Barely a month after the city woke up to the news that Adyar Gate Hotel aka Park Sheraton aka Crowne Plaza was up for sale, it was announced that the TVS Group was selling its prime property on Mount Road/Anna Salai. Unlike the former news item, where the owners of the property are still denying it, there was no doubt in the latter. Sundaram Motors, the TVS Group company that owned the nearly five-acre property confirmed that it had been sold for a consideration of around Rs 550 Crores in an all-cash deal to the Prestige Group. The buyers plan to develop 2.14 lakh sq.ft of retail and commercial space on the plot within the next two years. With that the curtains come down on yet another historic property on Mount Road. It also marks yet another chapter of development on this thoroughfare.
Anna Salai as we know of it today, with Royapettah, Nungambakkam and Teynampet alongside were all part of the Great Choultry Plain, with just a few substantial residences near what is present day Omandurar Government Estate. The White’s Road- Mount Road intersection was marked by a rest house named the Woodundy or Uthandi Choultry which even as late as 1913, when HD Love wrote his Vestiges of Old Madras, was in existence. It was surmised by Love that the Choultry gave its name to what would eventually become present-day Mount Road and its surroundings. In 1799, following the death of Tipu Sultan, the English in Fort St George became brave enough to venture out and build garden bungalows for themselves along this area. Mount Road came into its own, its present contours being laid out by Lt. Col. Thomas Fiott de Havilland, he of the St Andrew’s Kirk fame, in 1799.
One of the early residents was a JD White of the East India Company who built his house in 1809. The road on which his property stood was named after him. It still bears the same name. Beginning from Mount Road on the south, Whites Road diverges from its parent, forming a wide triangle with the third side being Smith’s Road, which takes its name from Gen Smith of the EIC who according to Love had a large garden house in the same location. Thereafter we do not hear anything about this space until 1882, when Maharaja Sir Venkata Swetachalapati Ranga Rao Bahadur, Rajah of Bobbili, acquired a part of this acreage and built for himself a residence which he named Narayan Bagh. The Bobbili family was staunchly devoted to Lord Krishna and hence the name. In 1889, he purchased the adjoining space spanning five acres and named it Gopal Bagh. This became his official residence thereafter.
By the 1920s, Mount Road was changing in character. It was no longer just a set of isolated garden bungalows. Steadily from the late 19th century, retail and trade outlets had begun building showrooms on both sides of it, especially in the part that stretched between Government House (now the Multi-Speciality Referral Hospital) to the point where Cathedral Road intersects it. Automobile showrooms were of course the biggest draw, with giants like Addison’s and Simpson’s dominating the business. Eager to participate in this success was the firm of TV Sundaram Iyengar & Sons, then carrying on the automobile and spares trade in Madurai. Two of the founder’s five sons – Doraiswamy and Santhanam were sent over to the city in 1934. Their brief was to see if there was any possibility of acquiring a running automobile business. They soon found one.
The Madras Warehouse, later renamed Madras Auto Service (MAS), it being a mystery as to who made the name change and when, was the creation of AK Ramachandra Iyer. A man of irascible temperament and enormous enterprise. By the mid 1930s, he had branched out into several ventures besides the automobile business. He had set up the Midland Theatre on General Patters Road. He had obtained a franchise for selling Coca-Cola in Madras and thanks to his son AR Srinivasan, was also into insurance, having set up the Midland Insurance Company. Father and son were also dashing figures of Madras society, with Ramachandra Iyer being deeply interested in the fine arts for which he established Sabhas, while Srinivasan was a clubman and an avid golfer. With their interests being elsewhere, the duo was keen on selling MAS, which by then had besides its head office on Mount Road, a branch in Bangalore.
It was an ideal acquisition for TV Sundaram Iyengar & Sons, what with its main business being the dealership of General Motors. Santhanam negotiated the deal. The Bangalore business was acquired first, sometime in 1936 for a lakh of rupees. Santhanam, who was designated Managing Director, ran it successfully for a year and shortly thereafter, acquired the Madras entity as well. Doraiswamy was the man for the sale of the vehicles – trucks and cars. His methodology for the cars was simple. He by then knew most of the grandees, aristocrats, successful lawyers, medical practitioners, and businessmen of the city. He would take a brand-new car, call on a prospective client and after a brief chat, leave the vehicle behind, encouraging his host to try it out for a week. He would drive home in whatever mode of conveyance the prospect had used till then, which very often was a horse carriage or at times even a bullock cart! A week later he would call, fairly certain that the buyer would have got used to the joys of driving a new vehicle. Sure enough, the deal would be closed then and there.
The Second World War saw TVS do very well out of producer gas fitments for vehicles, to overcome petrol shortages. When the war ended in June 1945 a new opportunity presented itself. The restrictions on imports of vehicles were only partially lifted thereby ensuring that the demand was not fully satisfied. Moreover, many British officers were leaving the country, selling off their possessions, which included cars. Lastly, Doraiswamy’s marketing tactics of getting his existing customers to sell off their old vehicles and purchase new ones, meant that there was a steady supply of second-hand vehicles that TVS could tap into. To capitalise on this, the group set up Sundaram Motors Private Limited. The company came into existence on 13th August 1945, with its business being the sale of used cars of the General Motors range. Within a year, there was a restructuring of sorts, with the company also handling sales of new General Motor cars assembled at the Bombay plant – Dodge, Plymouth and DeSoto.
The first premises of Sundaram Motors were the tree-filled garden of Woodlands, the erstwhile palace of the Rajah of Ramnad on Westcott Road, Royapettah, almost kitty-corner to the auto-spares market of General Patters Road. By then Woodlands was a hotel, run by K Krishna Rao who would later make a name for himself through his international chain of eponymous hotels. He was a good friend of Doraiswamy’sand permitted the use of his garden for the display of cars, free of cost! Within a few months however it became clear that permanent premises for all the constituent businesses in Madras was needed. It was through friends in the ICS, T Bhaskara Rao Naidu and VS Hejmadi, that Doraiswamy came to know that the Rajah of Bobbili was looking for a buyer for his five-acre Mount Road property, Gopal Bagh. Realising that this would be the ideal location for their activities, Santhanam began negotiating. The purchase was concluded at rupees one lakh an acre. The construction of the workshops began shortly thereafter and in 1946, all the three business units – TV Sundaram Iyengar & Sons, MAS and Sundaram Motors moved in. A news report has it that “over 300 units of modern machinery” were installed in these workshops to provide the best services to customers wishing to have their vehicles attended to.
Business prospered despite the sudden death of Doraiswamyin 1948 and TVS became a household name in Madras as well. In the late 1950s, when the TVS Group decided to get into manufacture, Gopal Bagh was the place from which the first entities – Wheels India, Brakes India, Lucas TVS and Sundaram Clayton – began. This was where they had their project offices while construction went on at Padi. With eldest brother TS Rajam being the overall head, TS Krishna managing the administration and contacts with the Government, Santhanam handling the finance and TS Srinivasan the projects, the companies were bound to be successes. From that beginning, the TVS Group has only grown. In recent years, the conglomerate has been in the news for its restructuring of its ownership pattern.
Given the high-profile of the manufacturing entities, MAS and Sundaram Motors were less in the public eye, though they were always as respected as the others for their emphasis on quality of product and service. In later years, a TVS petrol pump also came up here and till ts closure in the 1990s, it was common to see customers driving up from all over the city to fill petrol/diesel here – such was the faith in TVS. Though TVS on Mount Road was by itself a landmark, changing times did make sense to unlock the real estate potential of the space and move the units elsewhere. Market rumour however opines that the Prestige Group has acquired the land at a throwaway price. And TVS will be missed at its erstwhile location.
My book on Chennai is out and can be bought here