"So, do the indicators work?” I ask, after squeezing in behind the sizeable steering wheel of the dilapidated Premier Padmini taxi. But I think I already know the answer.
Sure enough, no, they don’t, I’m told by the taxi’s owner, Bhasad Pappu, who is sitting in the back looking on, tense. When I ask if the car has any other faults worth mentioning, his diagnosis doesn’t fill me with confidence.
“Suspension, brakes, tyres, gearstick, gearbox, engine. I don’t know what’s wrong exactly, but it definitely needs a service,” he says, translated – with a concerned look – via my colleague, Rahul Kakar, who is sitting next to him
Some taxis are as famous as the landmarks in the cities they serve, and this is true of the Padmini. It’s an icon on the roads of the Indian metropolis of Mumbai.
Based on the Fiat 1100, the Indian-made, 40bhp 1.0-litre Padmini was created in a tie-up with the Italian manufacturer and took the market by storm in 1964, benefiting from an Indian economic policy that prioritised domestic manufacturing.
It immediately became the default choice for cabbies across the city. Economical, durable, spacious and cheap to repair, the Padmini ticked all the boxes. But today, as I can see first-hand, it is sorely lacking in every department, and the iconic saloon is soon to be banished to the scrap yard.
Amazingly, the Padmini was produced until 2000, when production ceased. Then in 2013 the government banned taxis more than 20 years old in a bid to reduce vehicle emissions, which spelled the end for the remaining examples.
Right up to the 1990s, the majority of the 60,000 taxis on the road bore the Indian Premier badge. Today there are around 30,000 black and yellow taxis swarming around the city, ferrying some of the 12 million inhabitants to and fro, but fewer than 5000 are Padminis. And I’m about to drive one of them, thanks to one generous – and brave – man.
Pappu, 52, has been plying his trade as a taxi driver in Mumbai since 1986, battling with the city’s brutal traffic 12 hours a day for a meagre salary of Rs 10,000 (£100) per month.
He bought this Padmini new for Rs 2 lakh (£2000) 16 years ago, and time hasn’t been kind to it. It may have been spacious inside by 1960s Indian saloon standards, but it’s extremely cramped. There’s stingy leg and head room and visibility is pretty shocking. I have to hunch my back to see anything in the immovable rear-view mirror. The one door mirror – folded in, facing the inside of the car – isn’t much help, either, but Pappu doesn’t want to risk getting it knocked off by using it.
Instead of questioning his logic, I examine the upholstery, which looks like it’s made from a 1970s hippie carpet. In fact, it’s quite understated considering the pimped cabins most taxis here have. The meter is ticking, though, so once the engine splutters into life, I gingerly join the traffic.
While my feet get used to the mangled pedals, I wonder if the wheels have been aligned in the past decade, because there’s 30deg of steering wheel play either side of centre. Continual adjustments are required and it’s a struggle to go straight as Kakar directs me through the back roads of Mumbai, avoiding any built-up areas, for all our sakes.
It’s obvious that I’m struggling, and I can sense Pappu’s unease, so I offer him the only Hindi I know to soften the atmosphere: “Tum bahut khoobsurat ho” (“you are very pretty”), I say. He doesn’t laugh.
That’s all the chit-chat I can muster, because it takes some concentration not to swerve into any of the mopeds and cars trying to overtake and undertake me in my many blind spots. Luckily, the horn works.
The decrepit gearbox often crunches in second – perhaps the sign of a disintegrated synchromesh – with each shift requiring some extra welly, and the bouncy suspension sends us crashing over even the smallest imperfections.
I notice the speedometer needle wobbling uncontrollably (“That stopped working a year ago,” says Pappu), but I’m not worried, because there’s no danger of me breaking any speed limits. Just for the record, Autocar India’s road test of a Padmini clocked a 0-60km/h time of 25.23sec. More concerning, though, were the brake test results, which showed that it took 13.92m to come to a standstill from 40km/h. After trying the brakes as we approach a junction, I don’t doubt those figures for an instant.
As unresponsive as the brakes are, the engine isn’t any better. Pappu’s Padmini, like most others, has had a compressed natural gas conversion for the sake of fuel economy – but it hasn’t exactly improved performance. Progress is glacial and there’s a noticeable delay between pressing the accelerator and the engine howling into action.
To summarise, then, it’s slow, uncomfortable and very dangerous, but its charm is undeniable.
After completing our improvised test route, I pull over, relieved, and get out to look at the sad, rusting exterior, with its broken door handles and flashes of decoration. Checking the tyres, I see a slight suggestion of tread on most, but the offside rear is basically a slick.
Mumbai’s Padminis are all in a sorry state, and Pappu isn’t too upset about the prospect of getting a new car. “There’s no point continuing with the Padmini, as much as I love mine,” he says. “It’s old and there are other cars that are better.”
From a romantic, nostalgia-driven point of view, it’s a great shame that the stoic, Indian-built Fiat is heading towards extinction in Mumbai. From every other point of view imaginable, it’s for the best.