Tag Archives: num:ScienceMuseum=1982-1362

Is this the end of the auto?

An article in the Guardian last week reported that the tens of thousands of autorickshaws on the streets of India’s capital city, New Delhi, might be phased out, replaced (perhaps) by electric vehicles.

I mentioned autorickshaws a while ago. We have a very nice example, by major Indian maker Bajaj, in our store at Wroughton

Bajaj autorickshaw, 1982 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

These vehicles have a long history, being based on motor scooters introduced by makers such as Piaggio in the 1940s and 50s. This scene on our Making the Modern World learning website has more.

The scooter’s integrated motor and drive train, linked directly to the back wheel, lent itself readily to conversion into the stretched three-wheel autorickshaw, with this early Piaggio ‘Vespa’, on show in our Making the Modern World gallery, showing the simplicity of the design:

Piaggio 'Vespa', 1948 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Autorickshaws fill an important gap in the urban vehicle mix, between two-wheelers (nimble, but not ideal for carrying goods) and small cars or vans (better carrying-capacity but bigger, heavier and thirstier). Autorickshaws can haul a surprising amount, but without the footprint of bigger vehicles.

These small, simple motorized three-wheelers, often simply called ’autos’, give mobility to countless people, as well as offering earning opportunities to some of the world’s poor.

Any withdrawal would have to be phased over a long period, as currently there doesn’t seem to be a viable alternative. It will be interesting to see how the Delhi situation develops.

Piggybacks, tuk-tuks and armchair tourists

This is a sedan chair. Cute, no? These human-powered contraptions were all the rage in eighteenth-century Britain, part of a class of vehicle used worldwide. A pair of porters carried the chair by the poles, as the passenger inside looked on, wishing, I suspect, that she could have afforded a carriage.

Sedan chair, eighteenth century (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Sedan chair, eighteenth century (Science Museum / Science & Society)

It can’t have been a comfortable ride, surely. I suppose it was the polite version of a piggyback. But I’ve never travelled by sedan chair. Perhaps somebody can put me right. This one’s on show in Making the Modern World, and we’ve also got a Bolivian hospital sedan chair in our medical galleries.

The wheeled version is known as the rickshaw, which was originally human-hauled (or pushed) and is now often pedalled. Central London is full of these contraptions, although there’s a Bill with Parliament at the moment to control their use (I think I’ll walk, thanks).

A logical development was to motorize the rickshaw. Here’s an ‘Autoriksha’ by the Indian auto firm Bajaj, at our Wroughton store.

Bajaj Autoriksha, 1982 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Bajaj 'Autoriksha', 1982 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Autorickshaws (known as autos, tuk-tuks and many other variants) are used around the world, particularly in Asia and some American and African countries. With even the smallest motor comes mobility – which can unlock prosperity.

I’ll return to the theme of light vehicles in future. In the meantime, here’s a great sedan-chair nostalgia-fest created by two British railway companies in 1946, tempting tourists to historic Bath…

Historic Bath poster, 1946 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

'Historic Bath' poster, 1946 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

You can imagine the conversation. “You’ll never guess who I ‘ad in the back of me sedan chair the other day, guv…”