There is great deal of excitement and nostalgic anticipation among car rally enthusiasts in India that among the vintage fleet of a few hundred cars vying for the crown of Raid de Himalaya 2018, the lone entry from Australia will be the Hindustan Ambassador or “Amby,” India’s first indigenously manufactured automobile beginning in 1958! There is great deal of excitement and nostalgic anticipation among car rally enthusiasts in India that among the vintage fleet of a few hundred cars vying for the crown of Raid de Himalaya 2018, the lone entry from Australia will be the Hindustan Ambassador or “Amby,” India’s first indigenously manufactured automobile beginning in 1958! As may be imagined, car rallies in the high Himalayas have come to epitomise a combination of high octane adrenaline, steady nerve, flaming hunger for adventure and unflagging zest for life but sadly, no one ever recalls Lieutenant Fredrick Travers O’Connor who on a whim carried two a knocked- down cars through Sikkim and on 14 November 1906, had personally assembled together the first car in automobile history, in the Himalayas at Phari Dzong (Chumbi Valley, Tibet) about 12,500ft ASL! A jubilant O’Connor then drove North, a 180 km distance to his duty post at Gyantse, on the track to Lhasa. I believe his car covered that distance in four days because of the combination of the unpaved surface of the pony trail, mean altitude of 13,000 ft ASL and snail’s pace of the accompanying replenishments (petrol and lubricant) carried on Yaks, at Yak speed!
Now who was O’Connor and why was he in Tibet? That fascinating story begins in 1895 when this Subaltern was commissioned into the Royal Artillery, and posted to the 7 British Mountain Battery at Lebong, an army cantonment, on the out-skirts of Darjeeling. Their officers were billeted in a bungalow, perched the highest at Jalla Pahar which to date has been retained by the Indian Army as the MES Inspection Bungalow. O’Connor was evidently fascinated by his surroundings and wrote to his mother of the view from his eyrie: “From the moment of my arrival at Darjeeling and the first view of snows, I became obsessed and fascinated with the romance and beauty of the whole of this frontier…” (recounted by Charles Allen in his book “Duel in the Snows”). For a start, O’Connor took to mastering the Nepalese and Tibetan dialects, as a prelude to exploring what lay beyond the snowy frontier. And indeed in 1903, O’Connor emerged as the lone, qualified interpreter of Tibetan dialect among the Indian Army!
This was the time when the Viceroy, Lord Curzon had made two unsuccessful attempts to reach out to the Dalai Lama with offers of a diplomatic alliance. Stung by the rebuffs, Curzon ratcheted the “Great Game” with military invasion, in 1903, cloaked euphemistically as the Trade Mission to Lhasa! O’Connor was chosen both to command the section of mountain artillery guns accompanying the mission but primarily as the interpreter on the year-long exploits, in the land of his dreams! As fortune favours the enterprising ones, O’Connor was retained in Tibet on termination of the mission, to head the newly established British Trade Agency at Gyantse, with a subsidiary at Shigatse, the seat of the Panchen Lama. Interestingly, the Gyantse establishment was guarded by one platoon of Pathan soldiers, commanded by Lieutenant Auchinleck; the future Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, the last British Commander-in-Chief, Indian Army!
Sometime in mid 1906, O’Connor was granted four months “home leave” when he chanced upon and acquired two of the recently marketed, Peugeot cars. As road connectivity to Gyantse terminated in Sikkim at Jelap-La, the cars simply had to be dismantled into convenient loads, each to be slung from sturdy bamboo-poles and carried by four/eight men, in relays up to Phari Dzong. Here, the knocked down pieces were reassembled in to a functional car by O’Connor, who simply had to be the bravest of the brave to have ventured on that phenomenal project. From Phari Zong to Gyantse there was a semblance of a gravel track, over which the Peugeot was driven. Capt FM Bailey of the 32nd Sikh Pioneers who was an eye witness of the Peugeot’s arrival at Gyantse wrote, “Then on Friday the 14th November there was the unaccustomed roar of engines: O’Connor had returned with a 6.5 h.p. motor-car which he had acquired for himself, and a larger model for the Tashi Lama. These were the first motor-cars ever to enter Tibet, and the story of how O’Connor got them over the mountains was an epic of courage and ingenuity…” (from FM Bailey’s biography “Beyond the Frontier” by Arthur Swinson).
Till the 1950s, the Hermit Kingdom was bereft of a single road or a bridge and so O’Connor amused himself by giving joy rides to his Tibetan friends, around and through the Gyantse open, a mini polo-ground. On account of the rarefied atmosphere, the carburettor was always driven to the ultimate for feeding the required fuel-mixture but nevertheless, the engine stalled often and the car would be harnessed to four horses, and pulled home to accompaniment of cheering participants!
What about the second Peugeot? Well, it was a gift for his dear friend, the Panchan Lama, with his monastery- headquarters at Shigatse. O’Connor had taught the Panchan Lama essentials of English language and went on to introduce him to Western classical music which ultimately, the venerable Lama just could not have enough of! Their friendship unfortunately fuelled a vicious rumour of British perfidy, of encouraging the Panchan Lama to take over all territory South of the River Tsangpo and proclaim himself the King of a State larger than Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan, put together! How I wish that were true as that would have kept the PLA at an arm’s length today, from these Himalayan States.
The age of automobiles however truly dawned upon Tibet in the mid 1920s when Sir Charles Bell the British political agent for Tibet presented to the 13th Dalai Lama, a blue coloured Baby Austen, A-40, complete with the license-plate, TIBET-1! Two years on, a resident of Lhasa (named Kumphela?) would send for a similar Austen which bore the licence-plate, TIBET-2, (from the book “Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost World” by Patrick French). But in all fairness it must be stated that the credit for the first wheels per se over Tibetan soil, belonged to Brigadier James Macdonald who had had light mule-carts, with wooden wheels fabricated at Siliguri, reassembled at Yatung (Chumbi Valley) and were plied as load-carriers up to Gyantse, starting March 1904!
O’Connor retired from the political department after a distinguished career as Lieutenant Colonel Sir Fredrick Trevors O’Connor, CSI, CIE, CVO. The remains of one of his Peugeots were last seen in the back-yard of a Lhasa home, in the 1950s. The Dalai Lama’s Austen (TIBET 1) was last seen in 1958, parked under the portico of Norbulingka, the Summer Palace, at Lhasa. It is rather surprising that the Auto-Makers Peugeot and Austen should have no record of their history- making cars, the first upon The Roof of The World! Today, the Lhasa Car Rental Company boasts of 122 cars (Sedans, SUVs, Jeeps, Luxury Vans, etc) and Tibet has over 20,000 privately owned cars in addition to the lot with the PLA. Good bye to SHANGRI-LA.
In order to grasp the audacity of this venture, we simply have to revisit the 1870s when O’Connor was born and the prevailing status of the industrial and technological revolution of the time. Yes, bicycles, motor-cycles, cars and for that matter the first generation of studio cameras were available but only to the minuscule, upper crust of the affluent few. It is unlikely that O’Connor had had access to either contrivance. And when he arrived in India around 1900, we in India had not even entered the bicycle age let alone the automobile usage. So, automobiles and garages were confined to the three metropolises, only.
The two Peugeots acquired by O’Connor in London would have reached Calcutta by ship where they would have been dismantled in to loads, suited for the onward epic journey, that is; Train journey up to Bongaigaon on the broad gauge railway,trans-shipment over ferry across the Ganges and hoisted upon the meter gauge railway up to Siliguri,carriage on bullock/mule carts to Kalimpong-Jelep La, andmanual ferry down to Yatung, in Chumbi Valley (Tibet).
O’Connor would have witnessed the dismantling process at Calcutta, made notes and acquired the necessary tool-kit, to piece the loads into functional automobiles and create a whole range of history; the first cars plying upon the Roof of the World, the First hermit (Panchen Lama) to possess a car, the first automobile assembly station on the Roof of the World, the Gyantse residents becoming the first Tibetans to take a car ride, etc.
And last but not the least, O’Connor left no scope for the doubting Thomas’ concerning his adventure (all of it at his personal cost) by leaving a photograph, steering his Peugeot at Gyantse with the Fort (where Lieutenant Grant of 2/8 GR, in 1904 won the VC) as the back drop. And that photograph, in all probability was clicked by Captain FM Bailey who was known to carry a camera.
Commissioned in the Regiment of Artillery in July 1956,Lt Gen. Baljit Singh, AVSM, VSM, retired on 31 July 1992 after 36 years of distinguished service. A keen sportsman, accomplished writer and noted environmentalist, he is an active promoter of Conservation of Nature, more so within and by the Armed Forces.