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  • Writer's pictureUrvashi Singh

Vintage Automobile Curation: Autobahn Rajputana

In a bygone era where only a finite number of Fiats, Ambassadors and Heralds paraded the deserted Indian roads, P.V. Narasimha Rao’s economic reforms effectively struck the Indian automobile sector at its fundamental core and changed the game forever. Post 1992, multinational automakers such as Hyundai (South Korea), Suzuki & Toyota (Japan) began establishing a coherent automotive industry in India. In no time, the Indian consumer was almost spoilt with choices when he went out to procure himself/herself a car, from earlier being offered one automotive option per price class to experiencing nothing short of a twelve-fold explosion in terms of variety.

Today, a plethora of over twenty global automobile giants are firmly established upon Indian soil; whereas nearly thirty internationally-renowned brands export their vehicles into the country. Indian vehicle manufacturers themselves are gaining a firmer stronghold on the market, further boosted by joint automobile ventures. In short, the sky is the limit for Indian automobile buyers today. From the budget-friendly Tata Nano to the ostentatiously roaring Lamborghini and everything in between, India offers it all. For a quarterly window, this is a mighty leap as Indians born before the nineties would nostalgically admit over a casual dinner table conversation.

In similar context, a deeper and more systemic nostalgia runs in the veins of India’s vintage automobile curators, who have been on a steady rise alongside this very modernisation of car-trade. Ranging across different age groups and national topographies, vintage automobile curators of India are representative of a collective legacy that was spearheaded by none other than the legendary Pranlal Bhogilal of Gujarat, also termed by many as ‘India’s last Maharaja’ for obvious reasons. Dissipating through the length and breath of the country, several prominent names such as the Jayrams, the Kanorias, Behram Dhabar, Marespand Dadachanji, Rakesh Jain and Dhyanesh Samant are united by their unparalleled fascination vis-a-vis vintage automotive beauties. Their supreme restorative efforts and curation can be witnessed in the various rallies and exhibitions that are annually conducted in India. At another level, each story of curation resonates with a deep-rooted nostalgia and sentimental value for these markers of technology and innovation from a distant past that face struggle to find operative relevance in a rapidly developing world.

In the midst of this intense locomotive germination, India’s Rajput community proudly contends its reputation as the guardian of a historical legacy, which was often characterised by distinguished stature, refined elegance and a lifestyle boasting of cultivated aesthetics. Whether in recovering automobiles that belonged to their ancestors or diversifying their collection through a planned integration of motor cars and scale models, present-day Rajput curators embodied a throbbing passion for vintage automobiles that they seem to have ingrained in their DNA. Alongside the houses of Jodhpur, Jaipur, Udaipur, Bikaner, Barwani, Dungarpur, Gondal, Wankaner and Rajkot to name but a few, there have been a number of contemporary efforts in the sphere of vintage automotive curation that deserve special praise as well. These would include Vikram Singh of Asari, Dhananjai Singh of Khimsar, the father-son duos- I.V. Singh and Adhiraj Singh of Ajairajpura, V.P. Singh and Avijit Singh of Badnore, amongst several others.

In this issue’s special feature article, Rajputana Collective takes the opportunity of providing the special insights of five vintage car enthusiasts from India’s present-day Rajput community, who powerfully convey the versatility of their hobby through distinct individual styles and tastes, thereby paving a glamorous and thoroughly commendable locomotive avenue. Without further due, brace yourselves for a scintillating cruise through the extraordinary passion and restorative efforts of these enthusiasts that Rajputana Collective singularly eulogises as Autobahn Rajputana.

1. Adhiraj Singh of Ajairajpura: The Jeep Pioneer of India

Inspired by his father- I.V. Singh’s deep involvement into the organised collection of vintage automobiles, Adhiraj Singh’s interest in the field sparked off almost instantaneously as a child. Together, the father-son duo are known as the ‘jeep pioneers of India’ in a time when curators usually occupy their interest in cars. Having opened their workshop in 2004, Adhiraj Singh and his father have successfully restored around 150 jeeps ever since. They also formed the Rajputana Jeep Club, which stands as India’s first ever vintage classic jeep club. The club is also responsible for having conducted two jeep rallies in the recent past. At present, Adhiraj runs his own workshop which he calls Rajputana Jeeps. Ensuing his father’s collection instincts, Adhiraj also showcases an impressive array of dinkies, scale models and Tonka Trucks in his workshop, which situated in Jaipur.

Favourite automotive piece in my collection: The 1943 Ford Jeep. “We (my father and I) picked it up from scraps. The owner had dismantled it to fix it some 30 years ago. It took us two days to put it in a trolley and move it to town. It was a truly Lego experience. Back then, we did not have the privilege of ordering spare parts online, which has dramatically changed the quality of work due to easier access. We hunted for parts, went to the old city of Poona and found a man who had bought lots of old parts from a Government auction. After having procured parts from him, we began restoring the jeep until it was in a number one condition. Since this was the oldest piece, it took maximum effort to restore. This was the first amongst all our jeeps and bears great collectible value.”

My dream vehicle: My grandfather’s Buick.

“My grandfather’s Buick was sold when I was eight years’ old and was recovered almost three decades later. The immense sentimental value that we hold for it made us bring it back.”

Personal opinion on present-day vintage car rallies in India: “The experience of the Cartier rally has changed the way people feel about vintage cars. Earlier, there used to be smaller car rallies but this is the first of its kind rally for its sheer presentation and range of the cars that it exhibits.”

Personal recommendations on further diversifying/ enhancing India’s curation of automobiles: “By building a large-scale museum for automobiles, which facilitates an organised exhibition of vintage cars. This is the only way to aptly showcase your cars without public without the need for rallies.”

Vintage cars showcase how technologies began. Engine works and four-by-four systems, apart from other automotive technologies carry a lot of information and knowledge. A history of intellect and work goes behind creating vintage automobiles and when you restore them, you are recycling a piece of history that always matters. It isn’t just about spending money, it is about appreciating something that is high in value for its sheer beauty and the amount of work that went into that era. Every car has its own story to tell.” - Adhiraj Singh

2. Avijit Singh of Badnore: The Classic Convertibles’ Connoisseur

Taking after his father’s keen passion for automobiles, Avijit Singh reports his father to have uttered JEEP as his first words as a toddler. Minus the utterance, Avijit’s passion for four wheelers is no lesser than his old man’s. At present, Avijit is a notable curator of classic convertibles and organises several vintage and classic car rallies in Jaipur. Administratively, Avijit plays an active role in clubs such as the Heritage Morning Club of India and the Rajputana Automotives' Sports Club, where he is the honorary secretary.

Favourite automotive piece in my collection: The Daimler SP 250. “It is the only Daimler SP 250 in the country. It won the first prize in the roadster category in the Cartier rally that took place in Delhi. Driving this beauty from Jaipur to Delhi also won me the adventure prize.”

My dream vehicle: Jaguar E Type, Bugati and Fusenberg.

“As car collectors, we are never satisfied with what we have. We would love to own ore and more cars. However, I haven’t just gone and bought cars that are available in the market. Instead, I have carefully sought what I particularly want. Cars come and go but I always pay attention to what corresponds with the kind of models that I am trying to collect. My preference has always been towards convertibles because unlike vintage cars, the drivability of classic cars makes them viable as well as good too look at.”

Personal opinion on present-day vintage car rallies in India: “ I have always had a soft corner for the rallies that I organise in Jaipur. However, Cartier has moved way ahead when it comes to car rallies. Initially, Cartier was into planning polo events but shifted to car rallies instead. Hence, an exceptional amount of restorative effort is being displayed, which is commendable.”

Personal recommendations on further diversifying/ enhancing India’s curation of automobiles: “The biggest problem that we face as automobile curators is that our cars need a special criteria to run. In Delhi, even if one wants to organise a rally, they need an official permit from the NGT (National Green Tribunal). This hurdle is absent in several other countries of the world. In order to keep up with them, our government needs to prioritise these cars in a distinctive way such that the owners are able to drive these cars more freely. The concept of automobiles remains to be allotted special weightage and officials need to perceive them as important, national treasures. I agree that there are cars that are highly polluting to the environment but we barely drive these cars. There should be no trouble in enjoying these cars every once in a while. The present number of vintage and classic cars ranges upto one lakh in all. With a gradual increase int these numbers, governmental policies should be conducive to encouraging people who want to add to these national treasures.”

“If I go in an old car for a party, it contrasts against the swanky cars that most people carry. There is a snob value attached to vintage cars. You are driving it very slowly and very carefully. There is a lot of admiration, people are pleased to see someone taking care of a piece of history. I tis not a case of showing off. The admiration that I attract from bystanders makes me very happy, especially since it is credited to the immense attention drawn by vintage cars. Unlike modern cars that depreciate in value from the moment that you drive out of the showroom, it is positive to buy vintage cars since they are an investment. a lot of effort goes into restoring them but then they also multiply in terms of value. There is a lot of fun to it.” - Avijit Singh

3. Lakshyaraj Singh of Udaipur: Carrying a Century-Old Legacy Forward

Since the early 1920s, the house of Mewar has acted as the custodian of vintage and classic cars. Their car collection, which is presently housed in Udaipur’s Garden Hotel, had been institutionalised as ‘The Vintage and Classic Car Collection’ in 2001. All vehicles in the Mewar collection belonged to the family’s various ancestors and their descendants. Despite several cars ageing over 75, they have been painstakingly restored in order to be in perfect working order. The contemporary scion of Udaipur- Lakshyaraj Singh shares his views on what vintage cars mean to him as well as his experience of carrying an age-old legacy of curation forward.

Favourite automotive piece in my collection: “My customised Range Rover. I thoroughly relish its power and manoeuvrability. The Porsche 911 Turbo S is another gem in my personal collection. I love driving it myself, whether I am on the country roads of Rajasthan or a province in France.”

My dream vehicle: “The Royal Udaipur Rolls-Royce GLK 21, which was the proud winner of the ‘Lucius Beebe Trophy’ at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in California, in 2012. What a glorious journey it has been for the Rolls Royce! It lay unused and almost forgotten for over half of a century in the City Palace and then we starting working on its restoration in 1999. Experts spent hundreds of hours detailing out its restoration plans and then brought the Rolls Royce back to life.”

Personal opinion on present-day vintage car rallies in India: “The more rallies the better! I just hope organisers, sponsors and associations are able to work together and create more sustainable events. We also need to involve a wider segment of rally enthusiasts and not be restrictive. In the global village, we have to network with the best and most experienced, there is no other alternative.”

Personal recommendations on further diversifying/ enhancing India’s curation of automobiles: “There is really no need to reinvent the wheel! We have to learn from the best practices of rally enthusiasts in the UK, EU, America and Australia. Automobiles are a passion and closely linked to the travel and hospitality industry, sports like polo, and heritage luxury brands like Cartier and Hermes. It's time we in India learnt from the events being organised across the world. .”

“For us, these are not cars nor brands but a living heritage of Mewar that we are commited to preserving as custodians of the House of Mewar.” - Lakshyaraj Singh

4. Kesri Singh of Wankaner: Like-Grandfather Like-Grandson

The grandson of the renowned automobile curator H.H. Pratapsinhji of Wankaner, Kesri Singh preserves the existing family collection of vintage cars in his ancestral home. In recent years, he has focused much of his efforts on restoring and preserving cars from the palace garage, which he has grown up seeing since his childhood. He recollects his grandfather’s living space being adorned with a large collection of car models, car memorabilia and relevant cars. And just like that, being around him and hearing his passionate discussion on cars, Kesri Singh found himself falling in love with automobiles as well.

Favourite automotive piece in my collection: “The 1921 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, which has been with my family for close to a century. It was a very special moment for me when it won the ‘Best Preserved Car Award’ by UNESCO at the Cartier Rally held at Hyderabad this February.”

My dream vehicle: “The Wankaner 1934 Blue Riley. It was sold many years ago and it would be amazing to buy it back if I am able to find it.”

Personal opinion on present-day vintage car rallies in India: “I think there is so much good work and effort being made by automobile enthusiasts all over India today but the Cartier Rally curated by HH Barwani and the 21 Gun Salute by Madan Mohanji are my favourites.”

“Some of these automobiles have been such an integral part of ceremonial and historic occasions. I think they make as much of a part in the family history as do the Palaces and residences. For example, on the 14th of January 1936 Lord Freeman Thomas Earl Of Willingdon The Viceroy and Governor General of India came to Wankaner on Maharana Amar Singhji's invitation to lay the foundation stone of the Willingdon Hospital in Wankaner. Attached picture shows Lord Willingdon and Maharana Amar Singhji seated together in the back seat of the Rolls Royce driving from the Palace to the hospital foundation laying site. Vintage automobiles are an integral part of historic memory and nostalgia.” - Kesri Singh

5. Hardhwardhan Singh of Dungarpur: You Might Have The Best Cars But Mine Is The Best Place to Park Them!

Since his childhood, Harshwardhan Singh saw his father and grandfather marvel over their family garage’s proud collection of automobiles. He would see the palace mews filled with lovely cars that were later sold by his grandfather. As a result of this, the mews got reduced to a warehouse for old furniture and outdated possessions. As he grew older, he began to gradually renovate the space with an untiring effort until it became what is presently known as the Dungarpur Mews, a treasure trove for car enthusiasts from all over the world. The erstwhile stables of Dungarpur are presently a captivating venue for Harshwardhan Singh’s personal car collection as well as car memorabilia that he painstakingly collected over the years. Keeping in mind an unwavering vision ahead of him, he has successfully created a highly creative garage space that leaves all its visitors truly enchanted, with the potential of single-handedly putting Dungarpur on the global map, if it hasn’t already.

Favourite automotive piece in my collection: “The 1947 Packard that came with my grandmother when she got married to my grandfather in 1955 from Bikaner”.

My dream vehicle: “Ferrarri.”

My motivations behind the Dungarpur Mews: “I saw the Mews when I was a young child full of lovely cars and then most of the cars were sold by my grandfather and then for many years it was in disuse and used as a dump yard for old furniture etc. I saw it as a lovely heritage building and parts of the Dungarpur Mews are more than 100 years old as my great grand father's stables. I decided that it must be regain its lost glory and so decided to restore and collected a few cars and added to my parents and grandfather collections. My-in-laws from Sodawas, Jodhpur also chipped in with a standard flying 14. It was a lot of effort to collect all the automotive memorabilia from different parts of the world. I do consider myself as a curator of automotive memorabilia.”

Personal recommendations on further diversifying/ enhancing India’s curation of automobiles: “The Government must support the vintage and classic car movement by amending and framing new laws to encourage the enthusiast. It should also be seen as preserving the heritage of India and will encourage tourism. Importing unrestored cases will also provide employment and skill development to many persons. Our vintage and classic car rules and laws should be on par with the other countries of the world like USA, UK and European countries. Import duty should be rationalised and we should be allowed to import cars that are 50 years or older.”

“Vintage and Classic Cars do bring back fond memories of a bygone era and a lot of rulers, Dignitaries, Presidents and Prime Ministers, Women's etc. have connections and anecdotes with automobiles that bring back memories. They are repositories of history as cars have played an important part in human beings since their invention. It is one of the most important inventions in human history.” - Harshwardhan Singh


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