The world’s top classic-car shows have become some of the most important and glamorous fixtures on the social calendar for any self-respecting member of the international jet set, with the most celebrated happenings being the Pebble Beach concours held each August on California’s Carmel peninsular and the achingly sophisticated Concorso d’Eleganza, which has taken place every spring since 1929 on the banks of Italy’s Lake Como.
These events attract cars worth tens of millions of dollars — and owners who are worth considerably more. They are celebrations of the best of the best in classic motoring and, as a result, the champagne flows, the food is of supreme quality and the atmosphere one of shameless glamour and relaxed sophistication.
Traditionally, such shows have been confined to Europe and the US, but in 2008 Cartier — which already holds an important place on the concours circuit through its annual ‘Style et Luxe’ event at the Goodwood Festival of Speed — decided to take the concept further east and stage an event in India.
The move was prompted by the fact that Cartier has strong ties with the country, which date back more than a century to the time when the fabulously wealthy Maharajas lavished almost unimaginable sums of money on jewellery and watches. They also had a passion for high-quality motor cars, making India an obvious choice for a new, blue-chip concours d’elegance.
The third edition of this now biennial fixture, dubbed ‘Travel with Style’, took place February 9 and 10 in the verdant grounds of Mumbai’s Taj Land’s End hotel beside the Arabian Sea. Attracting an entry of around 70 cars and, including classic motorcycles for the first time, it was judged to have been the best yet and has elevated the event to the premier league, putting it on a par with the aforementioned concours of Pebble Beach and Villa d’este.
Following Saturday’s ‘pre-judging’, Sunday’s main event saw the arrival of more than 700 guests comprising India’s wealthiest and most stylish individuals — with many declaring their allegiance to Cartier by wearing the house’s creations in quantities rarely seen in the west.
Aside from the beautiful people, the real focus was on India’s golden age of the automobile, when the country’s obscenely rich Maharajas (of which there were once more than 600) ordered cars by the dozen from eager manufacturers who happily pandered to their every extraordinary whim.
The very first car to land in India was a De Dion Bouton, graced with the symbolic registration number ‘0’, which was ordered by Maharaja Rajinder Singh of Patiala in 1892. In the past, Indian royalty had travelled by splendidly liveried elephants adorned with elaborate howdahs — but the new-fangled motor car could be personalised to make even more of a statement.
Rolls-Royce, being the maker of the ‘best cars in the world’, was understandably popular and the Maharaja of Bharatpur amassed an impressive fleet — but when the firm became complacent and ceased to treat him in the manner to which he had become accustomed, he taught its directors a lesson by turning the cars into garbage-collection vans and publicising their existence far and wide.
Comparable stories of excess and eccentricity relating to the purchase of cars by Indian royals abound — a 1933 Rolls-Royce that belonged to Maharani Sethu Parvati Bai of Travancore, for example, was fitted with a footstool specifically to accommodate a dwarf who massaged her highness’s legs while remaining invisible to onlookers.
Such tales are all too familiar to Manvendra Singh of Barwani. He’s the man responsible for curating all three editions of ‘Travel with Style’ and, aside from being a prince, he’s decidedly well qualified for the job because he’s India’s most highly regarded automotive expert.
Born with a love of motors handed down from his forefathers — some of whom were among the country’s most enthusiastic buyers — his royal connections have afforded him direct access to the cars of Maharajas whose vast collections have remained intact, and often untouched, for up to a century.
Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of the classic-car movement in India is that it exists in a peculiar bubble — in 1956, importing cars into the country was banned so those that were there at the time (less any which have since been sold abroad) represent today’s finite resource. Bringing in parts can be a problem, too, and the knowledge pool enjoyed by European and US enthusiasts simply doesn’t exist — so the ingenious Indians have had to teach themselves how to repair, restore and maintain.
“The event came into being because Cartier has a connection with India that goes back more than 100 years,” explained Singh. “Just as the Maharajas were obsessed with buying the finest cars, so they were obsessed with buying the finest jewellery and watches, and they would order Cartier pieces by the truck load.
“My grandfather imported the first steam-powered car into India at the turn of the 20th century, and it has been said ever since that automobiles have been the family vice. Cartier chose me to curate these events because I have known the people who owned the cars and been given the stories about them direct from source.
“My aim is to showcase India’s rich motoring heritage and also to dispel the many myths that have grown up around it — often the Maharajas are portrayed simply as commissioning the most ridiculous vehicles possible. In reality, their cars were carefully considered and built for very specific purposes.”
The entries were divided into seven different classes, ranging from ‘Edwardian’ (built before 1919) to ‘Indian Heritage’ (cars built in the country between 1946 and 1959). The judges comprised the crème de la crème of the automotive industry and included Pebble Beach concours organiser Sandra Button (possibly the most influential woman in the classic-car world); lifelong motoring enthusiast Prince Michael of Kent; design and style guru Lapo Elkann; McLaren F1 designers Gordon Murray and Peter Stevens; FIA boss Jean Todt; and racing icon Sir Stirling Moss.
The Shikar class fielded four cars built specifically for hunting and they all had remarkable histories. A 1951 Chevrolet pick-up truck, for example, was originally owned by crown prince Singh of Dungarpur who, legend has it, would be transported to the jungle with a bevy of dancing girls seated on the benches in the back. After a good day’s tiger shooting, he would spend the evening inviting the dancers to ‘perform’ for him around the camp.
Another Shikar car, a 1940 Fordson, was used by the Maharaja of Mysore for tracking bison — and, to give the famously aggressive beasts a fair deal, he would shoot from a completely open seat bolted to one of the wings at roughly the same height as his prey.
A matte-yellow 1947 Buick, meanwhile, was created for the Maharajar of Bikane (by the engineers of his private railway) using components from three brand-new cars in order that he could have precisely the vehicle he needed for hunting the imperial sand grouse. The result was a four-door convertible with Jeep-style folding windscreen, gun mounts, binocular storage and a game counter.
The ‘preservation’ class (for entries that were original and unrestored) attracted some equally remarkable, time-warp cars such as a 1930 Rolls-Royce Phantom II limousine, which had been abandoned in a shed at the palace of Maharaja Udit Pratap Deo of Kalahandi for more than 70 years. Despite suffering from peeling paint, an opaque windscreen and upholstery that spewed springs and horsehair, it was in perfect running order and ended the show as a worthy prize winner.
Another Rolls-Royce, this time a 1927 Phantom I, was originally ordered by the Maharaja of Darbhanga as a ‘drinking car’ for his Maharini. The Maharaja was disapproving of his wife’s penchant for alcohol, so he specified the car should be fitted with crystal glasses and decanters in order that she could imbibe away from the palace while being chauffeured around his considerable estate — which extended to an area of 2,410 square miles.
The outright winner of the motorcycle class was a beautifully restored 1915 Indian (named, of course, after the Native American variety). The motorcycle judges — who included legendary riders Giacomo Agostini and Phil Read — also saw fit to recognise the remarkable efforts of one Colonel Boppana Shashidhar who, in the space of just two weeks, restored his 1936 Triumph from a rusting hulk to a machine worthy of any concours d’elegance in the world.
Fittingly, however, it was a modern-day Maharaja who walked off with the coveted prize for ‘best of show’. Belonging to His Highness Maharaja Gaj Singhji of Jodhpur, the Rolls-Royce Phantom II drophead was acquired by his grandfather in 1935 — and to this day carries the decidedly exclusive registration mark ‘Jodhpur 1’.
From my point of view, however, the biggest surprise of the event was the discovery that the largest private-car collection in India — which runs to considerably more than 200 vehicles — actually belongs to a woman. Miss Chamundeshwari Bhogilal, a demure and enigmatic 32 year old, inherited the dozens of Cadillacs, Daimlers, Rolls-Royces, Lagondas, Bentleys and Buicks (plus several other marques) upon the death of her father in January 2011.
Pranlal Bhogilal, a tycoon who began collecting cars during the 1960s, famously used one or other of his classics on a daily basis and was often seen in the chaotic streets of Mumbai.
He left the lot to his daughter, his only child — together with very specific instructions on how to care for them.
She will, methinks, suffer from no shortage of suitors...