Why

Why

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

THE FAST MAN OF BANGALORE - FRED WEBB AND HIS LEGACY

My fascination for Formula One began when I was a teenager. I am not sure the number of the hours I would have spent imagining myself driving one of those cars at high speeds, braking to imaginary sharp bends and overtake every car possible on the virtual track. It is this imagination that also made me look at the streets of Bangalore as an F1 track. Be it any road, I would have compared it to some remote part of an F1 circuit with my favourite being 'the street impression' of Monte-Carlo near my place. It was fun!

With each year, my interest in Formula One grew and I started to focus more on the history of the sport - a practice which is on-going. Collecting information, books and stories is still a very integral part of my life. In one such story seeking moments, I bumped into a forum where I saw motor-racing pictures from the 1950's Bangalore. It evoked my curiosity. Several weeks of communication and persuasion with Melanie (granddaughter of Fred Webb), who provided me her time, lots of key information and the rare photographs - on basis of which this article is written.

A SMALL PEEK IN THE PAST
What was Bangalore like in the 1950's? It was a leisure city which had the blessings of mother nature precisely for its weather not exceeding 30 degrees for most of the year. Winters weren't bad either, hovering around 10 degrees during nights and rains were a delight to experience. This remained till the 90's. Apart from few areas, the city was relatively calm and amidst these less chaotic surroundings, I grew up. 

Then came the new millennium - the IT boom in India and majorly in Bangalore resulted in many IT firms being built across Bangalore and in short span of time traffic congestion became the biggest worry among the residents. It still is - but there are other things which Bangalore provides and thus we all tend to overlook the temporary ailments of traffic.

Let's go back few decades in time and try to imagine how was it like to race in Bangalore in the 50's? Ever wondered who started the trend of motorsports here in the capital city of Karnataka?  
I have lost count in number of things we Indians embrace to this date courtesy of British empire. Whether we like it or not, to a large extent - a series of practices, words, regulations,...... and these have influenced many innovators and thinkers across India. One such individual named Fred Webb was known in Bangalore for his then Webb Sales and Services - a haven for cars and motorcycles in Bangalore.

MEET FRED WEBB
From the 1940's till his demise, he was one of the chief architects who conceptualised the culture of motorsports in Bangalore. His presence in India was not by accident or through service; he remained in India as a result of his father Walter John Webb's choice to stay back after serving with the British army for 10 years in 1881. Walter John Webb along with his wife chose to settle in Ootacamund (Ooty).

It was here in Ooty where Fred Webb was born on March 27 1908. Having done his schooling at a nearby church school, he left for Bangalore at a young age to work at a motor garage called Nankervis.

With an inclination towards cars, his raise in the world of automobiles was not by any means a fluke and was a combination of passion, hard work and courage. In 1927,  Fred Webb worked as a service manager in a firm of distributors for Chevrolet cars. It was here he showcased his racing pursuits and took part in an endurance test, driving a new 1933 Chevrolet for nearly twenty-three hours continuously and covered about 2771 miles. What an effort! Aptly, for his super drive, the General Motors honoured him with a trophy for achieving this feat. 

A few years of hard work coupled with his fervour for motorcars, his name was soon to be well recognised in the Automobile Trade and its circle; these reasons were enough for him to establish his own firm.

A visionary by nature and possessing an industrious mind, Fred Webb built his firm from the scratch. In 1939, he brought Ford cars to Bangalore through a dealership at a time when the second world war had just begun, and in a short space of time he added Chevrolet cars and trucks in his list of dealerships. With his business flourishing he was quick to diversify his interest and became the proprietor of Webb’s Farm Mechanization, dealers for the famous Ferguson tractors for Mysore State and Coorg.

With each year his name and position in India's automobile trade grew in stature which helped him to secure a dealership with the Tata-Mercedes-Benz vehicles. He expanded his business towards two-wheelers as well. Under the flagship of Webb's scooter mart, Lambratta scooters dealership became popular in the state keeping in mind of the growing economic households.  

Fred Webb waving the chequered flag 
A prominent personality in the automobile industry, the state transport department often consulted him to come up with solutions on matters related to traffic. 

BIRTH OF BANGALORE MOTOR SPORTS CLUB
Fred Webb was a keen follower of the automobile and its evolution across the globe. This obsession was taken further along with few other like minded gentlemen, the likes of Cyril Doveton, John Webb (Fred's son) to name a few to hold a meeting which paved the way for the establishment of 'The Bangalore Motor Sports Club' in 1954.

Formation of Bangalore Motor Sports Club

Since becoming its President in 1955, Fred Webb endlessly laboured to put Bangalore Motor Sports Club on the sports map of India. Part of his efforts included to host races at the Bangalore-Yelahanka airstrip and Jakkur aerodrome. He also invited several participants from abroad to be part of these races.


A parade of fast exotic cars 
An assortment of exotic cars were in display on the roads of Bangalore - a sight which attracted most people from the city and from the nearby villages.

Fred Webb and the talented drivers of the yore 

 A man known for his quick wit and sense of humour - he was actively involved with the Bangalore Golf Association and also donned the hat of being the President of Mysore State Amateur Boxing Association. He was ably supported by his wife Gwen Webb, a keen horticulturist who actively participated in many of the charitable organisations in Bangalore. Their son John Webb, like father was smitten quite early by motorsports.

John Webb - son of Fred Webb with his MG TC 

The father-son duo actively took part in many of the races held at Madras (Chennai) Sholavaram airstrip, Coimbatore's Sulur aerodrome and at Colombo's Katukurunda airstrip. A versatile sportsman with having interests in various sports, it was not a surprise that he was second in command to Fred's business.

Fred Webb (far right) all set to race 

LEGACY
Fred's motto towards life was plain and simple. Life to him has always been a series of experiments and experiences, many of which pleasant, quite a few to the contrary. But essentially, he felt it was meant to be lived, not to be brooded upon. These words to this date is etched in the memories of his family members.

Having lived in India all his life, he choose to spend his final days in Bangalore at his residence in Brunton Road. He passed away in 1984. His son John remained in Bangalore and six years later while holidaying in Perth, Australia - he too passed away. The 'Webb' family continues to shuttle between Western Australia and Bangalore - and make constant efforts to preserve the legacy of their family.

During this time, the Bangalore Motor Sports Club now known as Karnataka Motor Sports Club, played a crucial role in establishing the national federation for motorsports. It is well known in the Indian motorsports fraternity for hosting the state rally (K1000) to date for close to 40 years.  


It is common to associate IT with Bangalore in today's world. However, before it became the IT capital, Bangalore was home to some of the motor racing legends of India, hosted many thrilling races and was the birth place of many automobile innovations. People who have seen Bangalore before the millennium can imagine such a possibility - but with the present traffic woes, the motor-racing tales of the yore will remain a pack of stories to share for the generations to come.