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Restoring lost glory of vintage cars

Gyan Sharma, 50, loves cars - in their old-world glory. And he restores these vintage beauties, which he often gets in a dilapidated condition. The task requires the skills of a mechanical engineer and the temperament of an artist. Sharma runs Krishna Motor Garage, perhaps the oldest surviving car garages in New Delhi, and is presently busy restoring a 1936 Fiat Ballila, a 1934 Ford and a 1934 Singer. He will soon begin work on a 1913 Morris Bullnose, Manoj Sharma reports.

delhi Updated: Aug 11, 2012 23:47 IST
Manoj Sharma

Gyan Sharma, 50, loves cars - in their old-world glory. And he restores these vintage beauties, which he often gets in a dilapidated condition. The task requires the skills of a mechanical engineer and the temperament of an artist. Sharma runs Krishna Motor Garage, perhaps the oldest surviving car garages in New Delhi, and is presently busy restoring a 1936 Fiat Ballila, a 1934 Ford and a 1934 Singer. He will soon begin work on a 1913 Morris Bullnose.

"Most vintage cars I get are nothing but a rusty metal heap on a broken chassis," says Sharma, who learnt the 'art' from his father and grandfather. The process of restoration, he says, can take anything between three months to three years. The vintage car restorer has to first figure out what the vehicle originally looked like. He takes the help of the internet, books, car albums and even original manuals of a car.

Then begins Sharma's global quest for original car parts and components, that may take from months to years. And if certain parts are not available, he fabricates them in his garage, trying to be as faithful to the original as possible.

The restoration, the 50-year-old points out, is step-by-step. And long drawn out: He first repairs the chassis, then the body. The body is then mounted on the chassis. He then finishes the bodywork, paint, interiors and finally comes the wiring of the car and fitting its tyres.

"A true vintage car collector wants the car to be as close to the original as possible. The cars we restore are at least 70-75% close to the original. I have been working on a 1931 Austin for two-and-a-half years. It took me two months just to fabricate its hood frame," says Sharma, whose grandfather set up the garage in 1938. He now runs the garage with his younger brother Prem, 47, and his son Avesh, 24, an automobile engineer.

The restoration of a vintage car, he says, can cost anything between Rs. 2 lakh to Rs. 10 lakh, depending on its condition and the originality sought by the owner. Sharma says while it is easy to get parts of American and British cars, those of Italian cars such as Alfa Romeo and Fiat Lancia are difficult to get.

"Thankfully, these days vintage car clubs around the world are a big help in procuring all necessary information and parts of a particular make and model. In fact, one can even find where and when the car was built, which year it was shipped to India, and to whom. But in many cases, I have had to fabricate several crucial engine and body parts including the housing, radiator, the braking system and radiator grill, among others," says the car restorer.

Recounting the 1930s when his grandfather opened the garage, he says there were hardly 100 cars in the city and his grandfather's clients were mostly the royals, businessman from the Walled City and civil servants. These days, Sharma says, he gets three kinds of customers: those who buy vintage cars just to show them off, those who have money and see vintage cars as an investment option, and then there are the true, passionate collectors.

"Interestingly, many who come to my garage with a vintage car tell me that it belonged to their grandfather, though they may have bought it from a junk dealer. Of late, many young professionals and businessman have started collecting vintage vehicles and they mostly look for exclusive cars such as Pierce-Arrow, Daimler, Minerva and Stutz," says Sharma.

He also says that Delhi has the highest number of vintage cars in the country. The city, along with Jaipur, is also a hub of vintage car restoration. According to him, most collectors procure vintage cars from small towns in UP and Bihar, where many lie abandoned, at times half-buried under the ground, for decades in the old havelis of zamindars.

"A few years ago, a vintage car was found in the garage of a Karol Bagh house by its new owner. The car had been lying there for close to 40 years. In fact, several such cars are still stuck in the Walled City since access to them has been blocked by new constructions inside houses and lanes," he says.

Sharma, who restores two to eight cars in a year, believes these old cars are 'magnificent artworks' crafted in metal. "They look so feline with their smooth flowing bodies. Every car stands out for its design, unlike present-day cars all of which look the same," he says. The owner of eight vintage cars, Sharma regularly participates in vintage car rallies. "But I am a restorer first. Nothing makes me happier when these beauties, restored in my garage, are ready to hit the road again," he says.