The pioneer of the three-wheeler in India was Navalmal Firodia, a Gandhian lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, who also coined the term auto-rickshaw.
His son and chairman of Force Motors, Abhay Firodia, writes in a book on his father, Navalmal Kundanmal Firodia, that Firodia thought of the auto-rickshaw as a replacement for the bicycle rickshaw. The motivation was to provide a humane and yet low-cost public transportation for the common man.
This is how it began. During a session of the legislative assembly of then Bombay in February 1947, the plight of cycle-rickshaws and the inhuman conditions rickshaw pullers operated in were raised by a member. Then home minister of Bombay province Morarji Desai suggested that cycle-rickshaws be discontinued. Firodia saw the possibility of introducing a low-cost modern transport solution and reckoned that such a vehicle had to be radically different from the existing modes of conveyance.
Firodias company, Jaya Hind Industries, got into an agreement with Bachhraj Trading Corporation to set up a JV for jointly importing, manufacturing and selling auto-rickshaws, its parts, chassis and bodies.
Firodia spotted a three-wheeler goods carrier picture from a trade paper and decided that it could be replicated to become an inexpensive means of transport. In January 1947, he drew up a plan and submitted it to Desai. The transport commissioners office, which functioned under the home ministry, noted: If the vehicle is satisfactory from a technical viewpoint, then we shall permit it under the public conveyance plan.
This set Firodia working further on the concept.
The vehicle they aimed to replicate turned out to be a vehicle manufactured by Piaggio of Italy. Firodia bought a scooter and two three-wheeler goods carriers from Piaggio, inspired by which they then built a body for the auto-rickshaw. Many alterations were made on the basic three-wheeler chassis. Starting with a body made in wood to the final one made in sheet metal, many versions were tried to arrive at the final product, which was not very different from what is seen as the auto-rickshaws of today, notes the book on Firodia.
But it was the task of putting the vehicle on the road that really tested Firodias skills. Desai, the final authority, was not an easy man to deal with. But Firodia got lucky, as a Congress session was to be held in April 1948 in Bombay and PM Jawaharlal Nehru was going to attend. Through a friend, Raosaheb Patwardhan, Firodia managed to introduce the new vehicle to Nehru. Pandit-ji took a round of the Government House in the rickshaw and was impressed. After this meeting, Firodia put in a formal application for permission to register and operate such vehicles as public conveyance. Morarji Desai agreed and the state transport department took a trial and granted permission, says the book.
A deal was signed with Piaggio and initially components of the chassis in knock-down condition were brought to be assembled in India and the rickshaw body was to be built locally. Thus was born the auto-rickshaw for the Indian market.
It was in 1948 that the auto-rickshaw was introduced as an approved public conveyance in Bombay province. But these new three-wheelers did not find any takers initially. Here came another lucky breakthrough. The use of cycle-rickshaw as a mode of public conveyance was prohibited in Pune and Firodia saw an opportunity for the auto-rickshaw in the Pune market. They started the first centre for auto sales in Pune in 1949, but sales were not brisk and they sold only six auto-rickshaws. Another centre was opened in Hyderabad, but here again there was no response.
The book notes that at that time there were about 500 tongas in Pune and the tongawallas were reluctant to consider the new three-wheeler, being unsure about returns on the investment.
Another stroke of luck happened. The book says, His Highness Aga Khan visited the Aga Khan Palace in Pune during his stay in India. The Khojas would travel from a long distance to pay their respects to him. A large number also came from Bombay. They travelled by the Bombay-Pune train. From the station to the palace and back, the tonga took four hours for a round trip. An auto-rickshaw made the same trip in just 40 minutes. The five to six rickshaws that were plying made profits amounting to R100 and more daily. Soon other operators were also prompted to ply the auto-rickshaw in order to make greater profits. The horse racing season in Pune, which attracted visitors and race enthusiasts from Mumbai, provided another boost to the auto-rickshaw.
By the end of 1949, Firodias idea of converting the three-wheeler goods chassis from Italy into a passenger auto-rickshaw was successful. The vehicle has not gone off road since.