Auto Jewels in Indian Crown
Princely India’s passions for the priciest marques in the world have turned the former residencies into vintage stables. The acquisition of cars provided a splendid opportunity for princely India to display its fabled wealth in the last 50 years of the British Raj.The advent of the motorcar was enthusiastically welcomed and as early as 1905 the first car made its way to the Gateway to India.
Buoyed by the demand leading world brands of the day like Rolls-Royce, Napier, Cadillac and Mercedes opened their representative offices in three presidencies of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. The big five states i.e. the 21 gunners consisting of Jammu and Kashmir, Mysore, Baroda, Gwalior and Hyderabad acquired fleets of cars. Customisation was the key and cars were tailor made to suit individual tastes. Some had gold canopy, others had bodies in pure silver and some princely rulers made their cars to resemble horse carriages. Similarly some cars were designated as Purdah cars –so that the royal ladies were not seen from outside.
Hunting was the favorite past time of Indian royals and cars were customised to facilitate the royal pursuit. So cars were fitted with special mounted gun boxes on running boards and extra generators for hunting lights in case of night shootings. A special category emerged called Howdah Car, which was designed to resemble the seat on an elephant’s back, the earlier option of hunting safaris.
Rolls Royce was the overall favorite and around 1,000 of them found their way into many princely states. So much for royal idiosyncrasies that Maharaja of Alwar imported seven Rolls Royce to convert them into garbage trucks when some Royce representatives doubted whether Alwar’s terrain would be suitable for Rolls Royce cars. So the proud Maharaja showed them the terrain was indeed suitable but Royce was suitable only to carry garbage in Alwar. The company sued him and the Maharaja not only won the suit but also went on to import a fleet of Hispano Suizas for royal use while Royce continued piling garbage.
State of Indore was famous for its Gurney Nutting Duesenberg and Patiala for its 16 cylinder Cadillac and Maybach, presented by Hitler. Soon the car craze expanded to royal ministers and big zamindars. With passage of time the royal palaces have converted into hotels and the royal cars are now displayed in hotel -museums with their replicas ferrying tourists.
Hunting in India now connotes a new game –that of finding, documenting and restoring the vast reservoir of India’s automotive heritage.