Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Harley Davidson Rickshaws of New Delhi

Just as in the UK, India was flooded with ex-wd machinery in the immediate post-war period. Many of these were British made staples such as the Ariel W/NG, Triumph 3HW, Norton 16H, Royal Enfield WD CO, Matchless G3L and BSA M20. There were also a goodly number of American v-twins, a few of the UL model 1200cc Harleys and numerous Indian 741 and Harley 45s.

Hard to believe now but the Harleys and Indians were held in low esteem in the UK and perhaps with good reason, what makes a charming classic nowadays isn't necessarily what qualified a machine as a decent bike when it was new. The Harleys had foot clutches, poor ground clearance, three speed gearboxes, poor fuel consumption and couldn't really out perform a British 350 ohv single on any criteria. I know of someone in the UK who owned one of the civilianised Indian 741B models immediately after the war and he always claims that it was the worst motorcycle he ever had!

In Delhi an enterprising businessman realised that the plentiful supply and tractor like qualities of the Harley WL models could be well applied to turning him a profit. Accordingly bikes were bought up cheap at surplus auctions and converted into tricycles. As I understand the majority were pressed in to service in 1949.

Harley WL in mid conversion to a rickshaw. I believe that the
older gentleman standing behind is one of the Sharma brothers
of 'Sharma Motorcycle House' vintage and classic motorcycle
dealers fame. 
The rickshaws were designed to carry six to eight passengers though inevitably they were often jammed with more. They became known as 'phat-phatis' on account of the engine note of the WL. Despite the Harley rickshaws now being long gone they are fondly remembered and the phat-phati nickname lives on as a catch-all phrase for motorised rickshaws.

This, as I understand, is a picture of the last Harley rickshaw
in service that retained its original Harley motor.
As time went on inevitably the rickshaws became somewhat battered. The motors wore out and parts became harder and harder to find. Sometime in the eighties the original Harley motors were phased out to be replaced by single cylinder diesel industrial engines made by the Indian firm Greaves-Lombardini. Incidentally these are the same motors as were used in diesel powered Royal Enfield Bullets.

A Harley rickshaw mid-way through conversion to
diesel power.
My first visit to Delhi was in 1997. I was lucky to just catch the phat-phatis before they were phased out a couple of years later in 1998. On October 1 1998 Delhi city enforced a ruling barring any commercial vehicles more than twenty years old from the cities streets in order to tackle a quite terrible pollution problem. My memory of the Harley rickshaws is as being obnoxiously loud and belching out black smoke. They really were terrible polluters and this is what did for them in the end. Of course though being a bike nut I was thrilled to see them and manged to charter one for a quick tour around the city. By the nineties the rickshaws were terribly battered but they were full of character and still used a surprising number of the original Harley parts, including the gearbox. Quite a testament to the strength of the Harley 'box to give nearly fifty years of service and most of those years hauling the back half of a truck full of passengers.

The story I heard is that the whole fleet was owned by one gentleman who chartered them out and made his fortune through them. He bought them at rock bottom price when they were largely unloved, got many years of service from them and then made money selling them on at a point at which they were collectors items. When the original motors were replaced by the diesel engines the Harley units were sold on to a vintage dealer in the States and then in 1998 when they were finally taken out of service they were parted out with the remaining Harley parts going once more to collectors.

The phat-phatis were even a tourist attraction. This is a
postcard I bought back in 1996.

The Indian site Thanks to the individuals who posted memories of the phat-phatis on the site which was also the source of several of the images.
Times of India


  1. Great to read about these.. I was in Delhi in 1996 and 1997 and kept seeing glimpses of these amazing machines darting about but never got chance to examine one closely .. I never realised they'd disappeared so soon after.
    The other fascinating vehicle to me at the time was the fearsome Tempo FWD three wheeler based on the old German design but with diesel singles fitted. Similar amount of silencing to the Phatpatis assured maximum "what the heck is that?" impact.. I suppose they disappeared at the same time with the 1998 regulations?
    Cheers for the article..

    1. Yep, writing about these was a trip down memory lane for me. Brilliant contraptions though I fully understand why they are no more! I do remember the Tempos, a crazy design and a big presence of noise, smoke and a surprising turn of speed.

  2. I used to ride from connaught place to asaf ali road everyday on those things. I miss them.

  3. Such rickshaws were also found in Bombay of the 1950s, but powered by Indian motorbikes. There was a small depot on Thakurdwar Road near Charni Road station. They disappeared in the early 1960s.

    1. Hello Ash. Thanks for the comment. It would be great to see a picture of these. I've had a look online but can't find anything. All the best, Richard