Motorcars For India in the 19th century.
The story goes something like this. A maharaja from Eastern India was visiting London sometime in the 1930s, and the man being a follower and admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, believed in dressing simply: just the long white kurta and a plain white dhoti. Though he was not one bit ostentatious in his outward appearance, he still had the taste of his forbears, a penchant for things expensive. And so, like many of his kind, he decided to pay a visit to one of the London showrooms of Rolls-Royce, a marque whose cars he traditionally patronized.
Unfortunately from him, the elegantly attired sales person at the showroom didn’t take the Indian gentleman very seriously and indeed decided to show him the door. Furious at the insult, the maharaja sent his (presumably better-dressed) minister to that same Rolls-Royce showroom to order three cars to be sent to India, sans coachwork. On their arrival in Calcutta these three cars were converted into garbage trucks and gifted to the Calcutta Corporation...
So goes the legend. And it is probably just a legend, not necessarily true. Yet stories and legends abound about the maharajas and their passion for cars, some untrue, many fascinatingly real. It is quite possible that the first Indian to run his own car may have been Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji Jadeja, otherwise — and better — known as Ranji, who became the Maharaja of Nawanagar, a minor princely state in Western India, in 1907, but before that he was already famous as one of the world’s finest cricketers. And even before that, when he was in the UK studying at Cambridge, between the years 1889 and 1893, he acquired a very early automobile that was the cause of much excitement and consternation in that quaint university town.
The first car to be acquired by an Indian in India, however, was a steam-powered, two-cylinder three-wheeled French De Dion-Bouton that Maharaja Rajinder Singh of Patiala apparently purchased in 1892. In 1893, an Olds steam car, made by the pioneering American Ransom E Olds, was shipped out to India for an unknown customer, but the car never reached as the ship it was on sank. This car is recorded as the first ever export of a car from the USA!
In 1897, a Benz was imported by a British gentleman in India, J B Foster of the company Greaves Cotton & Co. The car arrived in the city of Bombay. Soon, cars were brought into Calcutta too, the capital of British India then. In 1898, a European firm imported three ‘horseless carriages’ that found their way to some petty royal states, and the Indian maharajas’ love affair with the automobile begun.
Rolls-Royce was the favourite of the 20th century.
Photo Credit: Makarand Baokar
But the marque that was the most coveted of all was Rolls-Royce. It was probably the eight Rolls-Royces ordered in 1911 for the occasion of the grand Coronation Durbar of King George V in Delhi, when he was proclaimed the Emperor of India that triggered off the fascination for what many believed was then the “best car in the world”. Soon thereafter, each and every one of the 500-odd of the princely states in India decided that their ceremonial car must be a Rolls-Royce, so much so that India became one of the most important markets for the prestigious English carmaker. Yet of the 20,000-odd Rolls-Royces manufactured before the beginning of the Second World War, less than a thousand found their way to India.
Many of the smaller princely states could afford just one or two Rolls-Royces at the most, but several of the wealthier ones acquired dozens of them. And given the undefined uses of the ‘horseless carriage’, some of the most unusual of coachworks made their way to India to satisfy the varied tastes and demands of the rajas and the maharajas – ceremonial throne cars, hunting cars with Stephen Grebel search lamps and gun racks, cars for wedding and state processions, even cars for ladies to travel in secluded ‘purdah’ – with each trying to outdo the other in terms of pomp, glamour and splendor. Not all though were in agreeable tastes – for instance the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost with overpowering silver repoussé decorative work for one of the maharajas – yet many did show good taste and set trends for coach-building and design.