Atlanta is a fading memory in the automobile history of Kerala. There was a time when this "speeding beauty" had no rivals in terms of design and elegance. As it zipped through the rural roads, youngsters watched in awe. There were many who wanted to own her.
The newer generations may not be familiar with the name 'Atlanta'. It took birth in the minds and hearts of a few people who burned the midnight oil in a small shed at Kaimanam near the state capital Thiruvananthapuram. 'Atlanta' was the dream come true for a group of enthusiastic but ordinary people who pooled together their extraordinary brains, technical excellence, and skills.
The Atlanta holds the honour of being the first indigenously built scooter in the country. But in the unwritten chapters of Kerala's industrial history, the forgotten tales of the Atlanta can outshine a film plot.
A brainchild of a joint director of the department of industry, N H Raj Kumar, and executed through the hard work of a young engineer, P S Thankappan, the Atlanta was trampled by a callous political leadership. As the memories turn 60, the Atlanta serves as a stark reminder of the infertile industrial landscape of Kerala and the games political leaders play to snuff out industrial projects in the state. Here is a sneak peek into the story of the Atlanta that wilted before it could bloom.
Starting from ‘scrap’
N H Raj Kumar was the chief architect of the first indigenously designed and built vehicle in India. Project Atlanta or the Atlanta scooter was the spark that was lit in the mind of this engineering genius. Born to Dr V Nagoji Rao and Yamuna Rao at Thalassery in Kannur, Raj Kumar studied in Vaikom and Mavelikkara. In 1935, Dr Nagoji Rao was appointed as the chief physician of the king of Thiruvithamkoor and later as the principal medical officer of Thiruvithamkoor. Raj Kumar did his pre-university studies at the Loyola College in the then Madras.
During his school days, teachers spotted the engineering genius in Raj Kumar who built a steam turbine from a used shoe polish tin and a boiler from a tiffin box. They advised his father to send his son for engineering studies. Raj Kumar preferred automobile engineering and became part of the first batch of students at the Thiruvananthapuram engineering college. He passed with high marks and got a government job in the drainage and water works department. Later, he was appointed as an officer it the department of commerce and industry.
In 1958, the Kerala government sent Raj Kumar to Japan for a year-long sabbatical to study the industries there and replicate those models in the state. It was his stint in Japan and the know how he received there that prompted Raj Kumar to think about starting a scooter factory in Kerala. He also wanted to find a solution to the increasing unemployment among educated youth in Kerala. Once he returned from Japan, Raj Kumar channelled his thoughts on how to make a scooter.
Those days, India only had the Lambretta that was built in a plant imported from Italy. During this time, Raj Kumar spotted a young and bright engineer, P S Thankappan, who hailed from Chathannoor in Kollam. Recognising the talent in Thankapan who had then joined the department of industry as a junior technical officer, Raj Kumar took the initiative in getting Thankappan advanced training at the Technical Training School. And by that time the initial plans for the scooter had taken shape in their minds.
"I was a kid then. Dad used to prepare the designs of the engine, suspension, handlebar, petrol tank and carburettor late into the night. He used to skip food and sleep," says Raj Kumar's son Dr H Vinay Ranjan.
Raj Kumar took a long time to prepare the design and once it was ready, he handed it over to Thankappan. The plan was to build a gearless scooter and Raj Kumar and Thankappan succeeded in their endeavour. It was also the first attempt in making a gearless scooter.
The challenge before Thankappan was to execute the dream project of Raj Kumar at the earliest. The project took off at a small shed at Kaimanam near Thiruvananthapuram in 1960. Raj Kumar and Thankappan faced several hurdles to carry on with the project. There were severe curbs on import of iron and other materials after World War II. Thankappan set up a trade school under the department of industry that provided the much-needed momentum to the project. There were no modern equipment then to assist the work. In order to make up for the unavailability of skilled workers, Raj Kumar and Thankappan handpicked 28 traditional blacksmiths and provided them training in using equipment and other necessary technical training. Due to their hard work, the prototype was ready in the same year. While most parts of the scooter were made in India, the carburettor was imported from Japan.
Flying beauty and Indira Gandhi
The first prototype came out of the Community Engineering Works at Pappanamcode industrial estate in 1961. The main manufacturing equipment included two Kirloskar dead centre lathe machines, a Fritz Werner milling machine, a shaping machine, and a Rajkot power press. Besides, they built a surface grinding machine and a power hammer machine on their own. Main works including piston eccentric grinding were done by bare hand. With a top speed of 60 kmph, the Atlanta offered a mileage of 40 kmpl. Raj Kumar named the scooter Atlanta which means ‘flying beauty’.
Next, Raj Kumar wanted to obtain a licence to commercially manufacture scooters. As a first step, along with Thankappan he took the scooter in a train to Delhi. India Gandhi was the then prime minister. P K Vasudevan Nair and then Palakkad MP Balachandra Menon arranged a meeting with the then prime minister. Thankappan rode the scooter through the streets of Delhi on his way to the prime minister's residence.
Pillion rider test
Indira Gandhi, who had interest and some knowledge in automobiles, asked Thankappan to remove some parts of the scooter and explain the functioning of each part to her. After listening to him, she set up a 28-member cabinet committee for technical affairs to further study the scooter and assess the technology used. The expert committee members held discussions with Thankappan for several days and a detailed road test was also conducted. The last round was a ride with a fat Sardarji as pillion. When Thankappan zipped through the streets of Delhi with the Sardarji in the back, the experts were taken aback. In 1967, the Indira government approved the design of the scooter and gave permission to build 25,000 scooters a year. The permission to use the scooter on the roads was also given. Since the committee wanted a speedometer, it was developed at the factory in Kaimanam. The prototype had no front brake. On the advice of the committee, a front brake was also fitted.
Indira Gandhi was surprised that a young engineer came with a scooter that was made in India and got the required permissions all alone. She saw the project with great interest. “Your scooter and your Mr Thankappan have behaved well..." Indira Gandhi's office wrote to the then industry minister of Kerala. This came as a big recognition for both Raj Kumar and Thankappan.
Ranjan Motor Co
Though Raj Kumar wanted to register a public limited company and expand scooter production, it didn't take off. Undeterred, Raj Kumar set up the Ranjan Motor Company. He combined the names of his sons Anil Ranjan and Vinay Ranjan to arrive at the name.
The Thiruvithamkoor royal family bought the first shares worth Rs 2 lakh. In total, the company had a capital of Rs 5 lakh. The body of the scooter was made of fibre. The company that had a capacity to manufacture 22,500 scooters a year had sales offices in Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata. Priced Rs 1,500, the scooter offered a mileage of 40 kmpl and had automatic transmission. A small factory started functioning at Kaimanam. Raj Kumar's aim was to provide jobs to talented local youth.
The company started dealership showrooms in Chennai, Kolkata and Bengaluru. Though scooters were produced in large scale and taken to places across Kerala, Hyderabad, Guntur and Karnataka, the sales did not take off as expected. They built some 8,000 units of the scooter. Meanwhile, Raj Kumar was appointed as a special officer in the Kerala State Employment Promotion Corporation. Raj Kumar provided employment to jobless engineers and those who have passed out of ITIs. At the same time, with political activities taking root in the factory, labour issues started cropping up. When labour problems became frequent, attempts to take over the company started behind the scenes. The Kerala State Engineering Technicians (Workshop) Cooperative Society or ENCOS came forward to acquire Ranjan Motor Company with the aim of having a scooter factory in the cooperative sector.
Beginning of the end
ENCOS had great expectations of running a scooter factory in the cooperative sector in Kerala. It was a collective of jobless engineers and technicians and aimed at eliminating unemployment among the educated youth. Their vision was to set up the first scooter factory in Kerala's cooperative sector and produce 1,000 scooters a year. It planned to raise capital through government assistance, shares, and loans from public sector banks.
The society decided to acquire the privately owned Ranjan Motor Company and expand its operations. For this, it approved a plan of Rs 69 lakh without any foreign funds. Rs 10 lakh was to be the share of employees and of the remaining Rs 59 lakh, a large portion was to come from the Kerala State Industrial Development Cooperation. The rest of the amount was to be raised from banks. The Kerala government also agreed to provide Rs 7 lakh to take over Ranjan Motor Company. To fully utilise the provisions of the licence granted to Ranjan Motor Company, the society also decided to set up a scooter assembling unit in Alappuzha as part of the main factory. In 1971, ENCOS took over Ranjan Motor Company, following which Raj Kumar left the firm. Meanwhile, industrialist Birla showed interest in Ranjan Motor Company, but the then industry minister of Kerala opposed it strongly. Opposing the Birla move, the minister then said that the government was not willing to relinquish an industry of Kerala to an outsider.
Meanwhile, the society manufactured 500 scooters. The ENCOS team had 75 engineers and planned to produce 25,000 scooters a year. The indigenously built Atlanta was displayed before media personnel in Delhi in 1976. ENCOS also decided to change the name and find another title that reflects the Malayali ethos. The scooter had a price tag of Rs 2,300 exclusive of taxes. The ENCOS engineers claimed that the scooter had a top speed of 70 kmph and a mileage of 40 kmpl. About 75% of all the components used for the scooter's manufacturing were made in India itself. A few parts like the carburettor were imported.
The then Union minister for industrial development Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed assured in the Lok Sabha that a scooter manufacturing unit will be set up in Kerala if it can be built using 100% Indian components. The scooter division of the Kerala State Engineering Technicians (Workshop) Industrial Cooperative Society in Papanamcode was inaugurated by the then governor V Vishwanathan. The division was the first unit that started functioning under the society. It planned to manufacture 3,000 scooters a year in the next two-three years. Meanwhile, the government intervened and took over the venture. The company was renamed as Kerala Automobiles Ltd (KAL) and shifted to Aralummoodu. Mismanagement, political interventions, and labour issues soon blighted the venture, and 'Atlanta' was buried in the pages of Kerala's industrial history.
Neglect in top gear
It was N H Raj Kumar who took the initiative in setting up industrial estates in several parts of Kerala. He was also in the forefront of the establishment of CSIR in Papanamcode and Keltron. Though he played a key role in the formation of Kerala Automobiles Ltd, he was not even invited for the inauguration ceremony. In the political games that ensued, he was side-lined.
Raj Kumar served as industries and commerce director and department secretary and was conferred IAS considering his excellent service. He died on March 27, 2005. His wife Meera died in 2010. Raj Kumar-Meera couple had two children -- the late Anil Ranjan and Dr H Vinay Ranjan (MD, Kaimanam Dr V N Rao Memorial Clinic). Anil's widow is Usha and Vinay is married to Dr Anitha.
P S Thankappan, who worked in Ranjan Motor Company and later in ENCOS as works manager, became joint director in the industry department. He played an integral role in setting up the Artisans Development Corporation in 1978. Later, he became the MD of the corporation. He was the additional director in the department of industry when he retired in 1984. After his retirement, he worked as technical consultant of Kerala State Cooperative Bank. Thankappan died on November 30, 2011. He is survived by wife Shanta, and children Sathya Devi, Gayatri Devi and Harishankar (engineering project manager, Dubai). Shanta is the daughter of well-known artiste in Chennai K Madhavan.
The Atlanta scooter (KLT 5732) that his father Raj Kumar brought home is still looked after carefully by his son Dr H Vinay Ranjan. After getting a fresh coat of paint, it is still in good condition. Dr Vijay also has the Morris Minor used by his father.
"The scooter and the car are the glowing memories of my dad. They are my priceless treasures. The treasures that my dad gifted me. I will preserve them till my death. My dad wanted things to be run in a straightforward manner. He never adopted devious ways. When he had some difference of opinion with a minister my dad was straight enough to tell him that he can't work under him and requested the minister to move him to another department," Dr Vinay says.
"He was a hard worker. He was committed and honest. Dubious ways were unknown to him. He wanted India to grow industrially like Germany and Japan. But somehow the country could not understand him," he says.
"I am not sure if Raj Kumar sir and my father P S Thankappan were recognised for their contributions. They left the stage after showcasing the might and talent of the industrial culture of Kerala. Raj Kumar sir was the biggest technocrat I have ever seen in my life," says Harishankar, son of Thankappan.