Bell bottoms, hair cream, and large convertibles. Once upon a time, these were the bare necessities for a young man to court his love. On the silver screen, Bollywood stars such as Shammi Kapoor, Dev Anand, and Rajesh Khanna whizzed up and down the hills in their open-top Buicks, Studebakers, or Heralds, serenading the heroine or carousing with friends.

Kapoor remembers the first love of his life. “It was a sky blue convertible Buick Super, second-hand,” he writes in his blog. That was in 1950, and the car cost a princely Rs 16,500. He paid that in monthly instalments of Rs 650 “almost regularly” till June 1952.

Kapoor fondly recalls driving that Buick (registration number BMY 3009) in the hills near Pune, and chasing actor Geeta Bali. “She had been leading me a merry chase in her own convertible Buick,” Kapoor says. “It was pouring, but it didn’t matter.” Two months later, he married her for real.

“As a film star, I have had a number of different cars. But the Buick BMY 3009 has always remained dear to me, in both my memory and my heart,” he recalls.

It is this romance that carmakers are trying to revive. BMW, Maserati, and Audi have all launched top-down models in India in the past two months. Sounds like a dream come true for all those who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, and lusted for those large imported convertibles when all they could afford was a Vespa scooter.

Today, many of them might be able to pay nearly Rs 1 crore for one of the modern, flashy open-tops. But when the yesteryear stars drove through the Mumbai streets in their convertibles, the audience did not think of the heat, stench, or exhaust fumes. But today, all these are very real challenges.

There’s nothing that comes between the driver of a convertible and a paan-spitter on a nearby bus. And what happens in a public parking lot? Not too many people are going to see the romance in that.
Still, BMW India president Andreas Schaaf says it’s about going against the grain. “It’s an emotional buy. Sure, there are challenges to enjoying a car like this in India but not when your heart is involved,” he says.

Schaaf is optimistic, although the numbers aren’t particularly encouraging. Mercedes-Benz, for instance, has sold 23 E-class Cabriolets so far in India. At Rs 64 lakh, these are the cheaper convertibles, compared with the Audi R8 Spyder, which comes with a price tag of Rs 1.5 crore. Even celebrities may balk at shelling out so much for an open-top car, when there are luxury sedans available for around the same price.

Luxury carmakers Rolls-Royce and BMW have clocked sales of 70 and 7,079 cars respectively here in 2010-11. And it’s this niche market, particularly in North India (Punjab, for instance) and in parts of the South (cities such as Coimbatore), which holds the key.

Schaaf is convinced that the market will grow beyond this. “Luxury car sales jumped from 6,000 units to 17,000 in a few years, when I was managing BMW in Korea,” he says, adding: “In one year, we sold 500 M3 convertibles.”

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