Given India's place in the global scheme of things, and with a booming automotive industry, it was always when and not if for an event such as the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance to have a class for cars of the Maharajas. Today and tomorrow, on the hallowed turf at Pebble Beach in California, we will have no less than 16 to 18 of the greatest Maharaja cars assembling together to celebrate both the vain and the glorious, a bit of the former and quite a load of the latter
Sounds incongruous this but wait there's more! When you are talking about the world's most prestigious classic car concours d'elegance, you have to understand that the venue for the last 62 years has always been the greens on the 18th fairway of the golf course on the Californian seaside resort. And as was the case of most of our Indian royalty who more often than not would indulge in holidaying on the continent in the heat of the Indian summer, this time round the US beckons with a completely nostalgic fervour.
It is all about luxury and movement combined, about trappings of a kind where Indian clientele ruled the roost, at least in the first half of the last century and this reign threw up some of the most stunning, and not to say exquisite automobiles the world has ever seen. While the automobile may have got going in India courtesy a handful of Parsi diehards in Bombay and Poona, as the two cities were known then, the big boost to automobility in the land came thanks to our Maharajas and their innate quest to show each other up, in a nice and non-violent manner of course! Cars became the weapon to prove a point, about power and pelf, prestige and standing and in such a scenario the car makers and the coachbuilders had a field day.
It was not just about Rolls-Royce which survived the tumultuous period between the two world wars thanks to the largesse of Indian royalty but the fact that we also got a taste of the aesthetic when some of the greatest car stylists wrought their craft on stunning one-offs for our rajas, maharajas, nawabs, thakor-sahibs, et al. The Italians had yet to make their mark but then there were names like Mulliner, Park Ward, Barker, Hooper, Windover, Figoni, Saoutchik, Le Baron, who were the initiators of the art form to embellish the hordes of Daimlers, Napiers, Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Hispano-Suizas, Isotta-Fraschinis, Pierce Arrows, Cadillacs, Buicks, Lincolns, and many other makes which our royals invested in. And this investment was top notch, the quantity of the quality was mind-numbing in its entirety and the legends which sprung up in the automotive world have become a by-word for luxury, sophistication, technological prowess and one-upmanship.
After independence, the socialist clampdown on thought slammed the brakes on the profligacy of the royals to a great extent when it came time to splurge on cars and other items of conspicuous consumption! Many royals couldn’t keep what they had and many great cars became easy pickings for the unscrupulous. And lest it be said, dominating this breed of unscrupulous were the goras who raided the royal garages time and again in the unregulated 1950s, ’60s and part of the ’70s and made away with some of the richest automotive treasures that had an Indian connect.
Given India’s place in the global scheme of things, and with a booming automotive industry, it was always when and not if for an event such as the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance to have a class for cars of the Maharajas. Sporadically we have seen great cars with a strong Indian provenance appear in scattered form at such events. However, today and tomorrow, on the hallowed turf at Pebble Beach in California, we will have no less than 16 to 18 of the greatest Maharaja cars assembling together to celebrate both the vain and the glorious, a bit of the former and quite a load of the latter. What is of immense interest is that never before has there been a gathering of this class and stature since probably the Delhi Durbars from a century ago and while a majority of the royal Indian cars now are in the hands of collectors from all over the world, three cars have made the journey from India for this event, marking a new milestone for the country and its heritage, both automotive and cultural.
To cap it all off, one of this trio will have an honest-to-goodness royal leading the way, in the form of His Highness, Arvind Singh Mewar, Maharana of Udaipur who will be at the wheel of his Barker-bodied 1924 Rolls-Royce 20 H.P. which has been in the Udaipur royal garage since the mid-1930s! And also of course a welcome process of re-acquiring our lost heritage in the form of the 1934 Rolls-Royce Phantom II, formerly the pride and joy of the Maharaja of Rajkot. This car carrying coachwork by Thrupp & Maberley was made as an official limousine cum cabriolet for the Rajkot royals. Finished in saffron and brushed aluminium, it was a grand machine and was promptly named the “Star of India.” It was sadly spirited out of India in the mid-1960s but just a couple of years ago, the present day descendants of the Rajkot royals bought back “their” car at an auction and it would also be at Pebble Beach with none other than Yuvraj Saheb Mandhatsinh Jadeja at the helm. Would be a moment to cherish for the impressionable Yanks!
However, while Indian royalty make their appearance on the greens at Pebble Beach, a major surprise among the Indian cars would be an exquisite sports car which once caught the fancy of the Maharaja Hari Singh Bahadur of Jammu & Kashmir! This young strapping ruler of the state happened to be in Paris at the time of the annual motor show and was mighty impressed by the rakish lines of the Mercedes-Benz 27/140/220 PS Type SS four-seat sports car. He bought it there and then itself but since it was in left hand drive form, the German firm took it back to Germany, changed the engine and the steering gear to the right and then shipped it to India where it was used to tear away in the mountain roads of the state. Again like so many of its ilk, this car was also spirited out of India and it went through a host of collectors until it was bought by Daimler-Benz itself some five years ago. Handed to Mercedes-Benz Classic for a thorough ground-up restoration, this car will finally see the light o day in its near original form and this would be just one of the many surprises in store at Pebble 2012 by so many thins Indian – men, machines, tales and legends.
Few of the Maharaja cars at Pebble Beach 2012:
1924 Rolls-Royce 20 H.P. – Maharaja of Udaipur
Truly one of the most original examples of its kind in the country and sympathetically restored to near original condition rather than going bling as many in this business are prone to do. With H.H. Arvind Singhji Mewar himself being a connoisseur of cars – and a knowledgeable one at that, this vital ingredient was always expected and having seen the car purr away in Udaipur just before it was flown to Pebble, I am sure it would also make the 17-mile Tour d’Elegance that kick starts the festivities two days before the concours.
1930 Delage D8 -- Dr. Ravi Prakash, Bangalore
Bangalore based vintage and classic car collector Dr Ravi Prakash has flown this rare French sports tourer to Pebble Beach and I am sure that it would evoke strong memories of the person who had an impeccable eye and feel for beauty. Formerly the pride and joy of the Maharaja Holkar of Indore, this Delgae D8 carries coachwork by Figoni of Paris and is in fine fettle to this day and age. A great rival to the Mercedes-Benz SS of the Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir!
1928 Rolls-Royce Phantom 17EX – Alexander Schaufler, Austria
This is surely one of the greatest cars with not just a royal Indian provenance but also one of the milestone cars in Rolls-Royce history. It was one of the handful of experimental cars built by the British firm (hence the EX in the model designation) as it began exploring an all-new model to supercede the Silver Ghost. Maharaja Haris Singh Bahadur who was a Rolls-Royce aficionado was sufficiently impressed enough to prevail upon the firm to sell it to him. It was against RR policy to sell any of their experimental models but then when one didn’t displease a patron who had purchased more than 25 cars from Rolls-Royce in a short span of time!
1910 Brooke Swan Car & 1919 Cygnet - The Louwman Museum, Holland
They said that our royals displayed idiosyncracies in varying degree but this surely must have taken the cake as well as the biscuit! Sadly for those Brits who harped on this line of thought the joke was on them for the car was created by an eccentric Scotsman – Scotty Mathewson who resided in Calcutta. He brought the Brooke 20/30H.P. chassis and had it clothed in a theatrical fashion with wooden coachwork replete with gold-lined filigree work and a swan beak on the bonnet. The nostrils of the swan would belch steam and hiss whenever the car had to negotiate traffic, frightening the bhadralok! This car was used as the personal runabout of Mathewson until the Maharaja of Nabha chanced upon it. Having acquired this he also commissioned his garage personnel to build a smaller replica for his children to drive in the palace grounds. Thus came into being the Cygnet, a smaller scaled down rendering of the Brooke but now with electrical power to drive it. Mention must be made that this car was built in India, in Calcutta no less! Both cars along with a Rolls-Royce were smuggled out of India in the 1990s and after being auctioned are now displayed in the large Louwman Collection in Holland.
1930 Mercedes-Benz 27/140/220PS Type SS Sport – Mercedes-Benz Classic
Truly the surprise among the Maharaja cars at Pebble Beach is this glorious car of which very few were made. It had a massive 7.1-litre engine, the famous M 06 unit designed by none else than Dr. Ferdinand Porsche and also used in the fearsome SSK sports racers. This car was one of the most handsome and powerful sports cars of its day, being able to deliver crushing performance with handling to match. No wonder the young performance-seeking Maharaja Hari Singh Bahadur fall for its charms and prowess!