It must have been bad enough in motoring’s early days having to worry about scaring the horses but, when the fairground-ride-like Brookes Swan was out swanning about on the streets of the Indian city of Kolkata, a far bigger concern might well have been enraging the elephants.
Well-off expat Scottish engineer Robert Nicholl Matthewson – known, of course, as Scotty – ordered this whimsical motor car creation early in the previous century, it’s said to impress, or just possibly send up, the luxury-flaunting Kolkata nabobs.
And while it’s not recorded whether any pachyderms were perturbed by its passage, the locals certainly were when it made its first appearance.
Its carnival ride multi-tone horn, flashing eyes and that big beak, which spewed steam and boiling water to clear its path, not to mention leaving in its wake large white splashes emitted from beneath its tail, caused enough consternation that the local constabulary had to be called out to calm things down.
The recent appearance of the Swan, accompanied by its mini-me companion Cygnet, at this year’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, however, was greeted with much delight.
The Swan’s tale begins with Matthewson, who must have already had an anticipatory twinkle in his eyes, ordering the rolling chassis of a Brooke in 1910.
The Brooke name isn’t familiar, but the company was one of Britain’s pioneering internal combustion engine makers and, by the turn of the century, car-builders. Its first car reached the market in 1902, powered by a three-cylinder engine, but by 1910 it was offering high-quality four- and six-cylinder models and Matthewson chose one of the latter, spending a considerable £500 to £600 for it. The Brooke his Swan was based would have been one of the last built before the company returned to boat engine building full-time.
After spending all that cash for a classy chassis Matthewson, instead of turning it over to one of the era’s coach builders for elegant bodywork, sent it to a well-known maker of steam fairground rides. With a unique set of instructions.
The bodywork that emerged depicts a Swan, its feathered form carved from wood and a gilded circlet of lights around its tall arching neck gliding over water. This theme is enhanced by gold-leaf lilies along the side and brass fish that serve as doorhandles and other adornments. The heavy wooden bodywork contributes to an all-up weight of 3,000 kilograms.
The chauffeur’s compartment behind the brass-framed windscreen is open to the sides but separated from the also-open rear compartment by a glass partition. Above is a deeply screened roof, intended to keep the Kolkata sun at bay, held aloft on slender pillars.
Matthewson, seated in stately splendour on patterned Indian silk upholstery, directed the car’s progress not by unseemly shouted commands but with a round “telegraph” device with a pointer that could be rotated to call for the driver to go Faster, Slower, Right, Left, Stop and Home, and a repeater in the driver’s compartment.
He also had access to four buttons that controlled the tones produced by the exhaust-driven Gabriel eight-note horn. The Swan’s eyes light up and the beak, plumbed into the engine’s cooling system, does emit squirts of steaming water. That back in the day was used to motivate tardy Kolkata pedestrians to hike up their dhotis and jaldi karo out of the way. The car also had brushes that could be deployed to clean muck off the tires which otherwise might besmirch the Swan-white paintwork.
And a final touch was the first recorded automotive emission control device. A lever that would dump a splash of whitewash or sometimes milk on the roadway to complete the Swan effect.
Matthewson apparently enjoyed the Swan for some years before selling it to the Maharaja of Nabha, who also must have had a well-developed streak of silliness in his makeup as he had a small electric version called the Cygnet built in 1919 for his children. It lays claim to being the first car constructed in India.
The Swan and its offspring stayed in the Maharaja’s family for some 70 years before being sold at a Bonham’s auction in 1990 to Evert V. N. Louwman, owner of one of the finest collections of cars in the world, currently housed in the Louwman Museum in The Hague.
Louwman’s father was the Dutch Dodge importer in 1934 when he came across the 1914 Dodge Tourer that began a collection, which today comprises more than 230 vehicles along with rare automotive art. It is the oldest private-car collection in the world open to the public. And the Brooke Swan is described as “truly the most outrageous car in the collection.”
The Swan’s exterior plumage was in serious need of restoration when acquired and its sumptuous silk upholstery and trim had been all but destroyed by rats. A full restoration, that included having new silk cloth woven by an Indian company based on a small surviving swatch found under a seat, was conducted and the car made its first visit to Pebble Beach in 1993, taking home an award.
Louwman drove the Swan, and his daughter the Cygnet, during this summer’s 62nd Pebble Beach event, which also attracted an entry of other maharaja-owned automobiles.
During the era when Matthewson’s Swan was dodging the elephant dung piles on Kolkata roads, Indian’s high living “great kings” were engaged in a form of motoring competition. The goal was to outdo each other by ordering the most expensive cars on the planet and outfitting them with extravagantly opulent coachwork.
Matthewson, of whom little seems to be known, either felt he was a very pukkah sahib indeed, or one hopes was having a quiet chuckle to himself at their expense.
Back in 1910
- Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier creates a Canadian naval service. A year later, the new king, George V, officially names it the Royal Canadian Navy.
- Dr. Hawley Crippen, who had murdered his wife in England, becomes first criminal captured with the aid of “wireless” after the captain of the ship he was fleeing on radioed word of his presence and he’s nabbed on arrival in Quebec City.
- Hot tunes of the day: Come Josephine In My Flying Machine, By The Saskatchewan, The Chicken Road, All Aboard For Blanket Bay, Doctor Tinkle Tinker and And If He Comes In I’m Going Out.
- The first commercial air freight flight is made by a Wright Brothers employee, Philip “Skyman” Parmalee, from Dayton to Columbus, Ohio.