I regarded it as a sibling of sorts, and couldn’t wait till the day would come when I would drive it myself. One night, during my early teen-aged years, as my mother drove us home from a family gathering, I asked her when I could start driving. She stopped the car, got out, came around to the passenger’s seat and told me to move over to the driver’s side. I received a quick two-minute lesson on changing gears and releasing clutches, and then, I was off. I did crash the car once in my learning career, but that was the only time I subjected it to such indignity. Thereafter, I grew to master Delhi’s traffic, and most awe-inspiringly of all, drive a non-airconditioned car in its 115-degree summer heat.

In 1987, when I left India for the US, my mother drove me to the airport in DIA 8499. When I returned to India in 1989, it was gone, traded in for a new car. The bills had piled up; maintenance had no longer been feasible; a new car was necessary. I didn’t grieve, but I did wish I had been around when the time came to bid it farewell.

I’ve owned a Toyota Corolla, a VW Jetta, and a Toyota pickup truck since then, and have now been car-free for almost twenty years. In those years, I’ve grown to disdain automobiles, and to hope that I never have to own a car. Still, that dislike won’t diminish my affection for that family jalopy, now transformed, perhaps via the junk-yard and scrap heap into some Chinese-manufactured items, pressed into service as household appliances or tools of convenience.

I never had a nickname for the car, so all I can say is: RIP MPA 4634 AKA DIA 8499.

3 comments on “Ode to a Beloved Clunker

  1. Satadru Sen says:

    Great stuff. I recently discovered that my childhood car, my father’s beloved 1961 Ambassador, WBE 7159, sold in 1983, is still on the road in Durgapur, living out a second life as a taxi, but with the same license plate number. Who says Indian cars aren’t built to last?

  2. Samir Chopra says:

    Satadru: That’s pretty amazing. Those Ambassadors were something else. They went everywhere and lasted forever.

  3. […] 1975, our family piled into our loyal car, a venerable Fiat 1100D, and set off on an epic road-trip up to Kashmir and back. We drove through plains and hills and […]

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