I freely confess, the prospect of visiting a car museum didn’t exactly stir my soul. So it comes as something of a surprise to admit that I owe the Louwman Museum a debt of thanks. If it wasn’t for the museum I would never have heard of Robert Nicholl ‘Scotty’ Matthewson, an Englishman who lived in Calcutta, in then British India, in the early 20th Century. More importantly, I would never have known about ‘Scotty’ Matthewson’s car…a car like no other.
He designed the Brooke Swan Car himself, giving a telling insight into his mind, to look like a giant swan gliding through water. He did it for no other reason than to irritate the British elite of Calcutta. An ambition the car succeeded only too well in achieving.
The swan’s beak is linked to the engine’s cooling system and opens to allow the driver to spray steam to clear a passage in Calcutta’s crowded streets. Ingeniously, whitewash could be sprayed onto the road through a valve at the back of the car to make the swan appear, ahem, to be defecating. The wheel arches have brushes to remove elephant dung from the tires. The swans eyes have light bulbs in them, making it look possessed when illuminated.
Basically, ‘Scotty’ Matthewson was a man of vision and genius…a man of destiny no less. If Matthewson had had the same business acumen as Henry Ford the world of motoring might have become a very different place.
The car caused panic in the streets of Calcutta on its first outing; the police were called and had to intervene to restore order. This fact alone makes me want celebrate his life. Matthewson sold the car to the Maharaja of Nabha, whose family owned it for over seventy years. When it was rediscovered it was in poor condition but the Louwman Museum bought it in 1991 and restored it to its former glory…and, truly, what glory.
Almost as brilliantly, the Marahaja of Nabha had a smaller version – the Cygnet or Baby Swan Car – made to use on his estate in the 1920s. This makes the Baby Swan the owner of the title, ‘oldest Indian-made car’.
The Brooke Swan Car, while certainly a highlight, is really only an amuse-bouche to whet the appetite for the rest of the delights that await within the modern facade of the museum. There are motorised vehicles dating back to the earliest days of motorised travel. The collection is extraordinary, a result of the collecting passion of two generations of the Louwman family. Yet this is no petrol-head experience, the museum is more like a social history of our motorised past.
There are over 250 antique and classic cars in the collection from all over the world; the earliest dates from 1886 and there is just about every car make and major milestone in automotive history present. There are big cars, small cars, weird cars, ‘celebrity’ cars from films (The Godfather, James Bond), celebrity’s cars (Elvis, Steve McQueen), cars that are boats, cars with motorbikes inside them, cars that won major races…there is more chrome in the building than is entirely decent.
The museum is pretty big, and we must have walked a couple of kilometres over three floors to see everything; the irony of having to walk so far in a car museum wasn’t lost on our aching limbs. Despite that, this has to count as one of the most entertaining museums I’ve ever visited – and I don’t even own a car.