Signposts of motoring history

The 105th anniversary of the Automobile Association of Ceylon was celebrated recently. We publish here extracts of a lecture delivered by Deputy Inspector General of Police (Retd.) Traffic, T. Perinpanayagam on 'Motoring Down the Ages' (Ceylon to Sri Lanka).

Some of you will not be in a position to know how the AA of Ceylon was founded 105 years ago on November 12, 1904.

In ancient Sri Lanka, elephants and horses were used for riding and getting about. Carts, wagons and chariots with two or four wheels were drawn by elephants, horses and oxen. Though such vehicles are no more, there are still some remnants of the traditional mode of transport like the Barakaratta and Bara Bage (used for carrying goods can be said to be the 30 cwt. and 15 cwt. vehicles of the past); the Gaman Karatta (wagon used for long distance journeys, that accommodated 10 persons and could be called the mini-bus of the past); Bakki (could be classified as a small family car to transport children to school and members of the household for shopping etc); the Thirikkala (similar to the Bakki but with no place for the legs and was the sports car of those days); the Race Thirikkala (single seater racer of the past). These are commonly called as "Hackeries" and drawn by bulls.

The word Thirikkala really means cart with three wheels first used only for covered "palanquins" with the shouldering pole and three small wheels and used only for nobles.

Then there was the rickshaw, a light two-wheeled hooded vehicle drawn by men, first used in Japan in 1870. It was popular with mercantile executives, children travelling to school and for short distance travel in town areas. All these are still in use and could be obtained easily. Cart races were conducted annually at festivals then and even now.

Motorized vehicles

In February 1902, Mr. E.G. Money of Bousteads Ltd., imported a steam car, fitted with two seats in front uncomfortably placed over a boiler and a high up tiller steering. The burner was used to burn kerosene instead of petrol. As long as the steam was kept up and the burner clean, they ran very smoothly up to nearly 20 m.p.h. It took Mr. Money and Mr. A.J. Scott 1 ½ days to reach Nuwara Eliya on May 2, 1902.

First motorcycle

The first motorcycle arrived in the island on January 20, 1903. Mr. C. Hahn of Messrs Bohirnger & Co. was the first person to introduce the motor cycle to Ceylon. These early motorcycles were belt-driven from the engine to the rear wheel and had only one speed and pedals were used to start it. The first motorcycle ride to Kandy and back was undertaken by Mr. Fred Nell, the founder of Colonial Motors on a 'Noble' machine. His trip to Kandy and back in a day was a great achievement.

First petrol car

The first petrol-driven vehicle was imported to the island on May 2, 1905 by Mr. Cecil Gnapp who was the Manager of the Cycle Department of Walkers. This was a 5 HP Oldsmobile.

The first Sri Lankan to own a car and drive was Mr. E.L.F. de Zoysa of Moratuwa. He purchased a black and blue one cylinder Oldsmobile car. While their car was being driven from Colombo harbour to Moratuwa, thousands lined up along the road watching what they called the mechanical animal puffing along the road. The greatest difficulty while driving were the stray dogs. Due to the puffing noise, dogs started barking at the car and obstructed its path. Mr. Zoysa had to use a gun and fire it into the air to frighten the dogs away. Mrs. Zoysa was the first lady to drive a car in Ceylon.

In the early days of motoring anyone could drive or possess a car - a driving licence was not necessary. Registration of vehicles, revenue licence and insurance were then unknown. The roads were not tarred. The owners had to use their own knowledge and experience to run their vehicles. There was no one to help them beyond their intelligence and common sense. But there was road courtesy which is lacking today.

By the end of November 1904, motoring was well established in the country. On November 12, 1904, the Automobile Club of Ceylon was inaugurated and founded with 100 members in Kandy headed by Major Harold North.

In 1905, the first organized motor trials were conducted over a distance of about 70 miles. The winning car was a Wolseley Wagonette owned by Mrs. W. Forsythe, a planter's wife.


The registration of vehicles was carried out by the Police Department and the Govt. Agents from 1904 up to 1927.

Driving Test

Driving tests were carried out by English officials in the Govt. Departments and the planters in the outstations were authorized to test and authorize driving. The Chief of Police, an Englishman in Colombo, was functioning as the Chief Examiner in Colombo for issuing driving licences.

Vehicle Ordinance Chapter 202 was enacted by Ordinance No. 4 of 1916 and was revised in 1947. This Ordinance deals with non-motorized vehicles excluded from mechanically propelled vehicles i.e., pedal cycles and carts. Local authorities were authorized to issue annual licences and identification plates.

Motor vehicles were registered under the Ordinance No. 20 of 1927 and the first registration was in 1928 by the Registrar of Motor Vehicles.

Vintage vehicles

All vehicles registered between 1904 and 1940 were given the numbers pre-fixed by the letters A to Z by districts, and each letter was given the numbers from 1 to 9999. The Veteran Car Club of Ceylon was formed in 1953 by Mr. Chitru Peiris and was the first such club in South East Asia. The first "Old Crocks Rally" was held in 1953, organized by Capt. "Tabby Murrell", "Uncle Dan", "Daniels" and Edward 'Bugs' Mason ably supported by Mr. Seevali Wijewardene of Lake House. The Vintage Car Owners' Club was formed on October 17, 1987 by Mr. M.M. Salih, and regular rallies and shows are held. The export of these vehicles was banned by law from 1979.

The Classic Car Club of Ceylon was formed in 1992 for vehicles registered from 1940 .This club too conducts regular rallies and shows.

Activities of AA

The membership of the AAC stands at around 10,000 both in Sri Lanka and abroad. This includes ordinary membership, life membership and family membership. The AAC provides experienced drivers to serve the public on temporary engagements.

Road patrols are provided for emergency breakdown services. 14 patrols are on duty. Over the last few years, there has been an almost complete breakdown in road discipline and road manners. The trend is alarming and a heavy loss and burden on our economy.

My appeal is to all members to render the best possible assistance in educating members on traffic laws and the public on road safety and prevention of accidents in the coming years.

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