A Country’s Entry into the World of Cars
‘Upali’ drives the nation’s petrolheads
Petrolheads may claim that a country can’t consider itself developed or its people advanced until and unless it manufactures its own vehicles. Perhaps there is a smidgen of truth in this truism, which redounds to the likes of Germany first, then the UK and the US, and the rest of the automotive world following in close order since the turn of the 20th century.
It took civilisation 20 centuries to get from a cartwheel to the pneumatic tyre. Sri Lanka was a civilisation in its own right over 25 centuries ago but it took 25 years since independence for it to consider its contribution to the upwardly mobile world of vehicles.
And it took an enterprising young businessman by the name of Upali Wijewardene to bring his island nation – driving wheels first – into the arena of modern manufacturing.
First, he set up a factory complex in Homagama in 1969, a time when the economy was closed for all intents and purposes, to assemble Mazda cars. Financially savvy in an era where investment in a backwater economy was scarce, he funded the undertaking with advances he received in lieu of the future finished product.
Later, the entrepreneur and budding tycoon in many fields – press, aviation, confectionery et al – put together the stylish Fiat 128s… from which came the Upali Motor Company’s (UMC) homespun variant.
UMC was a case in point to illustrate how Upali – a ‘character’ as they say – “wandered to the very edge of the law [but] never crossed the line,” in his own words. Exploiting a loophole wherein the government had imposed a 300 percent tax on vehicle imports, Wijewardene imported only the spares (which were taxed at the much lower rate of 100%) and proceeded to assemble the cars locally.
Despite the comparatively rakish lines of the ‘Upali Fiat’ however, UMC had to put up its shutters because the relatively few units that came off the local assembly lines were no match for the readily available and altogether more affordable, as well as reliable (let it be said), Japanese motorcars that hailed from the ‘Land of the Rising Sun.’
Sri Lanka was a civilisation in its own right over 25 centuries ago but it took 25 years since independence for it to consider its contribution to the upwardly