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The Maharajas & Their Magnificent Motor Cars.


Gautam Sen.
ISBN 978 0 85733 063 5
Published January 2011. (Hardback, 384 pages).
The cars of the Maharajas book cover

UK RRP 40.00

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Prior to reading this book, I'd heard of and known a little about some of the magnificent motor-cars that had been sold to wealthy Indian individuals, including rajas and maharajahs, who sought the ultimate expressions of their wealth and good taste. This book, by respected Indian journalist Gautam Sen, takes a look at some of the cars of the many thousand that found their way to India during the early 20th Century, that have survived into preservation. Many are fully restored and used regularly, while others live on as static museum exhibits. Some, as expected, are truly spectacular, while others are somewhat more mainstream but are equally deserving of preservation, as a snapshot to a byegone era when fabulously wealthy Indian Princes were only constrained by their imagination when it came to choosing their next motor-car.
The early years of motoring in Calcutta form the opening pages of this book, taking the reader on a journey around the roads of this city, formerly part of the British Empire. Advertisements for vendors of the motor car feature amongst the many illustrations, as do rare photographs of the country's first indigenous car, the Swadeshi. Motorsport would also be a regular attraction to car enthusiasts, with single seaters, sports and saloon cars doing battle on tracks such as Alipore, and later Barrackpore.
The book is profusely illustrated with photographs, recent and period, of the cars - many of European manufacture - that were shipped to India. A great deal of the book is given over to a number of leading lights in India that have sought to seek out and preserve these ancient motor-cars for future generations to enjoy. One of the most prolific is Protap Roy, a keen collector and long-time motoring enthusiast. Photographs and text summarise just some of the superb cars he's been able to buy since the 1960s. These include many different Rolls-Royces, plus examples of Hispano-Suiza, MG, Lagonda, Duesenberg, Isotta Fraschini and many many more.
Some of the cars will be very familiar to European eyes. Examples of MG sportscars of the 1930s and 1940s feature regularly within the book's pages, often rubbing wheels with some very exotic machines. Perhaps the most surprising vehicle referred to in this book is a 1961 Austin Cambridge, one of several cars belonging to Maharana Arvind Singh Mewar and on display in a modestly-sized 21-car museum he opened in 2000. Nearly all of the cars have been in the family since new, and most are mainstream production models rather than epicly-styled coachbuilt dreamcars. His favourite is a 1946 MG TC, a car used regularly and in beautifully-restored condition.
American cars of the 1930s and 1940s were also popular choices, and many are featured. Cadillacs, Buicks, and Packards are just some of the US cars to be found within the 384 pages that make up this sizeable book.
One of my favourites is the Mercedes-Benz 500K belonging to Maharaj Shivrajsinhji. Built in 1935, this rakish machine has been preserved in oh-so original condition, with no thoughts being entertained of 100-point concours restoration, and so much the better for it. The Figoni et Falaschi-bodied Delahaye 135 is also a feast for the eyes, and thought to be one of the most valuable cars presently to be found in India.
Many of the cars were purchased as rolling chassis, and were fitted with coachwork designed by, or at least guided by, their purchaser(s). One of the most bizarre cars of all is blessed with its own chapter - the Brooke Swan Car of 1910. Already cars, many quite regal, were becoming regular sights on India's city roads, and Robert Nicholl Matthewson was keen to out-do everyone else with something guaranteed to stop the traffic wherever it went. He decided to have a car built that resembled a swan. To do this, he visited a coachbuilder in Suffolk, England, to create this machine based on a Brooke chassis. The body was carved from wood, onto which plaster additions were applied, to replicate the look of a swan's feathers. Bulbs were fitted to the swan's eyes, something that no doubt frightened many a passer-by during the twilight hours in Calcutta. Bizarrely hot scalding water could be sprayed from the swan's beak at the touch of a button, while tunes could be played on the exhaust-powered Gabriel horn from a keyboard situated in the rear of the "car". As if this wasn't bonkers enough, drops of whitewash could be ejected from the rear of the car onto the road, to simulate other "natural functions" to be found on the real-life avian. The locals were not amused, and Matthewson sold the car on. In later life it would find its way to the USA where it went on to be restored, and continues to this day to bewilder anyone who happens upon it.
The majority of the cars though are tasteful and spectacular. Coachbuilt motor-cars of the highest order dominate the pages of this interesting book, and anyone who has an interest in rare, top quality, motor-cars would I'm sure find this of great interest. The book does an excellent job of not only discussing these historic cars in detail, but also the Indian society into which they slotted, and the passionate individuals who have ensured that so many of these cars have been rescued and preserved.
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