Around this time every year, the who’s who of the world of heritage cars heads to California, specifically to Monterey Bay. It’s a week-long celebration of classic and vintage cars, with the grand finale being the Concours d’Elegance, held at the 18th fairway of the Pebble Beach Golf Links. The breathtaking location overlooking the Pacific Ocean will play host to around 200 of the rarest and the most beautiful pieces of automotive art in the world. And this has been going on since 1950.
This year is special for us. As you’re reading this, around 15 glistening examples of some of the finest cars which were once owned by India’s royalty are being given the spit-and-polish treatment (collectors say the cars are being ‘pebbled’) in anticipation of the Concours tomorrow — which is always held on the third Sunday of August. This is the first, and perhaps the last time, in the history of Pebble Beach that there is a special Cars of the Maharajas class. Cars belonging to Indian royalty are not new to Pebble; many maharaja-owned cars have earlier starred in what is considered the world’s premier classic-car beauty contest. This is the first time that there is a class devoted exclusively to these peerless automobiles, and what’s even more spectacular is that Indian collectors have shipped their cars all the way to the US to compete in the event. It is indeed an acknowledgment of the fact that India is a treasure trove of heritage cars.
About two years ago, Manvendra Singh Barwani gave a copy of the book he had co-authored, The Automobiles Of The Maharajas, to Sandra Button, the chairman of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. And that could have been the trigger for the special category this year. About time too, I would say. With an astounding wealth of cars and examples of incredible coach-building, a category like this has been due for some time now. That’s not all. Indore-based Manvendra Singh — who is a world-class restorer and automotive historian — is one of the five judges of this class. It’s the first time an Indian will be a judge at the world’s ultimate classic car event, since its inception over six decades ago.
Fifteen cars are expected to participate in the Cars of the Maharajas class. Some of them include the notorious ‘Swan’ car, the ‘Star of India’ Rolls-Royce, an Edwardian era Lanchester and a Phantom II Rolls that was driven all the way from Jaipur to London decades back. The ‘Swan’ car is a 1910 Brooke that was originally built to the specifications of an eccentric Scotsman in India and it was later acquired by the Maharaja of Nabha in Punjab. It was secreted to Europe in the early 1990s by a Belgian collector and is now housed in an automobile museum in Holland. The ‘Star of India’ Rolls-Royce 40/50 HP Phantom II with Thrupp and Maberly all-weather cabriolet coachwork was ordered in 1934 by the ruler of Rajkot. In the late 1960s, the car went off to its new owner in the UK and eventually it was sold in 2000 to a German collector of Rolls-Royce cars, Hans-Gunter Zach. When Zach decided to dispose of his entire collection in 2010, Mandhatasinh Jadeja of Rajkot bought back the car that once belonged to his grandfather! This car is being shipped to Pebble from London. Another UK car that was bought as recently as 2011 at a Bonhams auction by a private buyer is the 1912 Lanchester detachable-top open-drive limousine that once belonged to the Maharaja of Rewa. Comparable to a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost across all aspects, the Lanchester’s top can be removed to make it an open tourer or for formal state occasions.
From India, two cars will be seen at the Concours: the Rolls-Royce 20 HP belonging to the former royal family of Udaipur and the 1930 Delage D8 with drophead coupé body by Figoni of Dr Ravi Prakash of Bangalore. Prakash is also participating with his Locomobile in the veteran category.
The 1924 Rolls-Royce 20 HP with a tourer body by Barker that you’ve seen in the main picture is being accompanied by someone very special — it is the only car participating in the Cars of the Maharajas class that will be accompanied by an ex-royal! Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar will be there at Pebble Beach with GLK 21. The car will be presented at the show with all the genuine paraphernalia, including an ancient log book and a large coffee-table book on the car.
What’s interesting is the 20 HP was acquired so that it could be cannibalised for parts! It was originally ordered by the Maharaja of Jodhpur. Bhupal Singh, the Maharana of Udaipur, had several 20 HP Rollers in his fleet and used them extensively. To keep his fleet running, he purchased this car for spares for Rs 5,721 in 1936 from Seth Motilal Sanghi, a reputed car dealer and importer who had acquired it from the Jodhpur royalty. The car was kept intact, thankfully, but it was kept in the zenana and later walled-in and consequently forgotten. The present owner brought it back to life in the 1980s and it went through a thorough restoration in the mid-1990s. Since then, this once-forgotten 20 HP has had a pretty active life!
The 4.0-litre, 8-cylinder Delage D8, which belonged to Maharaja Yashwantraoji Holkar of Indore, was lying uncared for and was steadily eroding. It was later restored to its concours condition by Prakash and is one of the jewels of his fabulous collection, which is housed on the outskirts of Bangalore. Interestingly, a 1907 Locomobile which he had acquired in the US in 2007 is also participating at Pebble, though not in the Maharaja category. Both the cars will be driven by Prakash and his family in the Tour d’Elegance — a 17-mile drive held before the Concours. Prakash and his wife will be driving the Delage, while his two young daughters will be piloting the ancient Locomobile!
Hopefully, the Indian collectors will return with some silverware. But importantly, this could be the beginning of more Indian collectors participating at Pebble Beach and bringing honour and attention to our peerless automotive heritage.