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Shine on: The vintage cars that shift the spotlight on India's history

Selina Denman attends the Cartier Travel with Style Concours d’Elegance and discovers motors that were as prized as precious gems by the maharajas who once owned them

“I have been obsessed with classic cars my whole life,” Yasmin Le Bon tells me as we sit chatting on the terrace of Jaipur’s Rambagh Palace. “I love this idea of living, moving history.”

We are looking out over the hotel’s expansive lawns, where rows of lovingly restored cars gleam in the sun. There’s a 1906 Renault Freres 8HP Runabout, affectionately referred to as “the lady in red”; a 1921 Fiat 501S Corsa Speedster that once belonged to the Maharaja of Patiala; hulking Rolls-Royces in varying hues; a white 1960 Ford Thunderbird that is the property of the current Maharaja of Jaipur; and a seven-seater 1934 Daimler limousine ordered by the Princess of Kolhapur, a young widow who demanded that every element of her “purdah” car be customised in pearly white, including the interior, wheels, brakes, chassis and steering wheel.

Passion. Emotion. Stories. These are the things that set the Cartier Travel with Style Concours d’Elegance apart, according to its high-profile panel of judges. The classic car event was launched in 2008 to highlight India’s rich automotive history and, over the subsequent decade, it has been instrumental in encouraging a younger generation of Indian collectors, enhancing vehicle restoration standards in the country, and showcasing its remarkable motoring heritage to the rest of the world.

Cartier Travel With Style Concours d'Elegance - Judge Yasmin Le Bon. Courtesy Cartier
Judge Yasmin Le Bon. Courtesy Cartier

“The level of passion I’m seeing is really extraordinary,” Le Bon, former supermodel, car fanatic and concours judge, says of the 2019 edition of Cartier Travel with Style. It’s a sentiment that’s reiterated during my conversations with the event’s curator, Manvendra Singh Barwani, and chief judge, Simon Kidston.

Long before it became a trend in Europe, India’s maharajas were collecting cars – mainly because they bought so many and never really got around to selling any. Kidston points out that today, in the West, the value of a classic car has been reduced to a monetary sum – these four-wheeled investments are shipped off to be meticulously restored and then rolled out at concours around the world, in the hope they will pick up a prize that will, in turn, boost their commercial value. The cars on show at the Rambagh Palace, meanwhile, are prized because they are shrouded in history, sentimentality and nostalgia – these are cars that were once driven by the country’s royals, that in some cases lay forgotten for years in the garages of ancient palaces. They are vehicles that recall a bygone era and, in many instances, have been in the same family for decades.

Barwani, the man credited with bringing India’s automotive history to the attention of the world, happily recounts the story of a car he once owned but has since gifted to his daughter, Vidita Singh of Barwani. On display at the Jaipur event, the red 1955 Ford Thunderbird first belonged to Prince Shiv of Palitana, a renowned playboy with a penchant for actresses and showgirls. The prince would drive all over Europe in his fiery red convertible, leaving a string of broken hearts in his wake.

These classic vehicles hark back to a simpler, more authentic time in automotive design, suggests the acclaimed British product and transportation designer Peter Stevens, another judge at this year’s concours. “I think that, to a great degree, honesty has become lost in modern vehicles. In the past, a simple low-cost car for people of restricted means did not pretend to be an off-road adventurer’s car or an ultra-high performance car when it clearly was nothing of the sort. Similarly, a luxury car was, in the past, an elegant statement of style and quality, not something to belittle or intimidate other road users. Marketing has become the major influence on car design, rather than the creativity of the designers.”

Jacques Cartier with Indian gemstone merchants, 1911, Cartier Archives. Courtesy Cartier
Jacques Cartier with Indian gemstone merchants in 1911. Courtesy Cartier

There are 86 vehicles on display in Jaipur, as well as 26 motorcycles, in 14 classes that include Pre-War Classics, Post-War Classics, Indian Heritage (which covers cars made and assembled cars in India from 1947 to 1965), and a new Ford Thunderbird class.

But it is the launch of a Pre-War Transportation category that really brings a new dimension to proceedings. Stevens is delighted by the inclusion of this new class, rightly pointing out that while many of the other cars on show would only have been seen and used by the very upper echelons of Indian society, the trucks and buses that are featured in this new category would have touched the lives of countless people around the country.

Taking pride of place in the foregrounds of the Rambagh Palace are a 1930 Chevrolet 1½ tonne Series LS Truck used by the Dyer Meakin brewery to transport Lion beer to British soldiers; and a 1934 Chevrolet 1½ tonne Series PA Truck that started its life as a water tanker for the Mandsaur fire department – this particular vehicle was retrieved from a scrapyard and rebuilt almost from scratch in only six months.

“The reason for promoting this new class of cars is that, if not showcased, they will go into scrap,” stresses Barwani. “These are typical Indian things, which have Indian heritage, an Indian connection, have been used only in India and display the distinct culture of how we travelled. This is one of the main reasons that this concours is unique.”

Also unique is the car that wins the concours’s Best of Show trophy: a commanding green and white 1935 Rolls-Royce Phantom II Continental Streamline Coupé. “There were three things that made the Gurney Nutting Rolls-Royce stand out,” Stevens explains. “First was the two-tone colour scheme, which exactly duplicated the original colours.

Coll Rajastan. Courtesy Cartier
The Coll Rajastan. Courtesy Cartier

“Then, the detailing, all those little things that are of the same design style and feel, so that all look like they belong on the car. Thirdly, the ‘stance’. This is a difficult thing to define, but is basically the relationship of the body to the ground. It is too easy for a restored car to be a bit low at the back – so it looks like the boot is full of potatoes. Or the front looks a bit too low, as if the front springs have become tired. To set the stance properly, the owner managed to get copies of the original build sheets from Rolls-Royce. It is this kind of painstaking research that contributed to the perfect presentation of the car.”

For Cartier, the concours is a chance for the brand to restate and reinforce its relationship with India. Jacques Cartier, grandson of the founder of the famed jewellery house, first travelled to the country in 1911, in search of the finest gemstones, and returned regularly thereafter. On that first trip, he met the Maharaja of Patiala, who would go on to give Cartier one of its largest ever commissions: the resetting of his crown jewels in the 1930s. A highlight from that collection is the famed Patiala necklace, which features nearly 3,000 diamonds, as well as the 234-carat De Beers diamond at its centre.

Besides commissions, Jacques returned from India brimming with new ideas. He was exposed to a new aesthetic – colourful, vibrant and unfettered in its approach to mixing shapes and shades. He brought this back to the West at a time when Orientalism was gaining traction and he introduced it into the Cartier oeuvre, most famously in the form of the colourful, exuberant Tutti Frutti collection.

“This was the starting point of a genuine relationship where maharajas entrusted the maison’s creativity, expertise and craftsmanship to magnify their gemstones into marvellous designs,” says Christophe Massoni, chief executive of Cartier Middle East, Africa and India.

“Today, with the Travel with Style exhibition, these unique and historical cars are precious treasures of India, just as Cartier jewels were to maharajas. This magnificent event highlights the heritage, the transmission and a unique sense of beauty – values that are so dear to this beautiful country and deeply carved into Cartier’s DNA.”

Updated: April 26, 2019 03:03 AM

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