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A joyride with Ratan Tata

The world knows Ratan Tata as the reserved and unassuming head of India’s largest business conglomerate but away from the office and his sober business suits, there’s a different dimension to Tata’s life. Hormazd Sorabjee interviews him on his craze for cars.

business Updated: Jan 06, 2013 11:24 IST
Hormazd Sorabjee

Ratan Tata’s eyes immediately light up when I ask him about the latest acquisition to his eclectic car collection. He’s just taken delivery of a gleaming white 508bhp Jaguar XFR sports saloon, which he says ‘sounds terrific and drives brilliantly.’ There’s an F-type on order as well, painstakingly specced by him, down to the last detail. If there is one thing the man who has steered the Tata Group to stellar heights is looking forward to after retirement, it’s to spend more time behind the wheel than a desk.

The world knows Ratan Tata as the reserved and unassuming head of India’s largest business conglomerate but away from the office and his sober business suits, there’s a different dimension to Tata’s life. It’s a life that makes you understand why he’s been so emotionally involved with Tata Motors and why he’s single-handedly influenced revolutionary products like the Indica and Nano and acquired iconic brands like Jaguar and Land Rover. It’s also a life car enthusiasts would die for.

Quite simply, Ratan Tata is crazy about cars. He can’t help it. Born a Parsi, the passion is deeply embedded in his DNA. Over the years Ratan has acquired quite a collection of cars and the pristine way in which he maintains them explains why the label ‘Parsi owned’ fetches a premium in the used car market. Typical of his clan, Tata is particularly possessive about his cars and doesn’t let anybody else drive them!

Ratan Tata in his Mercedes 500 SL. Photo: Hormazd Sorabjee

His gleaming collection, tucked away in a basement is pampered to look nothing less than showroom fresh. Each car has its own bespoke cover made of a special material that won’t scratch paint and keeps moisture out. Since his cars are sparingly used, trickle chargers keep the batteries topped up. And just in case Ratan misjudges how close the garage wall is, there are wooden chocks placed ahead of the front wheels to gently stop him short!

When he’s not jetting across the globe, Ratan Tata spends most Sundays behind the wheel. His ritual is to take a couple of his cars, one by one, for a short spin down Marine drive, in South Mumbai. So next Sunday it could be turn of the Ferrari California followed by the Maserati Quattroporte or the new Jag to get lovingly driven around a 10km loop. I’ve spent a few Sunday mornings accompanying Mr Tata who is always happy to oblige a fellow enthusiast and on each occasion, I’ve been blown away by the kid glove treatment he gives to his cars.

Ratan Tata’s 15-year-old Chrysler Sebring convertible, which has barely run a 1000 miles feels like it hasn’t been driven out of the showroom. The paint hasn’t faded a bit and when you step inside, you still get a whiff of leather. In fact, Tata loved the Sebring’s unique maroon colour so much that for the Indica’s global debut at the Geneva motor show in 1998, he had it painted in the same lustrous shade!

Tata has always had a soft spot for American cars for their sheer grunt and comfort. His Cadillac XLR is another favourite.“The acceleration is

impressive and the suspension is nice and stiff especially by American standards,” he says.

In 2009, Ratan Tata took delivery of a Ferrari California, the first in the country at the time and his pride and joy. It didn’t take much to convince Ratan to take me for a ride in it but before I get in on a wet, monsoon day, Ratan politely requests me to bring the floor mats from my car. The California has its own floor mats but for Ratan even those are too good to soil with my wet feet! Thankfully it stops raining and the skies clear for it to be safe to drop the two-piece folding hard top, which retracts into the boot in 14 seconds flat.

Ratan hits the ‘Engine Start’ button and the Ferrari’s 4.3 litre V8 burts into life. Even at idle the burble from the four tailpipes sounds terrific. “It’s fairly silent below 3,000rpm but when you accelerate there’s this fantastic roar. So even if people don’t see you they hear you,” says Tata in between short bursts of acceleration down Marine Drive. It’s hard for a Ferrari to go unnoticed, less so if it’s got the city’s best-known businessman behind its wheel. Cars and motorbikes jostle around the California to get a better view. Mobile cameras are whipped out and thumbs ups are given. And all this drama happening within inches of the California. “Yes, it is a bit stressful when this happens and with the top up there’s hardly any visibility around you,” says Tata. However, I can see that Ratan is completely at ease in the California by the way he operates the paddle shifters, fiddles with the Manettino dial on the steering and shuffles through the several menus of the infotainment system. After flying planes and helicopters, the cockpit of a Ferrari must seem fairly simple!

Unlike his uncle, Jeh (JRD Tata) who actively raced cars when he was young and and earned a reputation for burning rubber in his Bugatti, Ratan never had any racing ambitions. Instead, he drives with the utmost care, avoiding potholes and crawling over speed breakers. In fact, Ratan’s smooth and genteel driving style is at odds with any form of competitive driving — something the late and great Enzo Ferrari would have best understood. The founder of the legendary Italian marque had said that he could never be a successful racing driver because he loved his cars too much to push them to the limit.

With a deep interest in the design, styling and engineering aspects Ratan Tata has influenced the shape of every Tata product in the past 20 years and has even had a say in the design direction of Jaguar and Land Rover. For Ratan, cars are best appreciated as works of art and hence there’s nothing like the gorgeous lines of a Jaguar F-type or the sound of a quad cam Ferrari V8 to wash away the worries that come with running a $ 100 billion empire. What a great way to unwind!

Ferrari California, acquired in 2009, is Ratan Tata's pride and joy. Photo: Hormazd Sorabjee