Thursday, November 6, 2008

First factory

Though the sign says '861', it would be more appropriate to call it '1'. On the western bank as Mount Road (I know I should say Anna Salai, but change comes slowly - sometimes, not at all) meets Arunachala Street, stands this building, with no signage to indicate what it is all about. A newcomer to Chennai can be excused for assuming it is some government office, seeing the art-deco style building and the quiet, unhurried ambience all around it.

But '861, Anna Salai', is special, for various reasons. In the second half of the 19th century, when the owner of this property fell on hard times, it was bought by A.M.Simpson, a Scot who had come to Madras in 1840. By the 1870s, which was when he bought this site, Simpson had become a very well established coach builder, whose products rivalled those made in London. With his business growing, he needed more space for making coaches than was available in his location further south on Mount Road. As horse-drawn coaches gave way to other modes of transport, Simpson's moved into manufacturing rail coaches; the company is also credited with building the first steam-powered motor car in India, in 1903. Circa 1915, the buildings seen beyond the wall were built, as a frontage to the body building workshops and to house the motorcar showrooms. In 1933, Simpson's became the trading agency for the 4 cylinder 'Vixen' engines built by Perkins & Company, a firm set up in Peterborough, England, the previous year. Over the course of subsequent years, the engines proved to be best-sellers. In 1952/3, Simpson & Co. became the first licenced manufacturer of Perkins engines outside England, upon which the jumble of workshops at this site was converted to a modern-day factory.

Today, Simpson & Co. is the flagship of the Amalgamations Group, making the Perkins engines that go into tractors manufactured by TAFE, another company of the Group. Very low profile and unassuming, this first factory on Mount Road does not have any visible external sign of its history, heritage or stature. If one does not notice the stylized 'Simpson & Co.' written on the building, the assumption of it being a government office will take a lot of changing!

PS: In an earlier post about Simpson's sesquicentennial celebrations, I had linked to the Amalagamations Group website. That website ( has not been renewed and is now with a squatter: another testimony - sadly - to the low profile, even reclusive, nature of one of India's oldest business houses!


Hilda said...

I guess they don't need to promote their services, seeing as how they're assured of customers.

I love that intricate wall!

Shantaram said...

>> Hilda>> You're right, but talk about all eggs in one basket!