Classic and vintage car prices are soaring and new buyers are joining the veterans for an on-the-road buying spree, says Saimi Sattar
Classic car collector Sarat Jain with his 1972 Midget MG; Pic : Rupinder Sharma
For restaurateur Madan Mohan it was a long-distance childhood passion. Growing up in Khetri in Rajasthan, he was always fascinated by the Maharaja of Khetri's gleaming, vintage automobiles. "I used to stand outside the gates of the palace for hours just to catch a glimpse of his cars," recalls Madan Mohan, who runs the successful 21 Gun Salute restaurant in Gurgaon, where he has two cars, a 1936 Daimler Sports Coupe and a 1923 Austin 7, which was often called the 'Chummy', parked inside the first floor premise.
You could say it was the fulfilment of a childhood ambition when Madan Mohan bought two vintage automobiles, a 1947 seven-seater Packard limousine and a sturdy-looking 1929 Dodge Six that belonged to the Maharaja of Khetri. But that was only the beginning and today he has a huge collection of 234 vintage and classic cars, which, he says, will be put on display in a museum that he hopes to set up by 2016. His company, Deneb & Pollux, has numerous businesses, including a car rentals, and he also rents out some of his older vehicles for special occasions like weddings and receptions.
Other collectors have jumped into the driver's seat in a more modest way. Take a look at Vipin Buckshey, an optometrist who started out by buying himself a 1927 Austin 7, the tiny car that was the British equivalent of the American Ford Model T. He has slowly added other more almost historic vehicles, like a 1938 Mercedes Benz 170V which once belonged to the Gwalior royal family. Another vehicle, a 1959 Buick, was formerly the personal car of Karni Singh, the former Maharaja of Bikaner. Buckshey also has a more recent 1976 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow II.
For decades, collecting vintage and classic cars was a hobby of the ultra-uber-rich, like Vijay Mallya or Pranlal Bhogilal. Today, the old-time collectors are still there, looking lovingly after their gleaming vehicles, but they've been joined by more junior members of India's middle classes who've turned affluent in recent years. "Unlike the old spartan socialist times, when a display of wealth was frowned upon, vintage cars are now flaunted," says Ranjit Malik, a Delhi-based vintage and classic car restorer, who always has a few vintage models parked in the garages at the back of his sprawling farmhouse with mechanics constantly tinkering with the engines or workmen smartening the body into shape.
S. B. Jatti, vice-president, Heritage Motoring Club of India, says that his 14-year-old organisation now has 500 members of whom 300 have joined in the last two years. Says Jatti: "More youngsters in their 20s and 30s are picking up vintage cars." Jatti, who is more interested in classic cars, owns four of them, including a 1954 Fiat Millicento and a 1964 Ford Mustang. He loves to restore or supervise the restoration of his own cars, which are parked at his home in Delhi. Recently, he restored a 1949 Jaguar XK120, of which there are just three or four in the country. He is currently working on a 1957 Chevrolet BelAir — in automobile parlance it's called a pillarless car, and that makes the job of restoration more challenging.
Tutu Dhawan, seen here with his 1965 MGB, has been restoring cars for collectors old and new
Similarly, Mumbai-based Suraj Bhalla, who calls himself a doctor of cars and works on all types of automobiles from Mustangs to BMWs to Aston Martins, says he is getting more queries than ever before from people who want to buy vintage cars. Bhalla always has a fleet of old automobiles lined up outside his garage and that acts as a magnet for potential enthusiasts.
One relative newcomer to the field of vintage cars is Delhi-based Chetan Vohra, managing director, Line Communications, an event management company. Vohra's first car was a 1959 Ford Consul, one of the workhorses of British roads in the 1950s. He also has a 1972 Volkswagen Beetle and a rare 1988 BMW E30, which is classified as a neo-classic. Says Vohra: "Younger people — the 20-somethings — are buying vintage cars. This demand is fuelled by higher disposable incomes in addition to the passion for vintage cars."
It must, of course, be said that the old-timers of vintage cars are not about to sell out and get off the road. Take Malik, who has been driving older models ever since his days as a young executive at ITC. Today, his prized possession is a super-rare 1925 Phantom I Rolls-Royce. He talks almost wistfully about the 10 years it took to bring the Rolls back to life and onto the road. Says Malik: "When I take this beauty out on the road, the attention that it garners as it ambles along reinforces the impression, for no car — however fast it may be — is competition when it comes to grabbing eyeballs."
Another old-time restorer is Tutu Dhawan, who owns just under 30 cars, including his favourite MG Sports which he takes out on the roads regularly and also a 1962 Jaguar, which he has refurbished and modernised with an AC as well as power windows and steering. Dhawan gifted a 1965 MGB, a sports car, to his daughter, who shares his passion for vintage vehicles. Says Dhawan: "The kind of attention that you get while driving around in the old cars has to be seen to be believed. People wave at me, let me go up ahead, or drive alongside to admire the car." Dhawan likes to say that he has a car for each occasion.
Ranjit Malik with his pride and joy, a 1925 Phantom I Rolls-Royce that he restored over 10 years
But today owning a vintage car is not a collector's hobby to be embarked upon lightly — the arrival of new and younger collectors has sent prices shooting through the roof in recent years. Says Vohra: "An entry-level car, which cost about Rs 5 lakh-Rs 6 lakh about five years ago will now be priced at about Rs 18 lakh-Rs 20 lakh."
Jatti also confirms that prices have risen steeply in recent years. "An Austin that would have cost Rs 1.5 lakh a few years ago would cost between Rs 4 lakh and Rs 5 lakh today." He adds: "And the prices of any of the Rolls-Royce Phantoms would probably run into crores."
It's not tough to understand why the prices of older and rarer vehicles are rising steeply. Estimates vary, but old-time collectors reckon there are only about 4,000 vintage cars in the country and many of these once belonged to the royals of pre-Independence India. Some have even been smuggled out of the country during the times when prices were far higher abroad.
Still, this isn't stopping newer collectors like architect Sarat Jain, who has been buying vintage cars for the past six years. He already has a sizeable fleet in his garages, including a 1939 Dodge, a 1932 Standard Coventry, a 1947 Chrysler, and a 1926 Austin, among others. Says Jain: "Prices have gone down a little in the past two years because of the economy; nevertheless they are still very high."
Many older collectors are sceptical about the newer people coming into the game. "The demand for vintage cars has gone up, but more people want these cars as a status symbol. Many don't really have an affinity or interest in them," says Calcutta-based collector and restorer Sanjay Ghosh, who owns four vintage cars including a 1932 Ford Deluxe V-8 Phaeton and a 1947 Chevrolet Fleetmaster. Ghosh most famously restored Lord Louis Mountbatten's Rolls-Royce and a Mercedes owned by Pakistani General A. A. K. Niazi that was brought to India by the Indian Army after the fall of Dhaka.
Sanjay Ghosh with his 1932 Ford Deluxe V8 Phaeton, which has been in his family since it was new
But newer collectors deny they are chasing status symbols. Delhi-based executive Ravindra Mohan says his love for vintage cars was sparked off when his father picked up a 1933 Austin from a junkyard and restored it. A mechanical engineer by profession, his passion for these cars has grown over the years. Ravindra has put together a collection that includes a 1936 two-seater MG sports car, a 1961 Beetle and a 1974 Mercedes S280. Nevertheless, he reckons that there are some for whom collecting has a financial angle. He says: "While vintage car enthusiasts look at car collection as a hobby, for some it is a business proposition. Buying a car, restoring it and then selling it off is a sound investment as this is one market where the older the product, the more money it commands."
Foreign enthusiasts, too, are optimistic about the Indian market. Alpine Eagle, famous for restoring classic cars like Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Lagondas and Hispano-Suizas, is one of the 40 members of Rolls-Royce and Bentley Specialists Association (RRBSA). Alpine Eagle has also restored a Rolls-Royce Phantom I for the Maharaja of Jodhpur some time ago. According to Steve Taylor of Alpine Eagle: "The Rolls-Royce market is extremely buoyant within India and still upcoming as there are a huge number of unrestored cars in private collections. The marque has a huge following in India."
Moreover, being a collector and getting your car restored has become much easier since the dawn of the Internet age because parts can now be sourced more readily than before. Says Buckshey: "Getting parts is not so difficult now, thanks to the Internet."
Adds Madan Mohan: "You can easily import the car parts through Ebay. Specialised clubs like the ones for Buick, Rolls-Royce and Packard also make it easier to get parts. Besides, there are clubs of people who love old cars like the Vintage Car Club and the Veteran Car Club which facilitate it too."
Madan Mohan's love for vintage cars is so great that he has even convinced his brother to take a two-year automotive technology major at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. He says: "I have three mechanics for my cars and all of them are 80-plus years old. The younger lot is not interested in pursuing it as a career option."
Jatti reckons that collecting vintage automobiles is all about passion and nobody should get into it unless they are utterly devoted and prepared to spend time under the hood. He, however, does offer an additional incentive for collectors, old or new. "The kind of treatment that you get when you go to a hotel, a party, or to any event in a vintage car is just unparalleled."