In the forecourt of the Liberty Cinema in Bombay a few years ago, an immaculate Figoni et Falaschi bodied 1936 Delahaye 135 stood in resplendent red, cordoned off by red rope. Passers-by gawked at the car, puzzled by its unfamiliar appearance. Little did they know that this very car, once exchanged by its previous owner for a war surplus Jeep, is one of the most valuable cars in India today. They had no idea of the past it represented, of a vanished India which their fathers had seen, and of which the car they beheld was a physical manifestation.
The glamorous tradition of the automobile in India dates back almost to its invention. Regrettably, reliable records are scanty in many cases, compelling historian and enthusiast alike to rely largely on oral history and fragments of written records. This essay purports to present an overview of the motoring heritage of India, and a slice of that heritage from only western India; the kaleidoscope of colourful personalities and fabulous cars of other geographical regions is an unfortunate omission. And considering that the cultural associations of this heritage are irretrievably entangled with the cars themselves, it may not be out of place to allude to these aspects as occasion demands.
And considering that the cultural associations of this heritage are irretrievably entangled with the cars themselves, it may not be out of place to allude to these aspects as occasion demands.
THE EARLY YEARS
The preferred mode of transport of Indian royalty, elephants, horses, palanquins, and carriages drawn by a variety of animals including camels and bullocks, now observed only on ceremonial occasions, was quickly replaced by the automobile upon its introduction into the subcontinent, and marked the start of a venerable automotive tradition. The first car imported into India in 1892 was a De Dion Bouton steamer by the Maharaja of Patiala. The first petrol driven car was a Benz imported in or about 1898 by a certain Mr Forster in Bombay.
Unsurprisingly, the foremost patrons of the automobile were the Maharajas, those “Princes” in the nomenclature of the British Raj, about whose fabulous wealth and foibles much has been written, and who came to epitomize the Raj itself. The Maharajas reigned over nominally independent states within British India, whilst owing allegiance to the Crown, an arrangement known as “paramountcy”. There were some 560 such states, ranging in area from a mere 27 square miles to some 83,000 square miles (an area of England and Scotland combined). During the first decade of the previous century, the increasing imports of cars for Viceroys, Governors and other high colonial officials was not lost on the Maharajas: they were quick to adopt the new mode of transport and in time it was they and the wealthy landed classes who became prominent patrons of the automobile. These modest automotive beginnings received a sharp impetus during the visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales (later George V and Queen Mary) in 1905-06 and the Coronation Durbar of 1911, the high noon Empire, presided over by George V and his Viceroy Lord Curzon. It was during this period that Princely India developed its lifelong romance with the automobile, resulting in imports ranging from the most hallowed marques to the most humble. But we seem to be getting ahead of our tale; this essay can do but scant justice to the fascinating and vast subject of the Maharajas and their automobiles.
Although the first cars were purchased in Bombay, it was Calcutta, founded in 1690 by the East India Company as a trading post, and which was the Imperial capital of India until its relocation to Delhi in 1911, that was the early centre of automotive activities. Calcutta was called the second city of the Empire, second only to London itself, studded with grand monuments and known as the “City of Palaces”, and in a recent wag’s memorable words, the remains of a once great city. It was but natural that the first automotive club arose in Calcutta under the name and style of the Automobile Association of Bengal. The first automotive event, possibly in all of Asia, was a rally held in 1904 from Calcutta to Barackpore, a distance of about 25 miles. At about the same time, the Motor Union of Western India, formed on the other side of the subcontinent, organized races and rallies such as one from Delhi to Bombay, a distance of some 800 miles, and was the precursor to several other clubs which sprung up after World War I. Calcutta, however, remained firmly ensconsed as the automotive centre of India. Indian Independence in 1947 wrought change. The year 1949 saw the birth of the Calcutta Motor Sports Club and the emergence of a vibrant racing and rallying centre. All sorts of cars raced and rallied — M.G. and Jaguar/SS, Lagonda and Bentley, Standard and Singer, Alfa and Lancia, to name a few. Many prominent cars that form part of latter day collections in India and abroad were stabled in Calcutta at some point in their lives, among them a Mercedes 500K discovered in the remote north-eastern tea growing state of Assam, rumoured to have interesting political connexions in its murky past. By the mid 1960’s, faced with the looming spectre of communism in Bengal, expatriate Englishmen and industry (and cars and their owners) fled Calcutta in droves, opening the path for the mercantile city of Bombay to supplant the dying city as urbs prima in Indis. By the 1970s, with Calcutta in precipitate decline, the centre of gravity of the classic car movement decisively shifted to Bombay.
CARS AND PERSONALITIES OF WESTERN INDIA
IN THE PAST
The erstwhile Bombay Presidency and the Rajputana Agency constituted most of the western India of the Raj. The Bombay Presidency, one of the three great presidencies, encompassed a vast area of about 190,000 square miles extending into Sindh (now in Pakistan) and across the seas to Aden (now Yemen). The evocatively named Rajputana Agency, prosaically renamed as the state of Rajasthan after Independence, encompassed some 128,000 square miles was a political office dealing with a number of prominent Princely States. The Princely States falling within these two administrative areas of British India were predominantly Rajput,a martial clan known for its chivalry and valour. The haunting tales of valour, treachery, and jauhar (see footnote) inextricably linked with their huge forts, opulent palaces and sundry other monuments are the principal draws for overseas tourists in modern India. In a very real sense, the cars of these States reflected the personalities of their owners. Who, then, were these royal owners and their cars, or at least some of them?
Preeminent amongst Rajput royalty is the House of Mewar with its capital city of Udaipur, famous for its ethereal hotel, a former palace on an island on the picturesque Lake Pichola. One of India’s first classic car museums was opened in the year 2000 by the present Maharaja, and houses some 20 cars, including the obligatory Rolls; many cars were given away over the years (tradition dictates that cars were never sold) or otherwise disposed of. The Mewar rulers were especially fond of Rolls-Royces and Cadillacs, several of which they owned over the years. The royal House of Jaipur, second only to Mewar and known for its fabulous wealth said to be guarded in secret chambers in the Jaipur fort by Meena tribesmen, was equally well known for its polo playing Maharaja (who won the world cup) and his glamorous wife, who owned some very prestigious marques. Amongst the remaining cars is a very stylish 4½ litre Bentley and an XK120 Jaguar. Prominent amongst the other Rajputana princes was the unconventional Jai Singh, Maharaja of Alwar, the largest owner of Hispano-Suiza in the world, with Hispanos bodied for every occasion, including shikar (hunting). Bharatpur, famous for its bird sanctuary, now a world heritage site, was known for the bird-shooting Maharaja Kishan Singh’s spendthrift ways, and his automobile stables housing inter alia Rolls, Mercedes, Delage and Daimler. An Australian named Gove, who counted among his friends Indian royalty, sold them horses called “Walers”, and how a 1934 Bharatpur Horch was exchanged for horses and landed in pre-War Australia is a tale by itself. Maharaja Ganga Singhji of Bikaner, the first Chancellor of the Chamber of Princes, was a keen shikari of sand grouse in his desert kingdom which he bagged from open cars, and owned several marques including Rolls (which he liked to drive himself), Cadillac and Buick. The Royal House of Jodhpur stabled a large variety of marques which included Napier, Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Bugatti, Lanchester, and Vauxhall. Jodhpur is famous for its Meherangar fort (built by a giant, said Kipling) and the vast Umaid Bhavan Palace, now converted into a luxury hotel. Jodhpur had a penchant for Rolls-Royce and bought several very stylish cars over the years. In the 1950s, the Maharaja exchanged his Figoni et Falaschi bodied Delahaye 135 for a war surplus American Army Jeep with his younger brother. The story of this Delahaye and her sister car is a tale to be told another day.
Rajput clans, cousins to the ones in Rajputana, mostly reigned in the states of the Bombay Presidency. Maharaja Bhagwat Singhji of Gondal had one of the better collections which included Minerva, Delage, De Dion, Lanchester, Invicta, SS/Jaguar, Mercedes, Clement-Bayard, a V-12 Daimler, and of course Rolls-Royce, in addition to a large number of American marques such as Packard. The Gondal collection is one of the few princely collections which still retains many of its pre-Independence cars. Better known to posterity for his cricketing prowess than his fine stable of automobiles, Maharaja Ranjitsinhji of Nawanagar (“Ranji”) was a friend of Dr Fred Lanchester’s, who spent many a summer at his palace at Jamnagar and in whose company Ranji was a shareholder. It was but natural that the garages at Jamnagar housed some 40-odd Lanchesters over time, apart from Bentley, Lagonda, Delahaye and Bugatti. After Daimler discontinued the Lanchester Straight Eight, the Company was obliged in 1936 to produce just three special cars at the instance of two unrefusable customers : the Duke of York (later George VI) and Ranji. Ranji’s car, which spent time in overseas collections, returned home and is today in a well known Indian collection. Then there was the Thakoresaheb of Rajkot, a large landowner, whose J-12 Hispano-Suiza found its way abroad, whose Chrysler Airflow vanished without trace, and whose fabulous Rolls-Royce Phantom III – called The Star of India – graced collections abroad before finally returning to the Thakoresaheb’s family a few years ago. Among the many fine cars owned by the royal House of Idar, the very rare 1921 Farman A6B with boat-tailed sports torpedo coachwork was spirited away abroad and was showcased in the Louwman Museum in Holland. A rare Westland Healey is now in a local collection. (The Maharaja also had his private airport and some six aircraft.) Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III, ruler of the state of Baroda, was not a Rajput; he was a Maratha. Baroda was possessed of a vast stable of cars, particularly Rolls-Royce and Bentley, and one of the last V-12 Lagondas. World War II broke out whilst the ship carrying the Lagonda and two racehorses was bound for Bombay, and fell prey to a prowling German submarine which quickly dispatched ship and cargo to the bottom. His kin, the Maharaja of Kohlapur, still retains a Maybach, now used only on ceremonial occasions.
“Jauhar” means the collective self-immolation of the women of a doomed fort on a huge funeral pyre in order to avoid capture by the enemy, after which their menfolk rode out to fight to the last man, the most famous example being the sack of Chittor in 1567 by a Mughal Emperor in which all of Chittor was put to the sword.
CARS AND PERSONALITIES OF WESTERN INDIA
As Britain prepared to withdraw from India in 1947, the fairy-tale world of the Maharajas crumbled. The Princely States were assimilated into the newly formed nations of India and Pakistan. The Maharajas retained their titles and certain privileges, and were granted a Privy Purse; they were also permitted to retain one amongst their many palaces, and “personal” possessions, until a further blow was dealt with the abolition of the Privy Purses in India in 1972. Owing to the unfortunate classification of the majority of vehicles of all types in their garages being “official” rather than “personal”, vast numbers of vehicles including the most hallowed marques were perforce handed over to the Government of India. Unable to maintain their former lifestyles within their now straitened means, many Maharajas sold the proverbial family silver, including cars; many cars were sold to foreign buyers who scoured the land, picking up the vestiges of the glamour and grandeur of a bygone era for as little as a few pounds, which most Indians, with a few notable exceptions, considered old jalopies. It is the writer’s opinion that most of the best cars barring a handful today grace foreign collections and museums.
The Government of India for its part, steeped in the Fabian Socialism of post-war England, was anxious to rid itself by the firesale of these Imperial relics which it had reluctantly inherited. In the ensuing chaos, former royal cars were disposed of like trinkets, and some found the strangest of homes, a tale for another day. Several were scrapped for metal value, including Rolls-Royces and Bentleys and at least one Bugatti.
THE WESTERN INDIA SCENE TODAY
It will not surprise the reader to learn that the longest running annual car show is the Statesman rally held in Calcutta, organized by the Calcutta newspaper of the same name, held first in Delhi in 1964, and since 1968 in Calcutta. In contrast, the classic car scene in western India was a disorganized one. Bombay, with its business mindset, was dismissive of frivolities such as art and culture intruding in the way of its primary pursuit — nuisances, really, to be tolerated at best. A few car shows, if they could be called that, were held in fits and starts starting in the late 1970’s, mostly in Bombay and a few other cities such as Poona, Baroda and Ahmedabad. Organised activity came later in the form of The Vintage and Classic Car Club of India, founded in 1985 in Bombay, after which annual shows have been held with greater regularity for the past two decades.
During the past decade, a group of enthusiasts got together and founded what is informally known as the Classic Drive Group, commonly abbreviated CDG. Members of this group meet regularly every Sunday morning, except during the monsoons, at Horniman Circle in the heart of Bombay. An hours’ drive is usually followed by breakfast at the Starbucks opposite or Brun-maska at Café Yazdani round the corner, one of the last surviving “Irani hotels” of Bombay, once again, with apologies, a topic by itself.
One of the founding members of CDG is a friend of the writer’s, the tall and lanky Behram Ardeshir, an Alfa aficionado, an authority on old cars, who was responsible for changing the Statesman Rally from a purely vintage car rally to a classic car rally. The assemblage at Horniman is an eclectic one with different cars at different times. You may spot the ex-Maharaja of Talcher Antim-bodied Bentley (one of only 2 in the world), the stately ex-Maharaja of Rewa Rolls Phantom II Continental, other Rolls-Royces, the ex-Maharaja of Mysore Invicta, a Bristol, various Jaguars, Mercedes Nurnburg and other Mercedes, a 1927 Fiat Corsa racer and sundry other marques :Triumph, Sunbeam, Singer, Riley, Packard, Cadillac, Buick, La Salle, Oldsmobile, Chrysler, Dodge, Plymouth ….
The story of the cars that arrived in pre-Independence India, and the years immediately following, their owners, and the fascinating tales surrounding many of them, has been the subject of several tomes over the past two or so decades. Every now and then, an exciting new discovery is made, for instance, a Silver Ghost engine was discovered running a farmer’s water pump in Rajasthan (it was dutifully rescued). This is a story that has a beginning, but probably has no end, a subject to chat over an evening whisky and soda, and which could be written about forever.