Dyan Seneviratne chats with Mahendra Samarasinghe
Treasurer Vintage Car Owners’ Club [VCOC]
Dyan: You have made an indelible mark in the running of the VCOC especially in area of finance as its Treasurer for the past five  years as being a well run entity with now adequate cash reserves; quite a few of the recent VCOC Rallies like the one in the last quarter of 2014, VCOC Members Day Run to Galle and back was conducted very successfully wherein this Rally to Galle you, apart from being the Treasurer of the Vintage Car Owners Club headed the special committee set up to organize this Members’ Day run to Galle and back via Hikkaduwa for a night-stay. So you are not only a Finance man counting the coins but a dynamic personality obviously passionate about Vintage Cars and now the VCOC has a membership of some 225 members – great stuff Mahendra! Tell us about your beginnings – you know, how you started your love with cars from your childhood, as a man from distant Matara etc. Mahendra: My childhood was spent in Matara as my parents and siblings were from Matara. I attended Rahula College, Matara. My father then possessed two  cars, namely a Peugeot 203 and a ‘Bug Fiat’; around that time I was about 10 or 11 years old, I took an extra interest in the manner my father drove his cars, the Peugeot 203 and the Bug Fiat… you know how he started, held the steering wheel, depressed the clutch and engaged gears, how he braked – the works! One day when my father had gone out to attend to some matter I gingerly opened the driving side door of the Peugeot 203, got in with the ignition key and started the car; I recalled how my father depressed the clutch pedal and engaged the first gear; I did so but failed to remember how to smoothly release the clutch; the inevitable happened!
Dyan: I could visualize the scene Mahendra; let me continue: so the 203 lurched forward and stopped!
Mahendra: [laughs] Exactly correct! The 203 jumped forward and stopped; but undeterred I started the 203 again and this time, I released the clutch slowly, just like my father and this time there was no lurching – it moved forward ever so smoothly! I then recalled how my father used to engage the Reverse Gear; I did so too without error. And so in this manner I moved the Peugeot 203 back and forth a few times in our front lawn until the sound of the running engine was heard by my mother who was in the kitchen. “What do you think you’re doing Mahendra? Please stop immediately after all you’re bound to cause an accident as you are not trained to drive your father’s car”, admonished my mother. I froze, and quickly reversed the 203 to its original position and got off the car and pleaded with my mother not to convey what she saw to my father as he would have literally boxed my ears! Yet it was such an indescribable thrill for me that day; I couldn’t even sleep as I was full of the fact that I had ‘driven a car’!
Dyan: So did your mother complain about the ‘young boy driver’ to your father by any chance that time?
Mahendra: Thankfully no; but my mind was set to drive my father’s cars again; invariably he used to run the Peugeot 203 when he had to take more members of the family and would use the Bug Fiat a.k.a. Fiat Topolino when he had to drive alone when invariably I used to jump inside to accompany him yet essentially to observe closely how he used to drive it; listening to the revs; closely observe his feet and arms and of course how he used to change gears at particular sound [revs] of the engine. My desire to drive either one of them or ideally both cars was overwhelming although I ‘promised’ my mother that I would ‘never’ drive my father’s cars again! The Fiat Topolino posed fresh challenges as it was not a conventional ignition key that was used to start the engine but something akin to a nail that was pressed when the ignition lights came on and he pulled on a ‘starter yank’ to fire the engine; if the 203 gears were relatively easy steering mounted gears, the Topolino had floor-board gears with a tall gear lever; besides when one sits one could [certainly at that young age of around 10 or 11!] hardly see the road ahead! Then one day for some luck, my father had to go to Colombo for an official matter by train; my heart skipped a beat as my thoughts went to somehow or the other to ‘drive’ the Fiat Topolino, notwithstanding the fact that my father used to hide the car keys [perhaps he had felt that his rascal of a son would try to meddle about with his cars!] As the Fiat Topolino had to be started with something like a nail I pulled out a nail from the wall of the kitchen and pushed it into the slot meant for firing ignition in the Bug Fiat – to my amazement, the ignition lights came on [even sans the official car keys that were ‘safely’ hidden by my father] and then I pulled the starter like my father did and she fired! I then engaged the 1st gear and she moved; and so with the 2nd and 3rd gears around the lawn of our compound in the absence of my mother too who had gone to Matara for some shopping; it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment for me without my parents and so I enjoyed every moment of my ‘freedom’ in driving the Fiat Topolino up and down the lawn of our garden; whilst I was in seventh heaven driving my father’s Fiat, I didn’t notice that peering eyes from the neighboring house was observing all my antics and so this elderly uncle spilt the beans of my little ‘Topolino adventure’, alas to my father! This uncle even went to the extent apart from conveying the fact that I had surreptitiously not only driven my father’s Fiat up and down the lawn of the garden but had also used an ekel-broom to sweep off any traces of the Topolino car tyre tell-tale marks! It left me aghast when my father chided me and for the first time addressed me as ‘Umba’; I could never forgive that ‘Uncle’ for having ratted on me and Fiat Topolino!
Dyan: For the benefit of MOTOR readers let me say something briefly about the Fiat 500, commonly known as "Topolino", is an Italian city car produced and manufactured by Fiat from 1936 to 1955. The name "Topolino" translates literally as "little mouse" in Italian, but is also the Italian name for Mickey Mouse! The Topolino was one of the smallest cars in the world at the time of its production. Launched in 1937, three models were produced until 1955, all with only minor mechanical and cosmetic changes. It was equipped with a 569 cc four-cylinder, side-valve, water-cooled engine mounted in front of the front axle, (later an overhead valve motor) and so was a full-scale car rather than a cycle-car. The radiator was located behind the engine which made possible a lowered aerodynamic nose profile at a time when competitors had a flat, nearly vertical grille. The shape of the car's front allowed exceptional forward visibility. Rear suspension initially used quarter-elliptic rear springs, but buyers frequently squeezed four or five people into the nominally two-seater car, and in later models the chassis was extended at the rear to allow for more robust semi-elliptic springs. With horsepower of about 13 bhp, its top speed was about 53 mph (85 km/h), and it could achieve about 39.2 miles per US gallon (6.00 L/100 km; 47.1 mpg-). Despite being more expensive than first envisioned, the car was competitively priced. Nearly 520,000 were sold. Three models were produced. Model A and B shared the same body, only the engine of model B had 16 hp, vs. 13 hp of Model A. Model A was produced from 1937 to 1948, while B was produced in 1948 and 1949. Model A was offered as a 2-door coupé, 2-door cabriolet and a 2-door van, while Model B also introduced a 3-door estate under the name 500 B Giardinetta ("estate car"). Model C was introduced in 1949 with a restyled body and the same engine as Model B, and was offered in 2-door coupé, 2-door cabriolet, 3-door estate and 2-door van versions. In 1952, Giardinetta was renamed Belvedere ("a turret or other raised structure offering a pleasant view of the surrounding area", referring to its sunroof). Model C was produced until 1955. In 1955 the larger rear-wheel-drive Fiat 600 was launched by Fiat and that would become the design basis for the new Fiat 500, the Nuova 500.
Mahendra Thanks for that background info of the beloved Fiat Topolino – incidentally I had 14 of them! Reverting to my episodes with my naughty school-boy days, my passion continued with cars; loving them with tender care, washing them carefully and of course driving them whenever I had the opportunity with my father relenting eventually, accepting that my passion for cars far outweighed anything else; by age 15 I had become an adapt driver and by age 17, quite a competent driver, I fudged my age in Application for a Driver’s License and went on to officially obtain my Driving License! So for the record I was under 18 when I obtained my ‘All Private’ DL driving my uncle’s Land Rover in my first attempt! With my passion for driving continuing unabated by age 21, I decided, just for larks that I get my DL for buses too! There is a Driving School that also has buses in Matara called Hiran Tours – I paid Rs 150 for using a bus for the ‘Trial’ and like for the All Private Test, got through the bus License also in my first attempt as I was by then a superb driver! My academic studies suffered as a result – my world was cars and cars that got my father rather worried! My father incidentally had an estate with mixed crops in Akuressa; I remember loading up the Peugeot 203 to its brim literally even the hood rack had Banana bunches fully laden with every other available space filled up with sweet potatoes, Yams of every possible description, rice, coconuts, low-country vegetables that ensured all what the family needed and more for all our helpers too; indeed our Akuressa Estate that my father overlooked was a great asset.
Dyan You told me that you’re also a tea planter now, more of that later, but how did you get immersed in automotive workshop work along the way; please share with us how your career panned out then.
Mahendra My father expressed his concern that my studies were taking a back seat due to my pre-occupation with the automotive world and so it was inevitable that after I got thrrough my A/Ls, I sought a Mechanical Apprenticeship at a renowned well equipped Motor Garage named Samarasinghe Motors owned by an uncle of mine. I literally worked under an experienced mechanic learning the ropes first-hand. I was so enthusiastic at this discipline that within a year I could totally dismantle and re-assemble an engine of a Morris Minor in a very short time, flawlessly! This prompted me to apply in 1979 for a suitable opening in motor mechanics at United Motors, along with a letter of recommendation from my uncle who owned Samarasinghe Motors, Matara. To my pleasant surprise the Competent Authority of the then United Motors, wrote me an encouraging letter that his organization would be pleased to welcome youngsters like me who had the courage to apply for such jobs. I still treasure that wonderful letter! I was interviewed by one Mr. Coomaraswamy, Works Manager of United Motors who appeared skeptical at my mere one year’s mechanical experience and asked the rhetorical question:”‘What can you do with only one year’s experience?” Undeterred I answered confidently as a 22 year old that I could assemble a motor car petrol engine and that he could give me an appropriate test! He took up this challenge proffered by this callow youth! And so this Works Manager got his Foreman to dismantle whatever possible, including the Platinum Points and even the Distributor of a Mitsubishi petrol Jeep and told me to re-fit and make it start. I took up the challenge with glee and within a mere 20 minutes I had refitted the Spark Plugs, Platinum Points – the works! And then I told the Boss Mr Coomaraswamy to get in start the engine, “All Ready Sir”, I said confidently. He got in and fired the engine. And it started sans any stutter! I still could recollect the look of utter amazement in his face!! Of course I didn’t tell him that during my one-year stint at Samarasinghe Motors, Matara, many State-owned Mitsubishi Jeeps used to be brought for general repairs and so I was exposed to Mitsubishi Jeeps as well there! My boss then called me over to his office and simply told me that it appears that there’s nothing more for me to learn by working as a Mechanic and offered me job as a ‘Charge Hand’ which is a supervisory role just below the Foreman. Instead I declined his kind offer and told him that I still needed to work and gain still more experience as a Mechanic. He finally relented and so I worked as a Mechanic at United Motors for around one year by then I also became proficient with diesel powered vehicles such as Fuso Buses. When these buses were given to me for decarbonizing, say in the morning, I would have them fully decarbonized by that same evening! My boss Mr. Coomaraswamy, the Works Manager by then was highly impressed with my keenness to learn the whole time; willingness to impart my knowledge to juniors and generally due to good work ethics and positive attitude. And so when the Foreman Tilekeratne got a break in Dubai, my Boss said that he will not look for talent outside and instead offered job of Forman to me! I declined it respectfully as I felt that it was a tough proposition to be boss of my work mates who were by then my personal pals! He then told me to move from my ‘Light Repairs section’ to the ‘Heavy Repairs Section’ that had a different work-force; I worked in this Heavy Repairs section for a full five years, gaining much exposure. Around that time a relative of mine Kumar Abeyesundere who was a Director of Colombo Traders Ltd said that his Company would be importing Isuzu Elf vans and that they would be purchasing a land in Nugegoda to set up a large Workshop. He offered me a higher salary than United Motors and so I took on the job. One Paul Joseph, Engineer Workshop was in charge of the project and they went about making purchase of all types of heavy equipment including lathes etc. Unfortunately around that time the dark era of Sri Lanka with ethnic tensions rocked the country and Paul Joseph fled to Canada and with his departure the fledgling business never really took off as expected; furthermore a Buddhist monk went to courts against the property owner Mr. Thalayaratne who warned the monk that he would shoot him if he continues with his litigation at the Mt. Lavinia Courts. The monk disregarded the dire warning and paid the price! Mr. Thalayaratne shot him dead at the premises of the Mt. Lavinia Courts itself. I was there in Courts representing the Company then! With the business failing with all this my father told me to consider looking after the family-owned plantation in Akuressa. I hesitated as I had already married a girl from Colombo a first cousin of Hemaka Amarasuriya – not the type who would relish the far flung outstations!
Dyan So did you eventually take up your father’s wonderful offer of looking after the precious estates?
Mahendra [smiles] My father persisted and suggested that I at least visit the estate during weekends which I did and gradually realized that though there was much work, lucrative returns were there for picking on estates; I started re-planting with tea with great vigour and enthusiasm and it started to pay off! I then purchased another estate close by and started to replant that also; and then to make a long story short, bought another property named ‘Athu-Ela’ in Pitabeddara, 50 Acres which I got cheap for a mere one million and commenced replanting that too successfully and put up a bungalow also there.
Dyan Mahendra, motor engine whiz transformed himself successfully to be a proprietary tea planter! At this point could you for information of MOTOR readers please let us have names of your vintage cars?
Mahendra I have a Vauxhall 12, Z – Series, then an EY- Fiat Topolino; 3Sri Austin Healy Sprite Mk 1, - this Healy Sprite was owned by a famous Planter, Tissa Atapattu, who is now domiciled in California, USA; then I still possess my father’s Peugeot 203, in topping condition; this 203 has a ‘Buick grill’, a beauty!
Dyan You have two  homes to manage – in Colombo and your plantation bungalow – how do you manage to air all these cars in between Colombo & ‘Down South’; are all of them in running order?
Mahendra All of my cars are in perfect condition; in fact I take turns in running each of the cars between Colombo and my plantation bungalow ‘Down South’ as you say. And I always use the Southern Expressway both ways! I am therefore really proud of my cars as they have always shown top reliability! In fact on the day the Southern Expressway was opened, I drove my Peugeot 203, from Galle to Kottawa non-stop and on the return I drove the Austin Healy Sprite; those manning the Expressway gates at first didn’t permit me to drive the Healy sans the hood but after re-fitting hood, the coast was clear for me to enjoy this fantastic Highway. Of course when one drives a low-flung sports car like the Austin Healy Sprite, you would feel all the contours of the Expressway – the little road hills & drops, unlike a sedan!
Dyan Tell us about your involvement with the Vintage Car Owners’ Club Mahendra Samarasinghe.
Mahendra I do recall attending the inaugural meeting of the Vintage Car Owners Club way back in the 1980s; I distinctly remember Bri Ponnambalam among the attendees. I was then not a member. I then had one of my many Bug Fiats that I used to run in Old Crock Rallies to Moratuwa etc. During this time I wanted a ‘Baby Austin’ – A30, which I eventually purchased from Chattor & Co; reverting to the VCOC, now it is in good hands as we have a dynamic President in Mr. Neil Fernando; I have been the Treasurer for the past five  years and am singularly proud of the fact that during my tenure I have steadfastly ensured that wasteful expenditure was avoided whilst embarking on a ‘Savings Spree’ towards achieving financial independence to enable us to be self-sufficient in running club affairs whenever required!
Dyan: Mahendra I must say that it was a delightful experience to interview you here at the NCC and listen to your life story, revolving around cars from the time you were just a 10 year old lad, it was fascinating how you progressed from being a mechanic to that of a successful tea planter, yet still displaying that unbridled passion for Vintage Cars. I wish you and the VCOC continued success!
Mahendra: Thank you Dyan & MOTOR magazine for taking all the trouble in conducting this most interesting interview. I wish you and the wonderful MOTOR many more years of success in every way!