What it takes to own a vintage car: a view from the driver’s seat

  • Nidhi Choksi
  • Updated: Mar 12, 2016 21:08 IST
The black beauty: Yashwardhan Ruia with his 1947 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith. It originally belonged to Lord Mountbatten (the last viceroy of India) and now appears in movies. It was last seen in 2014’s Khoobsurat. (Photo by Pratham Gokhale/ Hindustan Times) (Hindustan Times)

Admit it. Even though you have a brand new car, with sleek aerodynamics and the latest technology, you’re overcome with lust when you see a vintage or classic car cruising by on the streets. Vintage cars are gorgeous, almost regal in their high-slung beauty. They have style that modern automobiles can only dream of. You can see yourself in one, steering gallantly down the roads, nodding graciously to awe-struck pedestrians. Even fellow drivers seem pedestrian in comparison. And you want to own one so badly, it almost hurts.

This is the point at which we burst your bubble. Vintage, antique and classic cars (they all refer to when the cars were made and classifications differ across countries and regions) are high-maintenance. They guzzle time, money, energy and patience. Here’s a view from the driver’s seat.

Treat them right

Artist Vidita Singh is from the royal family of Barwani, Madhya Pradesh (her great grandfather was the last king of Barwani). She uses vintage cars as a subject in her art – “fuel runs in my blood!” she says dramatically – and her father, HH Rana Manvendra Singh, was an automotive historian, author, and popular restorer.

Wheeling out: Vidita Singh with her 1968 Ford Mustang.

Based in Indore, Singh has six vintage and classic cars, all inherited, including a 1948 Cadillac and a 1968 Mustang, but her favourite is a 1957 Ford Thunderbird. “It’s great to own these timeless beauties, but maintaining them is a huge challenge,” says Singh.

Spare parts for vehicles that are anywhere from 50 to 100 years old are often painstakingly sourced from abroad or made from scratch. And that’s when the problem starts. “With so many new cars these days, mechanics don’t want to work on the old ones,” sighs Singh.

Then, with the car sitting in your garage year after year, you have to worry about its engine. Every weekend, Singh starts her cars not because she needs to travel, but to “maintain the equilibrium of the engine”. She goes for short drives in the city, but never takes them too far. Sometimes, when traffic is miraculously missing, she drives a vintage car to her seven-year-old son’s school, just to enjoy the reactions of others on the streets. “They stop you just to get a picture of the car from all angles, and meanwhile you’re just worried that it may get scratched,” she says laughing.

Singh’s family is so fond of the cars that they even talk about them at dinner. “We discuss things like how the fuel pump of one car isn’t working and even my grandmother joins in,” she says. One of the first words her son ever said was ‘car’. It still thrills her.

The cars generally run on 93 Octane fuel but also work on petrol. Even then, Singh doesn’t take her old vehicles out very often. They’re just too delicate for today’s roads. “Once, my father drove one of these cars to Mumbai, and it stopped in the middle of nowhere,” says Singh. “With no help around, he had to take a bullock cart to fetch a local mechanic.” It hasn’t diminished their love for vintage automobiles in the least.

Give them a new life

Petrochemical executive Yashwardhan Ruia owns about 40 vintage cars and cannot pick a favourite: “You can’t choose among your children, can you?” Two of his cars – a 1934 Austin 7 and a 1947 DeSoto – have been with his family since his great grandfather’s days, with the original wiring and upholstery still intact.

Collecting vintage cars is not for the faint of heart, Ruia points out. “You need to be ready to get your hands dirty. This is not a reasonable hobby, but a passion,” he says. He would know. Only passion would get anyone to pick up a Jaguar “in 11 gunny bags”. “It wasn’t even a car, it was junk that we restored later,” he laughs. And by later, he means nine years. He got the car parked in his garage only last month.

That’s generally how these cars are bought, says Ruia. “Most are unrestored and have to be remade from scratch.” Once he’s done and taken them out for a spin, he copes with the usual questions: Petrol hai ki diesel? and Kitna average deti hai? But that’s not what saddens him. “My friends tell me that these are junk. Nobody respects a vintage car today.”

A princely affair: Yashwardhan Ruia’s 1930 Lancia Di Lambda was once owned by the Maharaja of Gondia. (Photo by Pratham Gokhale/ Hindustan Times) (Hindustan Times)

But they all know how valuable it can be. Ruia keeps his cars in a closed parking space, to protect them from the elements, and nimble-fingered strangers who might pocket a logo here, a rear-view mirror there.

Recently, when Ruia took a road trip to Rajasthan with his friends, someone stole a hubcap while they stopped for lunch. “We were 10 of us. Nobody knew where it went or how it happened,” says Ruia.

Make them matter

Nitin Dossa, president of the Vintage and Classic Car Club of India, has 50 old cars in his collection, one of which is the Hudson Phaeton 1933, a seven-seater, eight-cylinder vehicle, and the only surviving model of its kind in the world. They’re housed in Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Pune.

Red riding hood: Nitin Dossa owns a Cadillac (above) that has a V8 engine – four pistons each side. Some of the rarest machines he owns includes a 1933 Avon, the only one of its kind in the world. (Photo by Aalok Soni/ Hindustan Times)

Dossa’s passion for vintage and classic cars began in 1966 when his grand-uncle presented him with an Austin. “I’m so enthusiastic about them that I keep buying them,” he says.

How do you know you’re not the right person to own a vintage car? Dossa has the answer. If you keep asking about a vintage car’s mileage, you’ll be too horrified to want one. “These cars are gas guzzlers,” says Dossa. “Their mileage is about 2km per litre.”

They need patience too. The cars can break down any time, disappointing a whole city during a rally, as Dossa recently found out. “I was upset, but I realised I’d have to live with it,” he says.

That said, maintenance does not really cost much, says Dossa. If you keep the engine oiled and fuelled, the car will run almost forever. “It is time consuming, but if that’s your hobby then you have to give it time,” says Dossa. It helps to have company. Dossa meets other vintage car owners twice a week to discuss their cars.

Make time your friend, Dossa says. Prepare to wait months, sometimes years before a single spare part becomes available somewhere in the world. “And prepare for a chase if you want a car,” he adds. It once took him five years to convince a woman to sell him her vintage car.

But if you really do want a vintage gaadi, Dossa is all for it. With only about 2,500 classic and vintage cars in India, the hobby is gradually dying out, he says. “It worries me. I want to tell young people that there’s really nothing like it.”

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From HT Brunch, March 13, 2016

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