If you’ve driven in India long enough, you’ve probably heard the word ‘stepney change’ once in a while. ‘Stepney’ is a colloquial term used in India (and some former British colonies) for the spare tyre of a car. Notably, this peculiar term isn’t commonly used to describe a spare wheel in modern-day England. Read on to trace the history behind the ‘stepney’ wheel and how Indians came to adopt the British slang term in their own everyday language.
The story of the stepney
Until the early 1900s, all motor cars were manufactured without spare wheels. Hence, a puncture was an event dreaded by all drivers. Note that wheels back then were bulky metal or wood constructs unlike today. Thomas Morris Davies found a solution to their concerns by inventing a spare wheel. His brilliant idea was to make a spoke-less metal wheel rim fitted with an inflated tyre. The driver simply had to clamp it to the rim of the wheel that had a flat. Davies teamed up with his brother and they were soon in business. They called their invention, the Stepney Spare Wheel, after the location of their workshop in Stepney Street*, Llanelli, Wales.
Pretty soon, the brothers became very wealthy men and set up their ‘stepney’ outlets across Britain. They further marketed their wheel all over Europe and to the colonies of the British Empire. The Stepney wheel became such a resounding success that they were seen on nearly every car on the road. Eventually, the term ‘stepney’ became synonymous with a spare wheel in many countries like India.
All good things come to an end
The days of the patented spare wheel slowly came to a close as car manufacturers began providing spare wheels with all new cars. The actual business is said to have died out sometime after the 1st World War. However, the brand name lived on long after the last original ‘stepney’ wheel was made.
Today, as mentioned, ‘stepney’ is an everyday name for a spare wheel in India. For British people today, Stepney only means the London suburb. Interestingly, stepney has evolved even further in India to refer to an incompetent employee who drags his team back and even as a slang term for one’s mistress!
*A street named after a prosperous English family who moved to Wales from London and derived their surname from an east London suburb called Stepney. The word has had an interesting linguistic journey!