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Vintage Wonderland

July 2004
Vintage Wonderland

Who would have guessed?India will soon be able to boast of a veritable Mecca for Vintage car aficionados? Indeed, the country has quite a legacy of internationally acclaimed classic cars.

By K.R.N.Swamy

If allure and affluence surrounds the world famous Rolls Royce automobiles, is it any wonder that their entry into India dates back to the times of Maharajas? It was 1908 when the very first Rolls Royce by the name of "Pearl of the East" rolled on Indian soil as a part of a cross peninsular car rally. This gem was later bought by the Maharaja of Gwalior, giving him the distinction of being the very first Indian to own a claim to this fabulous global moniker.

What with the royalty of India, there was soon a spattering of RRs all over this otherwise poor nation. Nearly 900 of these were sold in the Indian subcontinent between 1908 and 1947.

However, the first car ever imported into India dates back even further; all the way back to 1892 when the Maharaja of Patiala bought the French model De Dion. This 112 year old association with the automobile has led in recent times to a vintage car interest group in India and a clamor for a National Vintage Car Museum which is set to hold its own amongst the very best.

Oddly though, India is not the most suited for such an outrageously affluent and exclusive passion. Take for example the issue of restoration of vintage cars - it is a major hurdle for enthusiasts in India. Possessing a vintage car is one thing, nursing it back to its former glory is quite another. Moreover, out of the 4000 to 4500 vintage beauties all over India, hardly any are found on the roads.

Theoretically, buying one of them is like buying any other car. You can visit a car dealer to find if there is one for sale. In reality, the chances are that the dealer and the Indian auto magazines might not be able to offer a wide range. What do you do? Help is at hand. Mumbai's Vintage & Classic Car Club of India (VCCCI) is the place you would head for. Says Nitin G Dossa, Secretary, VCCCI. "There is no legality of buying and selling a vintage car. But I suggest that it be sold to persons who would care for it."

Today there are a number of private museums in India, maintained by a handful of rich vintage car enthusiasts. Leading the field is the fabulous Pranlal Bhogilal with 200 plus of these classics in his collection. Amongst the gems are a 1948 Daimler Royale (ex- King George VI and ex- Maharaja of Mysore), a couple of Lagondas (including a magnificent V-12 4.5 litre), a Packard, a triad of Bentleys, a Mercedes 300S, a host of Rolls-Royces (Silver Wraiths and Phantoms among others), and even a ?bullnose' Morris Cowley. Of world famous cars, his collection only lacks the fabulous brand of Italian Bugattis.


Vintage cars, lovingly nurtured by 51-year-old Nitin Gordhandas Dossa, are another famous private display in Bombay. He has 48 of them, from the famous 1960 Mercedes Benz 190 SL (which once carried India's former first family, the Nehrus), to Hudson 1933, an eight-cylinder open convertible, the only one in the world. In Bangalore, we have the famous automobile museum of Vijay Mallaya, the liquor King of India. Mallaya's craze for cars, both of the pro-racing circuit and of the collector's items is described as legendary, with his 40 plus vintage car fleet rated as one of the best in the world. A garage houses a dozen of these gleaming, gas-guzzlers. History comes purring alive in the presence of a rare 1926 Mercedes K Type, a 1928 Buick, 1927 Rolls Royce, Humber 1903, Pierce Arrow 301, the classic Cadillac, a 1931 Studebaker amidst the BMW's, Vauxhalls, Dorraqs and Bugatti's. To the left of the entrance of this display is an open-air garage, where the major attraction is a quaint blood red 1926 fire engine of the Surat Municipal Corporation! The less affluent collectors have also set up their own smaller museums.

"The idea to set up a museum, came to me about two years back ,when I had collected about seven cars," says Mr full name? Titus of Delhi., hastening to add that it is in the last five years, that he actually built his entire collection of 21 cars. The 35-year-old general manager Tarun Thakral of the Le Meridien hotel in New Delhi, has collected over 14 vintage cars in the last five years.

In late 1970's Dr.Karan Singh the then Minister for Tourism and the former Maharaja of Kashmir, proposed that a National Museum for vintage cars should be created. Years later, this offer was taken by the most famous of India's car enthusiasts Pranlal Bhogilal. He wanted only some space in a prominent area of Bombay allotted for the Museum by the Government of India and he would take care of the rest. But there has been no compliance from the Government of India, till today.

But Bhogilal was anxious to ensure that his own collection and that of others are well displayed in India. Now a museum is being constructed near Ahmedabad by him, where about 100 vintage beauties will be displayed initially. More will be added gradually. Queried about his plans, Bhogilal answered "Eventually, all my cars are going to belong to the museum. This is what eventually has to happen, if one wants to perpetuate this hobby," he says. "It has to be institutionalized ? the idea is that as many people as possible should enjoy. I have been asking the government to give us land where we can build a museum and so far there has not been a positive reply. Apart from cars, our family has a large collection of motorcycles, horse carriages and palanquins. Some of them are very outstanding. All could go into a museum ? it could be of great educative value. I have a clear enough idea of how the museum should be arranged. Behind the cars, there should be paintings or photographs depicting the use or the character of the vehicle. There could be film shows. We could have cars on loan for temporary exhibitions?"

Bhogilal's multi-crore project tentatively estimated at Rs 100 crores, (without calculating the cost of exhibits) is to be located on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in his spacious 15,000-acre farm. Work has already begun in full earnest. "I have a vision of a very large museum, a unique one. The main attraction will be my vintage cars, of which I plan to keep only 50 to 80 at a time and rotate the rest, as I feel a visitor can only take so many cars at one time. I also plan to broaden the base to include just about everything on transportation." Plans include a restoration and maintenance workshop to enable visitors to see how cars were maintained and restored, auditoriums for films and audio-visuals, shops selling souvenirs and restaurants serving multi-cuisines. "Basically people should be able to spend a whole day out and go back with a unique experience which is also educative," says Bhogilal.���Unlike most visionaries, Bhogilal has sufficient financial clout to make this Indian National Vintage Car museum, as one of the best in the world, along with its peers in nations like Britain, USA and Germany.

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