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Reinventing the wheel with vintage cars

Of purdah cars and shikaar vehicles

The early decades of the 1900s are often hailed as the golden age of automobiles in India. It was the time when the automotive companies in the West and the royalty in India had come together to form a mutual admiration society. By the 1930s and ’40s, Roadsters, Daimlers, Morrises and Rolls-Royces were common sights in the garages of most royal families. To cater to the whimsical demands of the Indian royalty, auto companies soon began to create bespoke cars for them. And thus, the unique purdah cars and shikaar cars came into being. It is to celebrate such an eclectic collection of vintage and classic cars and motorcycles that Cartier is hosting the fourth edition of “Travel with Style” — the first ever international version of the biennial Concours d’Elegance. Approximately 80 cars and 35 motorcycles will be showcased at the event in New Delhi.

“My job as a curator is not just to put together a unique showcase but to also highlight India’s depth of automotive heritage,” says Manvendra Singh, who belongs to the erstwhile royal family of Barwani in Madhya Pradesh and has been curating the past editions of the Cartier Concours d’Elegance. India also holds the distinction of being one of the few countries where automobile manufacturers would create purpose-built cars. “Where else will you find cars built to transport dieties during ceremonial processions?” he says.

Singh cites the example of one unusual car: The grandmother of the Maharana of Udaipur had a zenana vehicle. It came with a quarter fitted with a washbasin where the ladies of the royal family could get dressed and apply makeup. The windows were fitted with purdahs so that no stranger’s eye could fall on them and there was a even space for a maid at the back. These cars will form part of the exhibition class, comprising non-competitive participants.

The other classes — automobile, pre-War classics, post-War classics, Roadsters, Indian heritage class, Piccolo fiats — will be judged by an international jury comprising Sandra Button, chariman of the Pebble Beach Concours, Jean Todt, president, Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, former Formula One racing driver Ricardo Patresse, Simon Le Bon, frontman of the band Duran Duran, and others. This is the first time that the Indian heritage class is showing the first few cars made only by one company — Hindustan Motors. The motorcycles have also been divided into three categories — veteran-vintage class, pre-War class and post-War class.

Singh, who started India’s first vintage and classic car restoration workshop in 1978, feels that it’s very important to check the provenance of a vehicle. “A lot of people come to me and say that Mahatma Gandhi sat in this car. I want to see the proof. Fortunately I have been helping car clubs for a very long time and have a huge record of automobiles, so I can check the provenance of the vehicle,” he says. It’s also interesting to note that unlike the West, where cars often exchange hands and are bought at auctions, in India vintage cars are often one-family owned. “25 to 30 per cent of the cars that we are showing still belong to the original owner’s family,” says Singh. “It is this unique car culture that we are celebrating.”

The cycle collector

It is not often that one finds a collector for motorcycles and yet doesn’t know how to ride one. Rakesh Jain, owner of Jainsons garments showroom in Karol Bagh, is one such person. His eye for vintage motorcycles is so keen that Cartier has decided to honour him at this edition of Concours d’Elegance. “I used to collect cars but then I realised that rare motorcyles were being exported to be bought by foreigners. I am a huge believer of ‘Save in India’ and thus started my tryst with motorcycle collection,” says the 62-year-old. His first ever motorcycle was a 1920 Triumph Model 8 with a sidecar that he picked up from Bareilly for Rs 2,500. “It came with the original number plate — UP549JI — which stood for the United Provinces, Jhansi. It is the pride of my collection,” says Jain who collects bikes as a hobby and not for commercial gain. One of his prized pieces is the 1902 Kerry made in Belgium. Yet another priceless motorcycle is the Wooler Flying Banana — there are only two of this in the world, one is in a museum in the UK and the other one is with Jain. He has picked up a few hundred such motorcycles during his travels to Raipur, Jaipur, Udaipur, Patiala, Moga and other places. “Besides these, I also collect bicycles, tricycles, antique sewing machines, oil lamps and carriages,” says Jain who plans on donating his collection to the nation in the future.

The restorers

It isn’t easy restoring a vintage car to its original condition, but there are enthusiasts across the country who have taken up the challenge. In some cases, it is the collector who has extended his hobby to car restoration, like Kolkata-based Shrivardhan Kanoria. “My late father, Shashi Kanoria, was the pioneer of vintage and classic car collection and restoration in India. I was an apprentice to him,” says 33-year-old Kanoria. In the past five years, he has restored 28 vintage cars. He believes that a car should be restored to factory standards when it comes to the mechanics. “Unlike other collectors who outsource restoration, I do it myself. I am very hands on, with two helpers to carry out my instructions. Internet is a great reference point and we have a huge collection of books on the subject,” says Kanoria, who is a non-commercial restorer.  His advice to vintage car owners is to neither overuse the car nor underuse it. “Think of it as an 80-year-old. You can’t expect him or her to jog on a racing track with a 30-year-old. Yet, some form of exercise is important to facilitate fitness of the joints,” he says.

There are unique personalities in the world of vintage car restoration such as 39-year-old Marespand Dadachanji, a Parsi priest who also has a restoration workshop in Karjat. He has restored nearly 100 vintage and classic cars since 1993 — the oldest being the 1915 Model T Ford. His interest in restoration started with his family-owned 1940 Morris. “When a car comes in, we photograph every aspect of it so that we don’t lose the point of reference,” says Dadachanji. Though there are now no major restrictions on importing vintage car parts, Dadachanji picks up a lot of spare parts during his travels abroad. “I am also a member of car clubs, which provide you with a forum to post your query. Team-bhp in India is one great forum,” he says.

There are others who specialise in the mechanical restoration of vintage cars. Bengaluru-based Christopher Rodrigues is one of them. He has restored six cars for the previous two editions of the Cartier Concours d’Elegance. After working  in Australia with a company that collaborated with Rolls-Royce and Jaguar, he came back to India and did some projects for the former Nizam of Hyderabad. Wiring, chassis work, welding, fuel tank work– he does pretty much it all. “If it’s an American car, it’s fairly easy to get the parts as the companies remanufacture parts to original specifications. Parts for British and French cars are difficult to get,” says Rodrigues who usually relies on the international network of car enthusiasts for information about parts. One of the rare cars that he has worked on is the 1906 Napiers — there are only two such in the world. The price of the restoration job depends on the extent of the work required — a normal brake job costs between Rs 1,000 and Rs 10,000, while the sky is the limit for a full-fledged restoration.

ENDNOTE: The fourth edition of the Cartier Concours d’Elegance will be held on March 14 at the Jaipur Polo Grounds, New Delhi

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