Aravind ‘Baby’ Model 3 awaits its rebirth in Kerala

By Swetha Kadiyala| Published: 17th January 2021 05:00 AM
The Aravind ‘Baby’ Model 3 in its present state

In 1955, while on his way from Kottayam to Thiruvananthapuram, Kunnath Ayyath Balakrishna Menon crashed his beloved 1947 Studebaker Champion into a tree, wrecking the vehicle completely. It also landed him in hospital for three months. His long stay in hospital forced his statewide automobile repair business, which also had a branch in Tamil Nadu, to be shut down. However, Menon’s new tryst with automobiles had just begun. The following year, he restarted the main unit in Thiruvananthapuram, this time christening it Aravind Automobiles. The story of the once-famed Aravind ‘Baby’ Model 3 begins there.

The car is an aatmanirbhar effort, a fully indigenous four-wheeler made entirely from scratch. Menon’s attempt was to script a quintessentially Indian automotive design language. “He built a vehicle designed for this country,” says Rathish, his eldest grandchild. As a 14-year-old in the early 1930s, Menon could be found working in automobile repair garages across South India. Then owning a car was a privilege; the young mechanic learned the nuts and bolts of the business.

Kunnath Ayyath Balakrishna Menon 

This led to the setting up of Prompt Motors, a small garage in 1952. It soon expanded to four branches in three years and earned him the sobriquet ‘Prompt Menon’. When Aravind Automobiles was revived, Menon gave new life to the wrecked Studebaker Champion. Its new incarnation, with restated design and a Mercedes Benz W120 diesel engine, was named the Aravind Iddy Champion.

Iddy—meaning ‘blow’ in Malayalam—a nod to the vehicle’s resurrection. The Iddy was sold in 1958 to AP Nagarajan, a prominent Tamil film personality. Soon the auto innovator was commissioned to design and assemble a premium car by the Maharaja of Travancore in 1965. By then, the workshop had become the go-to place for servicing and repair requirements of foreign cars in Kerala. Menon purchased damaged cars, repaired and re-cast them. 

Royalty accelerates royalty. The Aravind Palace Special, constructed at a cost of `15,000, had the engine and driving parts of a 1939 Cadillac Fleetwood owned by the Kowdiar Palace, Thiruvananthapuram. Handcrafted over 10 months, it caused quite a stir in automobile circles. As one American news report retrospectively remarked, they “shuddered to think what the construction cost would have been if American craftsmen had been used for this project”. Over the course of time, the Palace Special wound up with the Vummidi family involved in the jewellery business. “We are trying to locate the Iddy Champion,” says Rathish.

Even as he was building the Palace Special, Menon was working on his magnum opus—the Aravind ‘Baby’ Model 3. Born in February 1966, it was a classic sedan. The engine, gearbox and the rear differential came from a 1956 Fiat 1100 Delight previously owned by the legendary playback singer P Leela. “The car was extremely popular in and around Thiruvananthapuram,” says Rathish. Notwithstanding its celebrity status, Menon had effectively built a prototype for the ride of emerging India. He applied to the Union government headed by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi seeking an industrial licence. The archives reveal that the government had written back to Menon seeking further details on the car’s technical specifications. There are no replies on file.

Aravind Automobiles was brought up in Lok Sabha in 1970, almost four years later along with a list of 16 auto companies which had sought similar licences. Letters of intent were finally forwarded to two parties—Sanjay Gandhi’s New Maruti Ltd and M Madan Mohan Rao of Madras. The rejection spelt the end for ‘Baby’ Model 3 and also quite possibly Menon’s singular vision. The original prototype passed to Menon’s wife Karthikayanni Amma and remained in her possession until her death in 2001.

The tools and equipment of Aravind Automobiles were given away to the workmen. As decades passed, the story of Aravind ‘Baby’ Model 3 faded from public memory but the car endured. After more than 50 years, quiet murmurs have begun in the limited automobile world, fuelled by Rathish’s intent to revive Aravind Automobiles as an e-car manufacturer. For now, the ‘Baby’ rests in a nondescript garage in an undisclosed part of Kochi. 

After more than 50 years, quiet murmurs have begun in the limited automobile world, fuelled by Rathish’s intent to revive Aravind Automobiles as an e-car manufacturer

Tags : KAB menon Kunnath Ayyath Balakrishna Menon

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