One of the oldest organisations connected with the automobile in the country, the Automobile Association of Southern India (AASI) traces its roots to 1906 when six vehicle owners in the Nilgiris banded together to form a self-help group named the Nilgiris Automobile Association. A couple of months later, the South India Motor Union (SIMU) was formed in Madras with the same objectives. In the same year, the Nilgiris body merged with the Madras one, the two by then having a combined membership of 67. The SIMU became affiliated to the Royal Automobile Club of England in 1910, by which time its membership had grown to 181.
In 1921, with labour trouble spreading to the hills, car owners there got together to form a body that could decisively deal with the demand by chauffeurs for increased wages. This was the New Nilgiris Motor Owners’ Association. This later became the Nilgiris Automobile Association, federated with the Automobile Association of Great Britain. This body later merged with the SIMU.
In 1930, the SIMU, in keeping with similar organisations across the world, changed its name to the Automobile Association of Southern India. Its offices in the city appear to have been on Mount Road ever since inception. The Directory of Madras and South India of 1934 gives the address as 1-18, Mount Road. It lists Sir Archibald Campbell, ics, as the President, C. Gopala Menon as the Vice-President and Major F. Church as Secretary. The Governor of Madras and the Maharajah of Mysore were its patrons. Later, the Maharajahs of Travancore and Jodhpur also became patrons. The annual subscription was Rs. 15 for car owners and Rs. 5 for motorcyclists. The Association’s general objectives are listed as follows: “Encourage and develop the automobile movement in the Madras Presidency, Hyderabad, Mysore, Travancore and Cochin and other Native States of Southern India and to watch, protect and extend the rights and privileges of members and automobile owners generally by all possible means.”
The AASI was one of the pioneers in printing detailed route maps of South India. It was also for several years responsible for furnishing statistics on motor vehicles to the Government. It has since added services such as the issue of international driving licences, assisting in obtaining of local licences, providing help in transfer of ownership of vehicles, releasing vehicles from hypothecation and providing travel information. It also provides assistance in towing vehicles of members, besides liaising with the Regional Transport Authority. Most importantly, it campaigns for road safety.
The AASI’s office on Mount Road, the number changing to 38A in the 1950s, was a small art-deco building in a fairly large compound. A petrol bunk occupied the front and this was a landmark of the city for long. It was here that the concept of motor sports in South India originated – a race between Rex Strong and K. Varugis, from Chesney Hall on Commander In Chief Road to Catholic Centre, Armenian Street being the catalyst. M.A. Chidambaram, who was then Chairman of the AASI, felt that it would be better if motor sports had a body of its own and, thus, was born the Madras Motor Sports Club in 1954.
Chidambaram was to have a long stint as Chairman of the AASI. In the 1980s, he felt that the organisation’s land on Mount Road could be put to good commercial use. The AASI shifted temporarily to Rayala Towers while its own building was pulled down to make way for a well designed commercial structure – the AASI Complex, with P.T. Krishnan as the architect. The American Express Bank funded most of the construction and thereby came to lease a large part of the building. The AASI retains a floor for its own use, but passers-by mostly identified the building with the Bank. The AASI today has 14 branches all over South India and over 20,000 members.
You may want to read about these other landmarks: