THE FIRST CONCEPT CAR?
This extraordinary ‘Swan Car’, a 1910 Brooke 25/30 HP, is just all about madness. A bizarre piece of art with its very special and fun gadgets. Possibly the first concept car in the world. The car was built by JW Brooke and company in Lowestoft, in England. It was a combination of both car and boat, which was what the Brooke’s manufactured. By the way it must have cost more than three times a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. By now it’s just priceless...
The special one-off vehicle was commissioned by the wealthy ‘mad hatter’ Robert Nicholl Matthewson from Scotland. He wasn’t bored when he placed the order for the swan car, he wanted to shock the local elite in Calcutta, India. By that time Calcutta belonged to British-India, where the Scotsman lived during the Roaring Twenties.
The pearl white swan-body resembled a swan gliding gracefully in the water between fish and golden lotus lilies, an old symbol for divine wisdom. This car has a lot of surprising features, like the moving swan’s beak that can shoot hot water and stream (heated through a connection with the cooling-system of the engine) to clear the road and make people, as well as elephants, run for their life. This was instead of simply using a horn… Can you imagine?
The floating swan has a division, because as a passenger it was inappropriate to talk to the the chauffeur. Which makes me wonder, how is it possible to let the driver know where you want to go if you can’t speak to him? Well, there is a ringing ‘telegraph’ that will show the chauffer if you want to go home, turn, go faster, turn right, stop, go straight, turn left or go slower. Quite smart! The passengers never have to be bored while traveling, because they can play on a little organ-like keypad, which can produce eight different tones. The Gabriel-horn, how it is called, works on the exhaust and makes the swan very much alive. The car has one of the first ever air conditioning systems, a double roof. The result is far less than an airco as we know it nowadays, but just the fact that it works shows smart thinking from that era.
The typically Indian decorated swan is a heavy bird with its 6,615 pounds (3000 kg). The weight is due to the fact that the body was carved from wood, and the Brooke chassis wasn’t particularly light either. Especially the giant wooden hood is extremely heavy. Sadly the Indian police banned Matthewson’s toy from the public roads already after its first ride. This monster was turning the streets of Calcutta into havoc, scaring not only the public but also the elephants. Especially in the dark when its eyes start to glow. It must have looked like a dragon, spitting stream and hot water instead of fire, and not to forget those evil glowing eyes. The swan has big electric lanterns that suit the Indian style perfectly. After the fun in the streets was over for Matthewson, he sold the car to the Maharaja of Nabha for an undisclosed sum. Nabha’s love for swans gave him the idea to build a smaller version of the swan car, which is known as the Cygnet. The Cygnet is an electric car, and it was built in India 10 years after its much larger mother. The ‘baby swan’ is perhaps the oldest automobile ever built entirely in India. The swan car stayed in the Nabha family for 70 years.
A fun fact is that the vehicle has brushes affixed to the wings, to brush the tires and clean them from elephant droppings which was a very common problem in the streets of India in those days.
When the car was found after years of oblivion, it was still in its original condition, but neglected. The expensive Indian silk upholstery had been eaten by rats. In 1990 the ‘Swan Car’ went to a Bonhams auction, where Dutch collector Mr. Louwman purchased it for his wonderful museum. Luckily he also purchased the baby Cygnet which is positioned nicely next to its mother in the Louwman museum.
Mr. Louwman brought the swan back to life again. The rats ate most of the upholsery, but some little pieces were still to be found. This helped alot with the proces to restore this special piece of automotive history. The new upholstery was made by an Indian weaving-shop, exactly the same as the original.
The running ‘Swan Car’, together with the Cygnet, have been on display at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and in 1993 the ‘Swan Car’ won the ‘Montague Prize’.
It is a car that symbolizes elegance, (Indian) style, eccentricity and creativity at its best. The last eccentric feature of this vehilce is that when you open the rear valve of the swan, faux swan excrement will drop, which is done by releasing whitewash, ingenious!