Stars & cars

When Cartier organised a display of 60 vintage cars in Mumbai recently, it drew a ritzy crowd, including Shah Rukh Khan, Prince Michael of Kent, no end of Maharajahs and the drummer for Pink Floyd. Anamika Butalia joined the party.

     Print Edition: December 14, 2008

Button-eyed beauties: (L-R) the 1929 Mercedes Nuremberg, the 1928 McLaughlin-Buick and the 1939 Delahaye
There’s quite a crowd gathered at the Mumbai Turf Club, next to the Mahalaxmi Race Course. Jackie Shroff is here having a drink with Yuvraj Singh and Shobhaa De. Behind them are Minisha Lamba and Koel Purie, a former Miss Afghanistan and Maureen Wadia. Later they will be joined by Shah Rukh Khan whom everyone will wish happy birthday—he turns 43 (November 2). But this event isn’t about Shah Rukh Khan. It’s about cars, many of them much older than him.

It’s the Cartier ‘Travel with Style’ vintage car event. It took 17 months to pull it together—from hand-picking the 60 vintage classics and bringing them together from all over the country, to arranging them over two acres and inviting an illustrious list of car enthusiasts. The likes of Prince Michael of Kent, for example, and Professor Gordon Murray, who designed the F1 McLaren. Not to mention cricketer Imran Khan and supermodel Yasmin Le Bon. We’ve all heard of someone owning one or two vintage cars.

Shobhaa De with Cartier CEO Bernard Fornas
But 130? Sharad Sanghi is unapologetic— it’s the stories behind the cars, he says, that are addictive. In a deep blue suit, Sanghi, 53, remembers his first buy in the 1980s, a Daimler that was once driven by King George V. It was shipped to India for the royal tour but when the King took ill and cancelled the tour, the car stayed here—one of only three of its kind. Fifty years later, Sanghi saw the car in Chennai. “Imagine my distress when a car with so much history was found with a tree growing through its backseat?,” he says. “The surge of emotions I experienced made me want to own and restore as many such cars as I could.”

He’s not alone—Dharamaditya Patnaik (44) of Bhubaneshwar owns 35 vintage cars. He talks of his “exotic” Rolls-Royce 20hp, which was especially built in 1923 with a special “dual mechanism” with hand controls for the Maharana of Udaipur, who was paralysed from the waist down. Then, he points to a Mercedes Benz 630 which was previously owned by Alexandrajeet Singh of Bhinga, UP, who was shot dead in this car while on a shikaar, and the damaged car had been grounded in memory of its owner.

The winners’ podium

The best of the show

1939 Delahaye 13MS owned by Maharaja Duleep Singhjiof Jodhpur
The ‘best of classics’
1924 Rolls Royce 20hp owned by Arvind Singhji of Mewar
The ‘best post-war classic’
1952 Cadillac Series 62 owned by Diljeet Titus
The best roadster
1949 Healey Westland owned by P.P. Asher
The best exotic car
1923 Rolls Royce 20hp owned by Dharamaditya Patnaik
Preservation prize
Rajmata Gayatri Devi of Jaipur for the 1950 Jaguar XK120
Designers’ Prize
Viveck Goenka’s 1939 Daimler DB 18
Resurrection prize
Nishant Dossa’s 1949 Bentley>Mark VI
Ladies’ Prize
Jackie Shroff’s 1937 Jaguar SS 100

The Secretary of the Vintage & Classic Car Club of India (VCCCI), Nitin Dossa, -explains what makes one spend crores on cars of a different era. “Indians are sentimental about heritage and culture and want to feel a part of it. We also have this need to reclaim what was ours during the British Raj because some of our families lost a lot. Owning these cars is, therefore, very important. It invokes the same feeling as perhaps Pervez Musharraf felt on visiting the Delhi home he grew up in.”

Jackie Shroff & wife Ayesha
But this isn’t the only explanation for the passion for vintage cars. Sukhwant Singh, an Indore-based enthusiast who owns seven classics, says: “No one is born with the vintage car bug. You take it up along the way, like any passion.”

Very often, vintage cars are just to look at, an ornament, rather than a mode of transport. Wasia Ibrahim, owner of the Silver Ghost and four other vintage cars, says: “We drive this car once in seven-to-ten days, but only during the nights. It’ll be tragic if this expensive car is damaged by a reckless driver!”

Shah Rukh Khan
Although owners are cagey, they reveal that the amount they’ve spent on buying and maintaining these cars could have bought them between two to eight of the latest models of Mercedes Benz. “Honestly, despite the expenditure, I’d rather own a single 1940s model of the Benz than the latest ‘high tech’ ones,” says one 1920s Bentley owner, who didn’t want to be named.

They take years of restoration and maintenance, a lot of time, money and love. It helps to have a larger property on which to keep the cars. And it’s good for the cars, too. The way most owners talk about it, vintage cars are a way of life. Sharad Sanghi tells the judges that he has not driven his Daimler because after 20 years, he is yet to find replacement for a vital element of the car’s engine. His daughter, Ragini, jokes: “Just cranking up the key can cause the engine to drink up to 10 litres of fuel. If this car is driven, I fear, crude oil prices will go up further.”

Purring along: A bevy of vintage roadsters
There’s a whole lifestyle around the vintage car world. Almost 60 per cent of participant/owners are members of car clubs. There are clubs in Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata, each 30 to 50 members strong. The members are a mix of corporate honchos, royalty and others described as (I am told) “those who love their cars more than their own spouse”. Ask Vikram Singh, the President of the Jodhpur Heritage Car Club (JHCC), about the activities of the club, and he speaks passionately of winter rallies and races he has arranged. “Clubs can be easily termed ‘a guy’s gang’, where we attend meetings to discuss car restoration processes, where to find the smallest nuts and bolts to fix its mechanism, often over some beers,” says Singh.

The judges speak admiringly of the cars. McLaren’s F1 car designer, Gordon Murray, who is visiting India for the first time, says: “Each car is a piece of Indian history… you can just feel the cultural landscape when you look at them.”

Imran Khan, Politician and ex-captain of Pak cricket team
Imran Khan
What the stars said
Nick Mason,

Drummer with pink Floyd
“I love cars. I have raced for the past 30 years! In fact, even today I prefer riding my BMW 800 bike than driving my Audi across London. In fact, if I could be anything else in my lifetime, I’d be a Ferrari!”

Prince Michael of Kent,
Queen Elizabeth Ii’s cousin
“I have been an avid car collector, it’s a pity that I haven’t seen a collection like this ever before. Can you imagine the feeling of seeing for the first time ever a car that my grandfather was driven around in? I am glad that I devoted as much time as I did because it has certainly been enlightening”

Imran Khan,Politician and ex-captain of Pak cricket team
“I am not passionate about vintage cars. My passion is politics. I am here to keep up a promise I made to a friend, and besides, to enjoy a little time off”

An enchanting affair is coming to a close with the kick-off of the awards ceremony. The stars of the evening aren’t just Shah Rukh Khan, Jackie Shroff or the illustrious judges who give the awards away. The real stars are the car owners, especially those who win accolades for restoring their cars best. As Professor Peter Stevens comments: “It is great to come to India and see a completely different side to it. A growing passion that is appreciated internationally has been cultivated here. It is time for the world to take note of the grandeur of this nation!”

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