Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Mr Partap's prized car

...drove it for 50 years until his death

Roopnarine Partap's rare 1955 Desoto Diplomat. Photo Credit: Donstan Bonn

Roopnarine Partap with his beloved Desoto Diplomat. Photo Credit: Donstan Bonn

Sandra Partap-Beharry tells the story of her father. Photo Credit: Donstan Bonn

The famed Partap mansion at South Oropouche. Photo Credit: Donstan Bonn

The Dome Oilfield fire of 1928 that claimed the lives of sixteen people, including Bunsee Partap, the father of Roopnarine Partap. Photo Credit: Donstan Bonn


Donstan Bonn

Photo Credit: Donstan Bonn

Photo Credit: Donstan Bonn

Restored to a pristine condition, Roopnarine Partap's Desoto Diplomat. Photo Credit: Donstan Bonn

The Brij Maharaj Auto & Heritage Museum, where this car now lives, is having an open day on Saturday (November 4). You can visit between 10a.m and 2p.m. For more information you can call 620-4551.

THOSE villages in and around Fyzabad have, for nearly a hundred years, seen the benefit and been the victim of the oil boom that went bust.

It happened at the expense of the area's agricultural identity, as labourers turned to the more lucrative business of black gold, land was acquired for the wells, estates were bulldozed, and rice and watermelon fields filled with dirt to build homes in the lagoon.

The town centre never recovered when the crash happened, but the district has seen a new wave of business and residents to the area, made more desirable by rehabilitated roads, drains, rivers, and utilities, and by the coming of the Solomon Hochoy Highway extension that will connect the area at multiple points.

Watching it all happen was Roopnarine Partap, born in Fyzabad in 1925, but who, curiously, saw no reason to change a thing about himself for half a century.

Known to the villagers by his alias Sonnymoon, here was a man who was like a time traveller from Trinidad's colonial past.

No one between South Oropouche and Fyzabad can remember Sonnymoon without his crisp Wilson hat, dapperly dressed with pencil-thin moustache and pen protector in breast pocket, sitting stern-faced and bolt upright to see over the steering wheel of his immaculately-maintained American-built aqua-green De Soto Diplomat, the chrome so highly polished you could see yourself reflected tenfold off the massive grille as it cruised past.

Partap drove that car for 50 years, up until his death in 2012, at the age of 87. Except for his sons, he never allowed anyone else to drive it. He dismissed countless offers over the years by salivating car lovers willing to pay big money. Apart from his wife and children, it was probably his most important possession. This is the reason why.

Historian Gerard Besson has researched the Partap family and traced it back to February 2, 1869, when the Poonah brought 215 Indian immigrants to Trinidad, including a Bunsee Partap, who was indentured to the Belle Vue Estate in Oropouche.

Partap, from the low Malla caste, would marry Luckpatea, whose high caste husband died shortly after arriving in Trinidad.

At the end of their indentureship period, the couple accepted 5 each in lieu of a return passage to India and purchased two and a half acres of land adjoining Belle Vue estate, and ten acres near Fyzabad, with Partap also becoming a money lender who allowed rent-free use of land to small farmers in exchange for them planting and raising a specific amount of cocoa.

It made the family rich and earned Partap the name Mahatoo, or great one.

Besson wrote that, during World War I, the British fleet changed its engines from coal to fuel, making mineral oil exploration viable, and the search for oil in Trinidad intensified. In 1917, oil was discovered in Fyzabad, with British Apex Oilfields Company acquiring drilling rights on the lands surrounding the Partap property.

Instead of leasing the land, the Partaps became oil speculators. Partap's son, who was also given the first name Bunsee, formed a business partnership with driller Bobby Wade and San Fernando businessman Ralph Sammy to form Dome Oil Company in 1928. They struck black gold in the Christmas of that year.

The three would die, along with 13 others, when Wade turned the ignition on his Ford Model T, setting off an explosion of natural gas escaping the well, as efforts were being made to stop it from flowing into a river.

Bunsee Partap's body was incinerated. It was identified by a belt buckle, bunch of keys and a watch. His death certificate gave the cause of death as “shock and extensive burns”.

At the time of his death, Partap was 27 years old and married to Sookhea, who was then pregnant with the couple's second child, Sumintra. Their first child was Roopnarine Partap, then three years old.

In 1962, Sonnymoon was given that car by his aunt and uncle. His daughter, 51-year-old Sandra Beharry-Partap, ended up with her father's car after he died on July 28, 2012.

She told the Express: “He never allowed anyone but my big brother to drive it. People would offer to buy it.”

She recalled her father pulling up at the village gas station and leaving the car running while he went to pay for his fuel.

“A rasta man jumped in the car to steal it, but couldn't move it. The car is a fingertip automatic and he didn't know how to get it going.”

Last year, Beharry-Partap took the decision to sell her father's car to antique automobile collector Brij Maharaj, who is restoring the vehicle to showroom condition, with the intention of adding it to the collection contained in the Brij Maharaj Automobile and Heritage Collection to be opened in August in San Fernando, in collaboration with Angelo Bissessarsingh.

The decision to let the car go, Partap-Beharry said, was an easy one.

“My father loved it. He never would have sold it during his lifetime. A lot of people wanted to buy it. But I said, these young people would just zess with it, and my father would turn in his grave knowing how he took care of it. So when I was told the car would be going to a museum, I said yes, this was the right thing to do.”

NOTE: If you want to know more about the Partaps, you can read Anthony De Verteuil's book A Tale of 8 East Indian Immigrants, or visit Gerard Besson's blogspot Caribbean History Archives.

A very rare automobile

Sonnymoon may not have known, but he was driving a piece of automobile treasure.

His De Soto, manufactured in 1955, is a car so rare it may be the only one still in existence, if not the only one with this particular specification, according to historian Angelo Bissessarsingh.

De Soto was a brand that ceased to exist in 1961 and became part of the Chrysler Corporation. It produced upscale cars. The Diplomat was built solely for export markets in South Africa, Australia, India, the Middle East and South America. They were made in Detroit, Michigan.

About half of the couple thousand Diplomats made in 1955 were right-hand drive, but Sonnymoon's car, sold by Southern Sales, appears to have been the only automatic transmission car they ever built.