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.
One of the very early Rolls-Royces with polished aluminum bodywork, this 1923 Twenty ordered by Nawab Moin-ud-Dowla is in the UK currently, with enthusiast Benjamin Grew (photo courtesy Benjamin Grew)
One of the early trends was for polished aluminum coachwork. Nawab Moin-ud-Dowla of Hyderabad was probably one of the first to have ordered a Rolls-Royce Twenty in 1923, with a very special body, a barrel-sided tourer by coachbuilder Barker & Co., of London, with polished aluminum coachwork. This was the first of four Rolls-Royces ordered by the Nawab. In 1924 the Nawab ordered another Rolls-Royce Twenty, again with polished aluminium bodywork, but this time he had the coachwork done by Hooper. Through the 1920s several Rolls-Royces and other cars were ordered with this finish. Other than looking like they were finished in silver, which gave the car a certain wealth and flamboyance, the reflective aluminum must have been quite effective in keeping away heat, making these cars cooler than cars painted in a darker shade.
This Phantom I limousine was the car used by the Maharani of Cooch Behar, Indira Raje; before restoration, the windows had a tint (Tom Wood Copyright RM Auctions)
With rather conservative social mores prevailing in India in the early part of the century, ladies of royal descent had to travel in ‘purdah’, or under ‘cover’, so that they wouldn’t be seen by other men. So many of the Rolls-Royces ordered for the maharani, the wives and daughters and dowager mothers of the Indian princes, featured tinted or darkened windows, other than curtains that gave them total privacy, with limousine or sedanca de ville body styles the prevailing choices, which allowed for the rear section of the coachwork to be completely secluded from prying eyes.
The most distinctive and special were the Rolls-Royces ordered as hunting cars by the Indian princes. Most often than not they were open tourers with special mountings for gun racks and powerful search lamps, though many of the cars used for ceremonial purposes and/or for travel did feature spot lamps for easier driving in the dark. So, when many of the recent owners, of the bigger Rolls-Royce tourers with Indian provenance featuring lamps and gun racks, have been claiming that their cars were hunting cars, it is not necessarily true. To be able to access the typically dense tropical forests of India smaller, lighter cars made much more practical sense, not big and heavy Rolls-Royces. Yet, a few of the princes did order very specific hunting Rolls-Royces.
A true ‘hunting’ car, this Rolls-Royce Twenty from 1925 was commissioned by the Maharaja of Bharatpur, Brajendra Sawai Kishen Singh (photo courtesy François Mathey)
One of them was a specially bodied Twenty, with coachwork by George Wilder, of Kew Gardens, in Surrey, UK. A very unusual body style – termed a “howdah” – the four-door car had a folding dickey seat at the rear, that when opened out, faced backwards! So that guarding against a tiger attacking from the rear became easier... The car also had a sunroof that opened out for the maharaja to be able to take pot shots at tigers and other animals, standing up within the car, the roof acting as a turret from where to swivel around and shoot at all and sundry.
Ordered new by Maharaja Brajendra Sawai Kishen Singh, of the princely state of Bharatpur, in Northern India, this car was one of as many as two dozen Rolls-Royces in his royal garage that included five smaller Twentys. These Twentys were part of the fleet of luxury cars used to transfer his guests from his palace to the wetlands, the Keoladeo Ghana National Park, a famous avifauna sanctuary that sees (or saw) thousands of rare and highly endangered birds such as the Siberian Crane come here during the winter season. Regular hunts saw thousands of these animals disappear over the years.
The Rolls-Royce 17EX was an experimental car developed by the carmaker, and then sold to the Maharaja of Kashmir (photo courtesy Matt Davis/Carrstudio)
Mention, though, must be made of some of the maharajas who exhibited much better taste in their choice of coachwork and the use of their Rolls-Royces. The Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh, had a penchant for fancy cars, and amongst his extensive collection of exotic machinery were more than two dozen Rolls-Royces, some of them featuring the rare luggage van bodywork. But the most distinctive of his fleet of Rolls-Royces would be a very special sports Phantom I, the celebrated 17EX experimental, designed and developed by Rolls-Royce themselves, in 1928, but acquired by the Maharaja after Rolls-Royce had tested the car for over 7,000kms. Clearly, the striking design of 17EX, by Rolls-Royce’s in-house designer Ivan Evernden, with the body built by Jarvis of Wimbledon (famous for making lightweight sports bodies on Bugattis and the world land speed record-breaking Blue Bird of 1928) was what must have caught the fancy of the Maharaja.
One of the handsomest of all pre-war Rolls-Royce, this Phantom II Continental sports a very elegant J Gurney Nutting body (© Makarand Baokar)
But arguably the handsomest Rolls-Royces from the pre-war period to make their way to India were mostly the ones coachbuilt by J Gurney Nutting. Several of the finest designs by J Gurney Nutting’s renowned chief stylist A E ‘Mac’ MacNeil were the commissions of the maharajas of India, with a 1935 Phantom II Continental the most striking of them all. Chassis number 62UK was ordered by the Maharaja of Jodhpur, Umaid Singh, on the 5th June, 1935 and delivered in Bombay on the 18th of October. The last of the 280 Phantom II Continentals made, this car remains in regular use even today, with its very caring owner, in Bombay.
Not surprisingly, most of the Rolls-Royces that came to India sported British coachbuilt bodies, some were even bodied in India, other than a few by French coachbuilders Kellner, Rothschild & Fils, Wulleman & Tardiveau and De Dion Motor C°, for cars owned by some of the maharajas who had homes in France, such as the Maharaja of Baroda and the Maharaja of Kapurthala. Italian, German or other European coachbuilders didn’t seemed to have got a chance at bodying Rolls-Royces for Indian customers, but for some of the other marques they had greater opportunities.