Rana Manvendra Singh of Barwani, vintage car expert, restorer and author, has quite a few memories with his 1956 Cadillac. One incident that he particularly remembers took place when he was five. “I was looking at something in a shop in Connaught Place, New Delhi, and my parents moved away. A lady saw me standing on the divider of the road, stopped her car and asked me how I got there? I answered that I came in a red Cadillac. By then, my mother had rushed towards me.” It was funny that the first thing he could identify about his family was the red Cadillac!
Royalty and automobiles have always gone hand in hand, ever since the maharajas imported their very first cars in the beginning of the 20th century. It is because of India’s royal history that vintage cars have still remained with owners’ families for over a century.
“If you look at the ultra-rich around the world, from the Vanderbilts to the Rothschilds, few will still have their very first cars,” says Singh. “But in India, the Nizam of Hyderabad’s family still owns its Rolls-Royce from 1912!”
Born in an automotive royal family from the erstwhile State of Barwani in Madhya Pradesh, Singh considers himself fortunate that he grew up surrounded by cars. “When my grandfather late Maharaja Ranjit Singh Ji of Barwani, who fought in World War I, returned to India, he brought with him an American steam car, a Turner, one of the first cars to reach this region,” says Singh, who loved to tinker with the mechanics of his father’s cars. Instead of gifting him comics as a child, his father would give him automobile catalogues to read, and play games with him to identify cars. “My father would buy pedal cars for my brothers and me once a year, which he would then modify and custom build; we’d end up fighting over them,” says Singh. “He was very fond of cars, but never kept a car for too long. I was able to save his last car — a 1956 Cadillac.”
After graduating from Northwood University in Michigan, Singh worked at Fiat in Iran for three years. An opportunity to do up his brother’s Fiat would lead to the beginning of his new vocation in India — starting his own car workshop in Indore in 1978. “I modified and custom-painted it,” he says. “People saw it and it became a rage.” A friend asked him to do up his Bentley, and so began his workshop as a customiser. “I was helping the Indian auto industry,” he says. “I started before Dilip Chhabria, getting car owners of Tatas, Mahindras, Hindustan Motors and Premier Automoblies to make their cars look modern without spending too much money. That’s when Mahindras asked me to customise the Scorpio — and it became a production car. The last Ambassador car (400 were produced) was designed by me.”
Singh has been curating Cartier’s Concours d’Élegance car show since 2008. At Cartier’s 2019 ‘Travel with Style’ Concours d’Élegance in Jaipur, Singh told the audience that limited editions such as the Ambassador were destined to become classics, rather than a Maruti, which carries a purely nostalgic value.
It is at car shows such as Cartier that Singh got the chance to showcase what is now popularly known as the ‘Maharaja Class’ of cars. Taking the last two shows to two of India’s most beautiful palaces — the Taj Falaknuma in Hyderabad, and the Rambagh Palace Hotel in Jaipur — the venue mirrored the glittering cars on display. “I introduced the ‘Maharaja Class’ at Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance with Sandra Button,” says Singh, referring to the car show in California he’s been associated with for the past decade. “Unfortunately I can’t travel there this year due to the pandemic. In 2015, Sandra and I created the ‘Raj Class’ (with a dozen cars from India). Today, people are following it up around the world — the India connect comes with a huge bit of history, and has opened up a whole new category. The world has realised that India is a phenomenal luxury market. A lot of luxury items, including cars, are sold here, specially made for India, because of the country’s rich heritage.”
The original research Singh did with Sharada Dwivedi for their 2003 book, The Automobiles of the Maharajas, led him to define five classes of cars in India, from the 1900s up to Independence in 1947. These included heritage cars, shikaar or hunting cars, purdah cars (for maharanis and ladies of erstwhile noble families), ceremonial cars (such the Maharaja of Mysore’s Rolls-Royce used for a state ceremony, such as the visit by the Prince of Wales), and long-distance travel cars (that came with a picnic set; the Mysore royals used Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, while the Maharaja of Kashmir used the lighter Italian Lancia for mountain driving).
“Today, it’s recognised that we had these peculiar uses for automobiles that were not there in any other country,” says Singh. “So if a maharaja had 50 cars, two would be adapted to become a hunting car.”
Today, India has around 6,000 vintage cars left, with a few royals still owning some. Udaipur’s Shriji Arvind Singh of Mewar is an example. “His collection is exceptional, and exists today thanks to the modifications his late grandfather made to his cars,” says Rana Manvendra Singh. The Maharaja of Gondal as well as the present royal family of Wankaner, both in Gujarat, are some others who have their original cars. The latter still owns a 1921 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost.
The erstwhile Maharana of Porbandar had an unusual selection of Packards. “The maharani had ordered a car in a particular shade from the Packard Motor Car Company,” says Singh. “They were unable to make it so she sent her slippers to them, and asked them to match the car with the shade of her shoe! That is what luxury was in those days.”
Maharaja Jai Singh of Alwar had some of the rarest cars that he amassed in the 20s and 30s. He was the only person in the world to own 19 Hispano Suizas (which were more expensive than Rolls-Royces). Every year, he would buy two-three Hispano Suizas. Today, his descendant, Maharaja Jitendra Singh of Alwar still has two Hispano Suizas and a rare, very unusual Lanchester Landaulet, made with an extended chassis and a royal coach (from a horse-drawn carriage) installed on top. India’s other Hispano Suizas can be found with Mumbai’s Pranlal Bhogilal, one of India’s most prolific collectors, and with Vijay Mallya.
No mention of vintage cars is complete without referring to the Nizam of Hyderabad. One of the most opulent cars that Singh has restored and refers to as a ‘Time magazine car’ (as written up in Time magazine when they were made), was the Throne — a priceless 1912 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost ordered by the Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan. (He has also restored the gold-plated Daimler ordered by Sir Seth Hukumchand of Indore, which is still with the family.) Today the Nizam’s Rolls-Royce sits in the Chowmahalla Museum in Hyderabad, thanks to the dedication of Princess Esra (the Turkish-born former spouse of the present Nizam of the erstwhile State of Hyderabad). “All seven of her fabulous cars are kept in the museum, along with textiles, armoury, jewels, and cutlery.”
Rana Manvendra Singh prefers to see himself as someone who saves cars by repairing them, rather than restoring them. “I can’t reach that quality of restoration you find in India today, with people like Viveck Goenka (of The Indian Express),” he says. “He has one of the world’s best restoration workshops in Mumbai.” Younger enthusiasts like Marespand Dadachanji of Mumbai and Chris Rodricks from Bengaluru are now leading the way.
The interest and passion for cars among youngsters is something Singh finds heartening, because people are handing their cars to the next generation, unlike in the US, where younger people would rather buy a car from the ‘new classics’ of the 70s and 80s rather than the vintage ones from the 30s-60s. “But because of shows such as Cartier in India, a lot of international-level work is happening in the country,” says Singh. “People are sending cars from abroad to get them restored here, but the government needs to change its policy to make it easier. Costs are lower, and our skill levels are so high in India.”
Today, the shows are happening abroad, but with a more pared down audience. Cartier has pulled out of India for 2023, and Singh is looking for a sponsor.
He continues to judge cars internationally though, for annual events such as The Peninsula Classics Best of the Best Award, co-founded by Sir Michael Kadoorie (owner of The Peninsula Hotels) and collectors like William ‘Chip’ Connor of Hong Kong, where he sends in his winning picks out of seven world entries. With 25 judges, such as Ralph Lauren, Jay Leno, Laurence Graff, and Henry Ford III, Singh is in stellar company, and the only Indian along with Ratan Tata.
Singh now spends most of his time writing his magnum opus — on the history of automobiles in India in the last 100 years — with his son, an auto journalist. It was during the research of The Automobiles of the Maharajas that he came across vast archival material. “I have around 2,000 photos of the cars that came to India and the people who bought them, people from Bombay, and those from Parsi and business families who owned these cars,” says Singh. “From the photos of people standing next to the cars, you can see what India was like at the time — and what clothes people wore. It’s a snapshot of India’s automotive culture.” The book, with 700 historic photos, will be out in 2023.
He is also planning to recreate the ‘lost’ designs of cars for the maharajas. “These are European or American cars that never got made,” he says. “If a client wants something really unique, I will do it for his/her car, using the original archives of the car company.”
Singh would be recreating history if he manages to achieve this.