“I would say that the Indian classic car segment has evolved to its logical conclusion when I find a beautifully restored vintage Maruti car in the possession of one of the collectors and can include it as a segment in the Cartier ‘Travel with Style’ Concours d’Elegance.”
That’s how Rana Manvendra Singh Barwani, one of India’s earliest collectors and restorers of vintage cars and the curator of the Cartier Concours right since the day of its inception, looks at the evolution of the segment in India.
Cartier Travel With Style Concours d'Elegance, Curator- H.H Rana Manvendra Singh of Barwani.
Barwani has helped restore some of the most important cars in India’s automotive history, including the stunning yellow 1911 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost Dome Roof Limousine, known as the ‘Throne Car’ of the erstwhile Nizam of Hyderabad. He is credited for pretty much single-handedly restoring and reviving the classic car market in India and also for the success of Cartier Concours, which, in February 2019 hosted the sixth edition at the atmospheric Taj Rambagh Palace, the former family home of Jaipur royalty. When Cartier first approached the titular head of the former princely state in Madhya Pradesh (from where his family draws its surname), to host such an event, drawn by his formidable reputation as a collector and restorer, Barwani was not sure if this was a prank. “I put down some stringent conditions, including a free hand, and they agreed.”
The current edition of the glamorous Concours, hosted at the atmospheric Taj Rambagh Palace, once the family home of the Jaipur royal family and now a hotel, had 86 impeccably restored classic automobiles from nine distinctive classes and 26 motorcycles from three signature classes, each a tribute to India’s love for collecting vintage beauties. Cartier first hosted the Concours d’elegance in 2008, in Mumbai. And the segment has undergone some radical transformations, much of which are still under the radar.
The two big transformations we have seen over the past few Concours:
The collectors are getting younger by the day
India has been collecting cars much before the world got addicted to its lure and most cars, even today, point towards a royal provenance. The maharajas and the royal elite began buying cars in the first half of the 20th century, while in the western world the collectors gained prominence only after World World II. Simon Kidston, Chief Judge of Cartier Concours and a British collector whose own collection includes several flamboyant Lamborghinis, however, says, “Increasingly, in the list of collectors, I see the presence of industrialists, businessmen, even very established professionals,” he says. “I am not surprised because new money is the new royalty in India. They have taken a shine to vintage cars, which stands right at the top of the list of the most beautiful objects you can possess.”
Chief Judge - Simon Kidston.
The sixth edition had collectors such as Amir Jetha, General Manager, Jetha Properties whose stunning 1935 Rolls Royce – Phantom 2 Continental snagged the Best Car of the Show. Last year at the Pebble Beach Concours, by far one of the finest concours in the world, he had driven away with an award with the ‘Rolls Royce and Bentley’ sub-division as well as the Lucius Beebe Trophy for the most elegant Rolls Royce. Jetha’s family bought its first car, the Rolls Royce in question, just about 60 years ago, when his father bought the two-door coupé Continental, which was first made for the erstwhile Maharaja of Jodhpur, popularly known as Bapji. “I have fond childhood memories associated with it,” says Jetha. It changed several hands, finally landing up with a Mumbai collector, from whom his father acquired it.
Best of Show - Cars at Cartier Travel With Style 1935 Rolls Royce - Phantom 2.
Among the collectors of vintage cars is Viveck Goenka, Chairman, MD and Editorial Director of Indian Express, a constant presence at the concours in India and Pebble Beach, who has also established one of India’s best classic cars restoration workshops. His collection has vintage Land Rovers, Rolls Royce, and a 1961 Fiat. His first purchase was a Range Rover bought from the Delhi State Trading Company, his first ever car from the British marque. At the Cartier Concours 2019, Viveck and Zita Goenka’s 1951 Standard-Vanguard Phase 1 won the Mark Shand Adventurer Trophy, which honours the memory of the late British travel writer and conservationist known for his love for elephants and his backing for the Indian concours.
Cartier Travel With Style Concours d'Elegance, The Mark Shand Adventurer Trophy - 1951 Standard - Vanguard Phase 1.
Award-winning documentary filmmaker and former Christie’s man, Patrick Mark contends that India will see an emergence of a new generation of collectors. “They say millennials are only concerned with technology. But I believe every generation will have its collectors, people who like things vintage. We have seen a new generation of collectors who are in their 30s and 40s. They make their money in finance, tech and real estate and are spread across the world, including the Middle East and India.”
The Rise and Rise of India’s Restoration Industry
One of the biggest takeaways of the sixth edition was the evolution of the classic car restoration industry in India. Niche, closely-knit and feisty, the industry has come into its own and Cartier has played no small role in reaching it to space it is in today.
Judge after judge at Cartier Concours spoke about their surprise and awe at the work being done in India. For Kidston, the emergence of an entirely new generation of restorers was a surprise development, given that just ten years ago, the work being done in India fell more in the space of ‘jugaad’ rather than real restoration- “They weren’t exacting enough to find the original accessories and ensure the colours matched the original, once, things that Indian restorers are much more careful of now.”
Sandra Button, Chairperson of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance pointed to the rather ‘low’ costs at which Indian restorers get the work done and the speed at which they achieve this miracle. “Over the years, I have seen the restoration work in India go up several notches up. Last year, we invited nine beautifully restored Indian cars to Pebble Beach Concours under a special Raj Class category. Also, the speed at which they achieve the task is amazing. At Pebble Beach, sometimes cars are in restoration for over five years. In Jaipur, I am told that the Indian restorers take less than eight months to do the same job. I want to go back and tell the older generation of collectors that this is where they need to send their cars if they are looking at not waiting years to enjoy a drive.” If restoring a car in Europe can cost anywhere between £5,000 to 10,000, in India it is about 40 percent of this cost.
The combination of cost and speed has pushed the Indian restoration industry into the global limelight. Sir Michael Kadoorie, Chairman of Hongkong and Shanghai owner believes India will emerge as the epicentre of global car restoration business in the next few years. “The restorers here are extremely skilful and the magic they achieve with far lesser resources than those available to restorers in Europe is an eye-opener.”
The Hon. Sir Michael Kadoorie
All across the country, small and big classic car restoration workshops and companies have sprung up. Some are part of a larger umbrella, while others began on their own and achieved fame over the years. Mumbai has clearly some of the biggest and best restoration workshops. The Engineer Brothers, Kaizad and Nekzad, are collectors and restorers and run their family workshop, which was set up by their grandfather. “He used to maintain cars that were popular in his era. Dad began restoration in a small way, but my brother and I have diversified the business into vintage and classic cars,” says Kaizad, whose workshop at computer shops-infested Lamington Road has some of India’s most expensive vintage cars come in for restoration.
An owner of a 1930 Austin and a 1954 Fiat, Kaizad says his initial classic car projects included a 1928 Chevrolet and a couple of Beetles. “When I realized this is what I want to do with the rest of my life, I began researching and understanding each era. Each era and each culture produced an entirely different set of cars. The European cars are very different from the American ones and you need to stay true to the era to be known as a restorer of repute.”
The brothers came into prominence with the work they did on the rare Bristol 400, owned by friend and client Amit Sapre. “I found a small part being sold on eBay by an Australian man who had bought up all the remaining parts of Bristol, which had folded up by then. He was so stoked to find that there was a Bristol owned by an Indian in India, he invited us to Australia to source the rest of the parts from him.” At the 2019 edition, he had two entrances— the 1934 Chevrolet 1/2 Ton Series PA and the 1947 Chevrolet Fleetmaster. Engineer also restored the 1937 Daimler, owned by Ravi Pittie, which originally belonged to the Princess of Kolhapur. Her all-white car had an interesting story behind it. Married as a child and widowed at 13, she had ordered an all-white car, says Kaizad. “It has white exterior paint, white wheels, white brakes, white carpets on the interior and even a white engine block, which we have kept as it is.”
Kaizad credits Marespand Dadachanji, one of India’s most feted restorers for teaching him the ropes. Forty-five-year-old Dadachanji, a priest at the Parsi fire temple in Mumbai and a restorer, has been reviving vintage and classic cars for over two decades now but has seen the industry pick up in the last few years. It was Dadachanji who restored the Rolls-Royce Phanton II Continental, which won both at the Cartier Concours 2019 and the Pebble Beach Concours last year.
While earlier Indian restorers over-restored the cars, that tendency is on the wane. An eye for detail and the ability to let age show, has helped the restoration industry in India to come of age, says Mark. A fact illustrated by Dadachanji’s work. “While we do polish and repair parts, or replace them, sometimes a part just needs to be cleaned up and put back, without a fresh coat of paint.”
Dadachanji says the Indian classic cars restoration industry is hampered by two major stumbling blocks: the ability to source original parts and drawings or photographs, as well as the Indian government’s import policy which states that a car brought into India for restoration has to be sent back within eight months. “Thankfully, we find a lot of parts on eBay now. And the internet is a goldmine of information. There are also forums dedicated to every car marque in the world, where we can discuss things with other restorers and collectors. But there is no getting around the policy. If it was to be relaxed a bit, we would get more global collectors sending cars into India for restoration.”
Another much-feted restoration workshop in Mumbai is, in fact, owned by Goenka and run by his trusted restorer Allan Almeida, considered a master craftsman and offroader who heads one of the biggest restoration team in India with 50 technicians. He says, the industry is not for the lily-hearted. “It is a stressful job as it requires constant hard work as the resources are few and the work challenging.” He has been restoring classic cars since he was 24 and “the biggest challenge I have faced is that we cannot even find pictures of them. Also, sometimes we need to recreate entire parts.”
Sourcing talent is also difficult because most technicians are used to working on modern cars. “We have to retrain them in restoring old cars, which is very hard work because sometimes, you have to clean and repair the smallest parts by hand,” adds Kaizad.
Besides the three who are said to be the superstars of restoration in India, across the country several workshops and restorers are working towards producing world-quality work. Calcutta-based Pallab Roy is known for his work on the German Wanderer W24, in which Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose made his escape. Bangalore restorer Christopher Rodricks trained in Australia and specialises in restoring Rolls-Royces and Jaguars. In Coimbatore, GEDEE car museum has its in-house restoration workshop for classic cars.
In India, the business of restoring old cars is an important small-scale industry, kept alive by the repair skills of the painstaking mechanics who learn on the job. Events like the Cartier Concourse D' Elegance have helped them gain recognition, clients and raise the restoration standards.
Barwani, the original classic car restorer who has seen the industry grow and flourish, says that today he would not be able to match the quality of the restorers India is producing. “And that tells us a lot about the potential of the industry.”
(Picture credit: Deepali Nandwani)
Deepali Nandwani is a journalist who keeps a close watch on the world of luxury.