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Motoring down the ages

In ancient Sri Lanka, elephants and horses were used for riding and getting about. Carts, wagons and chariots with two or four wheels were drawn by elephants, horses and oxen. Though such vehicles are no more there are still some remnants of the traditional mode of transport like the Barakaratta and Bara Bage (used for carrying goods can be said to be the 30cwt and 15 cwt vehicles of the past).


Gaman Karatta (wagon used for long distance journeys, it accommodates 10 persons and could be called the mini-bus of the past); Bakki (could be classified as a small family car to transport children to school and members of the household for shopping etc) Thirikkala (similar to the Bakki but with no place for the legs and was the sports car of those days); Res Thirikkala (single seater racer of the past).

These are commonly called as Hackeries and drawn by bulls. The word Thirikkala really means cart with three wheels first used only for covered Ralanquins with the shouldering pole and three small wheels and used only for nobles. Then there was the Rickshaw, a light two-wheeled hooded vehicle drawn by men, first used in Japan in 1870. It was popular with mercantile executives, children travelling to school and for short distance travel in town areas. All these are still in use and could be obtained easily. Cart races were conducted annually at festivals then and even now.

Motorized - Vehicles Steam Car

In February 1902, E. G. Money who was attached to Bousteads Ltd, imported a steam car, fitted with two seats in front uncomfortably placed over a boiler and a high up tiller steering. The burner was used to burn kerosene instead of petrol. As long as the steam was kept up and the burner clean, they ran very smoothly up to nearly 20 mph. It was the hornless carriage. It took Money and A. J. Scott 1 1/2 days to reach N’Eliya on 2nd May 1902.


First Motorcycle

First motorcycle arrived in the Island on 20th January, 1903C. Hahn of Messrs Bohringer and Co was the first person to introduce the motor cycle to Ceylon.

These early motorcycles were belt-driven from the engine to the rear wheel and had only one speed and pedals were used to start the motorcycle. The first motorcycle ride to Kandy and back was undertaken by Fred Nell, the founder of Colonial Motors on a ‘Noble’ machine. His trip to Kandy and back in a day was a great achievement.

First Petrol Car

The first petrol driven vehicle was imported to the island on 2nd May, 1905 by Cecil Gnapp who was the Manager of the Cycle Department of Walkers. This was a 5 HP oldesmobile. He travelled to Mount Lavinia with W. G. Edema who later became the Director of Colonial Motors.

The first Sri Lankan to own a car and drive was E. L. F. de Soysa of Moratuwa. He purchased a black and blue one cylinder oldsmobile car. While their car was being driven from Colombo harbour to Moratuwa, thousands lined up along the road watching what they called the mechanical animal puffing along the road. The greatest difficulty while driving were the stray dogs. Due to the puffing noise dogs started barking at the car and obstructed its path Zoysa had to use a gun and fire it into the air to frighten the dogs away from their path. Mrs. Soysa was the first lady to drive a car in our country called Ceylon then where no driving licence, revenue licence and insurance certificate were required.


In early days of motoring anyone could drive or possess a car - a driving licence was not necessary. Registration of vehicles, revenue licence and insurance were then unknown.

The roads were not tarred. They were rough and very severe on tyres. There were no repair garages, no petrol sheds, no road signs and markings or speed limits.

The owners had to use their own knowledge and experience to run their vehicles. There was none to help them beyond their intelligence and common sense. But there was road courtesy which is lacking today.

By the end of November 1904, motoring was well established in the country. On 12th November 1904, the Automobile Club of Ceylon was inaugurated and founded with 100 members in Kandy headed by Major Harold North. (Members present stood and gave an ovation to the founder members).

In 1905, the first organized motor trials were conducted over a distance of about 70 miles. The winning car was a WOLSELEY WAGONETTE owned by Mrs. W. Forsy the, a planter’s wife.

Registration of Motor Vehicles/Police Ordinance No 16 of 1865

The registration of vehicles was carried out by the Police Department and the Govt Agents from 1904 up to 1927.

Driving Test

Driving tests were carried out by English officials in the Govt Departments and the Planters in the outstations were authorized to test and authorize driving. The Chief of Police, an Englishman in Colombo, was functioning as the Chief Examiner in Colombo for issuing Driving Licence.

Vehicle Ordinance Chapter 202 was enacted by Ordinance No. 4 of 1916 and was revised in 1947. This ordinance deals with non motorized vehicles excluded from mechanically propelled vehicles, ie. pedal cycles and carts. Local authorities were authorized to issue annual licences and identification plates. An important section on the lighting of vehicles was embodied in this act.

“No person shall between quarter of an hour after sunset and quarter of an hour before sunrise rise or lead any bicycle or tricycle along any public road, streets etc.” The same law applies to all motor vehicles even today.

Registration of Motor Vehicles:The motor vehicles were registered under the ordinance No. 20 of 1927 and the first registration was in 1928 by the Registrar of Motor Vehicles. The first Registrar was the Late M. Coomaraswamy. The Dept of Registration of Motor Cars and Drivers was situated at Transworks House (now occupied by Fort Police) 126, Lower Chatham Street, Fort, Colombo 01 in 1928.

In 1948 the Registrar of Motor Vehicles Office moved to No. 4 Ward Place, Colombo 07 (the present ODEL Building). In January 1959 the Department of Motor Traffic Office moved and occupied the present building at 533, Elvitigala Mawatha, Colombo 05.

Veteran and Vintage Vehicles

All vehicles registered between 1904 and 1940 were given the numbers pre-fixed by the letters A to Z by Districts and each letter was given the numbers from 1 to 9999.

The Veteran Car Club of Ceylon was formed in 1953 by Chitru Peiris and was the first such club in South East Asia. The first “Old Crocks Rally” was held in 1953, organized by Capt.

“Tabby Murrell”, “Uncle Dan”, “Daniels” and Edward ‘Bugs’ Mason ably supported by Seevali Wijewardene of Lake House. The Vintage Car Owners’ Club was formed on October 17, 1987 by M. M. Salih and regular rallies and shows are held, thereby preserving the historic and valuable vintage vehicles.

The export of these vehicles are banned by law from 1979. I wish to congratulate the president Farih Fauz, the secretary Herck Fernando and the council members, both present and past for preserving the assets of Sri Lanka without exporting them merely for money.

Classic Car Club

The Classic Car Club of Ceylon was formed in 1992 for vehicles registered from 1940 and were given numbers with the prefix CE, CY, CL, CN, EY, EL and EN (to recognize the word CEYLON) and concluded in 1956 when the ‘SRI’ series was introduced. This club too conducts regular rallies and shows.

Here too I wish to congratulate the president Clive de Silva, the secretary Geepal Fernando and the council members both present and past for the interest shown in preserving the valuable assets of Sri Lanka.

International Driving Permits

The Motor Car (convention) Ordinance Chapter 204 section 2. The regulations framed as the International Circulation of Motor Cars 1940, under section 3 (2) authorizes the Automobile Association of Ceylon, as the prescribed association to issue International Driving permits. Since, the public do not have access to the Motor Car (convention) Ordinance of 1940, it had been embodied in the Motor Traffic (Amendment) Act No 8 of 2009 under section 132 A and 132 B for the convenience of the motorists. The AA of Ceylon is affiliated to the Alliance International de Tourism in Geneva, Switzerland being the regulatory body for the issue of International Permits. It is gazetted by No. 9773 of 24-09-1947 by the Minister in charge of Transport.

Road Safety Activities:

National legal status - The AA of Ceylon is placed legally in Govt Organizations and Non Govt Organizations in the following organizations.

The AA of Ceylon has been recognized for its road safety activities and prevention of accidents. The Ministry of Transport has nominated the AA of Ceylon to the following councils. A representative from AA of Ceylon participates in all Road Safety Meetings monthly and had been contributing immensely towards its activities.

1. Motor Traffic Act Section 213 A - National Council for Road safety since 1986.

2. Motor Traffic Act section 213 - Motor Traffic Advisory Council since 1981 - Department of Motor Traffic.

3. Motor Traffic Statute of 1991 - Western Provincial Council - section 108 - Motor Traffic Advisory Council since 1992.

4. Colombo Municipal Council - Traffic, Highways and Transportation Committee - since 1982.

5. Ceylon Society for the Prevention of Accidents since 1951.

Activities of A. A. of Ceylon

1. The membership stands at around 10,000 both in Sri Lanka and abroad. This includes ordinary membership, life membership and family membership.

2. Registered Drivers - The AAC provides experienced drivers to serve the public on temporary engagements.

3. Road Patrols are provided for emergency breakdown services. 14 patrols are on duty. In early 1960s, Road Patrols along with the Public Works Department (PWD) maintained the roads and its conditions by erecting road sign board to enable the motorists to take precautions against accidents.

4. Roadside Call Boxes installed in remote areas in early 1950s served its members to take urgent calls. With the present mobile phones in hand, these services have been abandoned.

5. Technical Service - Members vehicles are examined for defects and assistance provided by competent staff to rectify minor defects.

6. A.A.C. Road Scouts - were trained and detailed for duty to guide all AAC members driving in the Island with regard to recent roadside telephones, road conditions, floods, speed limits and the routes. The picture shows where a member is receiving the latest road information from a AAC Scout in 1931 (car X-2710 seen).

7. The Official Magazine “The Record” is an excellent journal with informative articles on Road Safety and maintenance of vehicles published and issued to members free of charge. We have to congratulate the past Editor Edward Mason and the present Editor Brian Elias for their excellent dedicated services being rendered in publishing the official magazine.

8. Legal Assistance is provided to the members free of charge in the event of their becoming involved in offences under the Motor Traffic Act.

9. Traffic Seminars The Chief Engineer and Staff had delivered lectures on road safety and Vehicle Maintenance at several seminars. Ananda Dullewe, the Chief Engineer had been delivering lectures at all traffic courses conducted at the Police Head Quarters since 1982 to IG’s Traffic courses, Senior Management Traffic courses and Junior Traffic courses. We thank Ananda Dullewe of the AAC for the services rendered to the Police Department. His services should be placed on record.

10. CeSPA, The Ceylon Society for the Prevention of Accidents is accommodated since 1994 to conduct its monthly meetings and the Annual General Meetings at the Board room and in the auditorium free of charge due to the mutual cordial understanding CeSPA and AAC are having regarding road safety activities.

Over the last few years, there has been an almost complete breakdown in road discipline and road manners.

The trend is alarming and a heavy loss and burden on our economy. Since 1904, the AA of Ceylon is the largest motoring organization in Sri Lanka consisting of motoring enthusiasts.

We have seen the excellent work executed by the Association since its beginning to its members and a force recognized in Sri Lanka among motorists. To continue the good service the members of the Executive Committee and the Sub Committee Members should work as a team for the development and improvement of this prestigious Association.

My appeal to all the members present today to render the best possible assistance towards a worthy cause “Road Safety and Prevention of Accidents”. A major cause of death and destruction in our country is road accidents.

I am confident that the AA of Ceylon would extend its best cooperation and assistance in educating (i) the members on Traffic Laws, (ii) the public on road Safety and prevention of accidents in the coming years.

Finally: A big “Thank You” to our President Dhammika Attygalle, past presidents, vice presidents present and past, all other members and the staff Anton Kandiah, the Chief Executive/Secretary and the Engineers and the Technical staff for the combined excellent service rendered to the motoring public in Sri Lanka.

I hope this team will continue with their good work in the coming years. Thank you all. May God Bless AA of Ceylon and its members.

I am submitting a few photographs which explains the modes of transport that existed in ancient Sri Lanka (prior to 1900).


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