Mumbai Takes Its Vintage Padmini Taxis Off The Road For Good

Jan 4, 2020
Originally published on January 4, 2020 11:29 am

At the edge of a tree-lined lane in Mumbai, India, Abdul Kareem opens the hood of his taxi and pours water into the radiator. The car is black with a yellow roof, like all Mumbai cabs. But it stands out in a line of cars.

It's antique-looking and kind of boxy, with bulbous headlights. It has a metal luggage rack on its roof that proclaims "Mumbai" in bright orange lettering. On the streets, Kareem says, people point out the taxi to their kids.

A generation ago, India's financial capital Bombay became Mumbai. Its cotton mills were redeveloped into swanky malls and offices. Hipster bars replaced the city's historical Irani cafes. Now another Mumbai icon is riding off into the sunset: the vintage black and yellow taxi.

Abdul Kareem sits behind the wheel of his Premier Padmini taxi — which will go off Mumbai's streets by the summer.
Sushmita Pathak / NPR

The car — an Indian version of the Italian model Fiat 1100 — made a debut on India's streets in the 1960s. It was manufactured in India by a local company, Premier Automobiles Ltd. The car was named Premier Padmini, after a legendary Indian royal. Early posters advertise the car as "a beautiful princess of your own," with a picture of an Indian woman decked in gold jewelry.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Premier Padmini became synonymous with Mumbai taxis. In its heyday, some 60,000 Padmini taxis plied the city's streets, according to Anthony Lawrence Quadros, general secretary of the Mumbai taxi drivers' union.

"It's an iconic car which has served millions of people," Quadros says.

In 1991, when India's government passed reforms allowing more private competition in the economy, global companies started flooding the Indian market. The Padmini, which hadn't had an update in years, had to compete with modern, foreign cars equipped with the latest technology. Premier Automobiles suffered huge losses and stopped production in 2000.

Cabbie Abdul Kareem poses with his Premier Padmini taxi — one of only about 50 that were still on Mumbai's streets as of December. Once ubiquitous, the Padmini is being replaced by modern cars.
Sushmita Pathak / NPR

Then, in 2008, the government of the state of Maharashtra, whose capital is Mumbai, started to phase out older cars to reduce pollution. They banned all taxis that were older than 25 years. In 2013, they revised the rule and made the age limit 20.

A lot of taxi drivers and owners became unemployed, says Quadros. Some had taken out loans for their vehicles and their lives were ruined, he says.

Thousands of Padmini taxis suddenly vanished from Mumbai's streets. Sixty-year-old Ram Vilas Maurya's cab was one of them.

"I miss Padmini," Maurya says. "She was a tough car."

The modern car he now drives gets a dent even at the slightest collision, he says. Padmini wasn't like that, he adds.

Maurya smiles as he reminisces about his Padmini, which was also his first vehicle when he started driving taxis in Mumbai some 30 years ago. "I used to take my kids to the beach on weekends in that car," he says.

This year, even the youngest Padminis will have to go. It's already very hard to spot one. Only about 50 were left as of December, according to Quadros.

And Mumbai residents have started noticing their absence.

"When you're trying to get to the airport and you have all these suitcases, you realize the new taxis that run on compressed natural gas have cylinders in the back and there's not a lot of space," says 37-year-old Rachel Lopez, a lifelong Mumbai resident. The Padmini, on the contrary, had a huge trunk space as well as an overhead carrier.

What else was different about riding in a Padmini cab? For one, Lopez says, you needed good upper-body strength to travel.

"They wouldn't close with a polite little click," she says. "You had to really kind of bash them in and then you hear a metallic thud and you knew the door had closed."

Even though she misses them, Lopez says she's not sad to see the Padminis go. They deserve a little rest now, she says. It also symbolizes how Mumbai operates.

"Something old has to go to make room for something new," says Lopez.

But before it disappears, it needs to be chronicled, says Lopez. A few years ago, she took it upon herself to document one classic feature of Mumbai's taxis: their funky, vibrant ceilings. Her Instagram page @thegreaterbombay has hundreds of photos of weird designs and patterns that adorn Mumbai's black-yellow taxi ceilings.

The humble Padmini taxi that served commuters for decades has now become a muse for artists and photographers. Finnish photographer Markku Lahdesmaki is one of them.

In the spring of 2011, when Lahdesmaki came to Mumbai for work, the scene that greeted him outside the airport surprised him.

"I saw these hundreds of very cool looking vintage taxi cars and I was like, wow," Lahdesmaki says.

Over the next three days, he traveled across the city to take pictures of these cabs in interesting scenarios. What struck him the most, he says, was that all the cabbies were very proud of their taxis.

"When I was riding in this Padmini taxi, I felt like I was in a movie," says Lahdesmaki.

Some of Lahdesmaki's photos from the project have been adapted for T-shirts and caps.

When he heard that the government was phasing out the Padmini taxis, Lahdesmaki says he decided to buy one himself. He's trying to get it shipped to Los Angeles, where he now lives.

They may not be sleek and powerful like their modern counterparts but Padmini taxis still have their fans.

Recently, Kareem picked up a man in his still-legal Padmini near a railway station. The passenger had a high-end chauffeur-driven car waiting for him. But he got into the cab instead and asked Kareem to follow his car. The man just wanted to take a Padmini taxi, for old times' sake.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

About a generation ago, India's financial capital Bombay became Mumbai. Its cotton mills were redeveloped into swanky malls and offices. Hipster bars replaced the city's historic cafes. And now another Mumbai icon is riding off into the sunset, the vintage black-yellow taxi.

NPR's Mumbai producer Sushmita Pathak hails one before it's too late.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER POURING)

SUSHMITA PATHAK, BYLINE: Taxi driver Abdul Kareem pours water into the radiator of his cab. The car is unlike any other on this busy Mumbai street. It's kind of boxy with bulbous headlights.

ABDUL KAREEM: (Speaking Hindi).

PATHAK: One the streets, Kareem people point out the taxi to their kids. The car is called Premier Padmini, after a legendary Indian queen. It was manufactured by a small Indian company. The taxi used to rule Mumbai streets. It even made frequent cameos in Bollywood movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Taxi, taxi, taxi.

PATHAK: A few decades ago, almost all of the city's cabs were Premier Padminis. There were some 60,000 of them during the 1990s, says AL Quadros. He's head of the Mumbai Taxi Union.

AL QUADROS: It's iconic car. And this cars served millions of people.

PATHAK: When India's economy opened up in 1991, the locally made Padmini, which hadn't had an update in decades, had to compete with modern foreign cars. Its manufacturers suffered huge losses and stopped production in 2000. Then a few years later, the government of the state of Maharashtra, whose capital is Mumbai, banned all cabs older than 20 years. Thousands of taxi drivers were forced to give up their Padmini cars. Ram Vilas Maurya was one of them.

RAM VILAS MAURYA: (Speaking Hindi).

PATHAK: I miss Padmini, he says. She was a tough car. The modern car he now drives gets a dent even at the slightest collision. He says Padmini wasn't like that. By 2020, even the youngest Padminis will have to go. It's already very hard to spot one. Only about 50 are left now.

RACHEL LOPEZ: It's wonderful to miss it. But it's also very respectful to bid adieu to a car whose time has come and gone.

PATHAK: Rachel Lopez has been travelling in Mumbai taxis all her life. She says you needed good upper-body strength to travel in a Padmini cab.

LOPEZ: They wouldn't close with a polite, little click. They needed a bit of a jam, you know? You had to really kind of bash them in. And then you hear a thud, like a metallic thud. And you knew the car door had closed.

PATHAK: The disappearance of these classic taxis symbolizes how Mumbai operates, she says.

LOPEZ: Something old has to go to make room for something new.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HOOD CLOSING)

PATHAK: Abdul Kareem closes the hood of his Padmini taxi. He offers to take me for a spin.

Now, I'm getting in. It's a very different interior compared to the modern cars nowadays. There's no fancy dashboard or anything. There's only one windshield wiper. The back seat has a really nice, funky cover. It's zebra print. But it's a red and black instead of black and white.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE STARTING)

PATHAK: As the taxi rattles along a quiet, leafy lane, Kareem tells me a recent incident.

KARREM: (Speaking Hindi).

PATHAK: A few days ago, he picked up a passenger near a railway station. The man had a high-end, chauffeur-driven car waiting for him. But he got into the cab instead and asked Kareem to follow his car. The man just wanted to take a mini taxi for old time's sake. For NPR News, I'm Sushmita Pathak in Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAXI-TAXIE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Taxi, taxi taxi, taxi, taxi, taxi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.