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Car seva: I restore vintage beauties

Dr Ravi Prakash, vintage car and bike collector, describes the joys and agonies of discovering and restoring old vehicles.
Last Updated : 14 June 2024, 19:51 IST

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I have been collecting cars since 1978. However my love for wheels goes back much further. When I was 14 and living in Mysore, my grandfather gifted me my first scooter, a Lambretta. It was a little bulky to ride around in. Three months later, he upgraded me to a 125cc Honda motorbike. And soon, I was fondly known around the city as ‘The Honda Kid’. 

My father worked as an engineer-in-chief and later a PWD special secretary. He would frequently travel across the state on work. It was through him that I got interested in cars. He had an Austin, and later, an Ambassador. 

In 1974 or thereabouts I drove down to Coimbatore in my father’s Ambassador to get bucket seats fitted. I removed its petrol engine, and installed a diesel one in its place. These days, you can barely tell the difference between a petrol and diesel engine. Diesel engines back then were not smooth, and the car would vibrate noisily, but I wanted to get more mileage.

I am now a cardiothoracic surgeon. When I was studying to be a doctor at St John’s Medical College in Bangalore, I lived in a hostel there. My father would come visiting and leave his car with me. He had a German friend who had brought his Mercedes with him to India. He would also leave his car under my care on his visits. So, at a young age, I had an opportunity to drive and experience these cars. This is what sparked my interest.

I used to get the cars serviced at Webb’s Garage on M G Road. Once, while waiting for the Mercedes to be serviced, I got chatting with a fellow customer. He was also getting his Mercedes serviced. At the end of the meeting, we shook hands. He handed me a stack of books and asked me to read them. It turned out he was Puttaparthi Sai Baba. One of his disciples had gifted him the car. Even after his assistant, Srinivas, told me his name, I had no idea who he was.

That was in 1976. I still have the books he gave me. They are all signed by him. I was no collector then, nor was I dreaming of becoming one.

The author at his garage which houses cars dating back to 1909.

The author at his garage which houses cars dating back to 1909.

DH PHOTO/ PUSHKAR V

Mountbatten car

In 1978, I drove down from Bangalore to Madras in my father’s Ambassador to watch the Sholavaram races. The unused World War II airstrip had been turned into a race track. The first two weeks of February were when the motorcycle and car races were held. My friend and I were driving back when we passed the most beautiful car I had ever seen. It was a silver 1937 Sunbeam Talbot. My friend told me that the car was up for sale. He had seen an advertisement in a Tamil newspaper. 

We stopped the car, bought the newspaper and found the number to contact. Next, we went to a phone booth and I made the call. The owner lived in Red Hills, near Ambur. We drove there and were welcomed by a woman called Kamala. She was the wife of the owner, a retired army general.

We sat down with him. He served us beer and snacks and proceeded to give us a bit of history about the car. Its first owner was Lord Mountbatten, the viceroy and first Governor General of independent India. There are pictures of Mountbatten with Jawaharlal Nehru and their wives seated in the car while in Shimla. The general was the second owner.

On wobbly knees 

I had one beer. My friend had a few more. By then the general had had a few bottles. He looked quite wobbly. As we sipped our drinks, I asked him what the price of the car was. He said Rs 40,000. It would have been over Rs 1 crore by today’s standards.

There was no way I could afford it. I had been saving up to buy a Mercedes from one Ganesh Rao for Rs 8,000. So I decided to let go of the Mountbatten car dream. We said our goodbyes and drove back to Chennai. Later that day, I called Kamala to thank her for her hospitality. She said the general had slipped down the stairs and fractured his leg. He had been taken to Command Hospital, about 30 km away. Kamala was getting ready to take him some food. She had to travel by bus as she didn’t drive and they did not have a driver.

I drove to the hospital. He was all strapped up, and Kamala had arrived by then. I wanted to help her out, so I left my car with her. My friend found a driver to drive her between her home and the hospital until her husband was discharged. I got my car back after 10 days.

In November the same year I received a telegram from Kamala. The general had died. Kamala said, “Come and collect your car.” She meant the Sunbeam. I had not agreed to buy it, but I felt I had to. I collected money from about half a dozen friends. When I reached her house a few days later, I handed over the money to her. She refused to take it. She said the general had willed the car to me. So, instead I bought her a VCR and a 21-inch TV, considered big in those days. And I drove the car from Madras to Bangalore. That is how I started my collection. The Sunbeam was also the first vintage car my wife drove. She went on to have a ladies’ team in the rallies, with my two girls in this very car. It has a very special place in my family.

Wheels in a bag

The Mountbatten car did not need any restoration. It was in great condition. But the same couldn’t be said of all the cars that came my way. I had an Anglo-Indian mechanic called Beaty. He lived in Richmond Town in Bangalore at the time. He helped me with a lot of my restoration work. But I had to find someone more permanent, and slowly I set up a full team. The team was headed by my main mechanic, Paul D’souza,  tinker Ramakrishna, carpenter Legge and upholsterer Sarwar. All of them have passed, except for Ramakrishna, whom I am still in touch with.

One of the first cars we restored was a 1915 Model T Ford. It was in bits and pieces and brought to us in nine gunny bags. Some parts had to be imported. It took us a year-and-a-half to rebuild it. There was no Internet in those days, so we had to write letters to friends and acquaintances to learn about the parts and how they had to be put together. During that time I made a lot of pen friends, all car enthusiasts who helped me gain insights into the cars I was fixing.

Over the years I acquired a Mercedes 320, Motilal Nehru’s 1928 Lanchester St 8, a 1929 Mercedes Nurburg, and then a Delage. Some of the others are a 1909 Wolseley that belonged to the Maharani of Cooch Behar, a Studebaker Commander that was owned by Kuvempu, and Maharani of Travancore’s 1933 Sunbeam. They are parked in my garages, located on my farm in Bengaluru. The property also houses my workshop, office, residence and an organic farm run by my wife.

How we do it

I picked up most of my vintage cars when they were in a shambles. Some took three-four months to rebuild, others took years. Today, with the Internet, it has become easier to find parts. When we pick up a car, we pick it up with our heart more than our head. We begin by researching and learning more about the model. Then we examine the condition of the car — what is there, what is missing, what needs replacing, what is rusted. Then we start looking at manuals and catalogues.

Before the advent of the Internet, we would take photocopies of manuals that belonged to other collectors in Bangalore. I still remember the smell of ammonia from the photocopy machine. We would then take all the measurements, rebuild the engine and then put the rest of the car back together slowly. There was a business called Vijayalakshmi Chrome Plates near Coles Park where we would go to get the chroming done. It was a time-consuming, labour-intensive process, but I enjoyed every minute of it.

Making our own parts

Thanks to the Internet, if we get the dimensions and other details, we can even make a few of the parts at our own facility. We have a lathe machine, so we manufacture a lot of the small parts in-house. 

Today, in modern cars, tinkering is rare. If a door is damaged, it is replaced. In vintage cars, you fix the broken door — you can’t get a new one. We are currently in the process of restoring a Buick that belonged to J R D Tata. All vehicles manufactured before 1994 (30 years and above) are known as historic. Earlier, vehicles manufactured from 1886 to 1904 were called veteran, 1905 to 1918 Edwardian, 1919 to 1939 vintage and 1940 to 1979 classic.

Restoration is a tedious  and expensive process. Finding labour with a knowledge of the craft is not easy. Time, effort, patience, and heart and soul go into bringing these automotive wonders back to life.

I now have a younger team of 12 workers. It has taken me a lot of time and monitoring to assemble a good team. The workshop is managed by Shankar. He was my electrician and then became my friend. He has been with me for 45 years. My daughter Rupali oversees all the operations. She is equally passionate about cars.

Karnataka, I would say, has roughly 1,000 historic vehicles. Across India, that number probably stands at 25,000. Usually, collectors have one car or one bike that belonged to their grandfather or has been in the family for generations. They are heirlooms and the owners have an emotional connection with these vehicles. The number of collectors is also increasing. A lot of young people are showing interest in preserving and acquiring old vehicles.

Policy worry

The government’s scrappage policy, which mandates the scrapping of vehicles over 15 years old, needs to be amended. I set up the Federation of Historic Vehicles of India in 2017. We had been in talks with the previous government about changing the policy. Now, I will have to renew those talks with the new government. I am confident we will reach a consensus. If old vehicles are scrapped, we are in danger of losing our automotive history. The Maruti 800 has become a collectible. I can see Tata Indica joining that list. So you see, it is important to save this history and preserve it for the generations to come.

(As told to Rashmi Rajagopal)

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Published 14 June 2024, 19:51 IST

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