April 13, 2009

Vintage and Classic Cars Rally at Nariman Point

In the distance Gopilal Sharma appeared nondescript among the others, featureless in the bright white uniforms of chauffeurs waiting their turn by the vintage cars to the back of the line along the sweep of Marine Drive in South Bombay last week.

Gopilal Sharma had ridden Ajaypat Singhania’s 1956 Mercedes 300 to the rally and reveled in the attention it was drawing from curious onlookers.

Across the street the Trident rose steady in the sky. Resurrected from the Islamist terrorist strikes of November last it overlooked the Arabian Sea along the sweep that turns into a necklace of twinkling lights in the night. Stretching from Nariman Point all the way to Malabar Hill, the Queen’s Necklace is three kilometers long, and constructed from land ‘reclaimed’ from the sea it makes for a natural bay.

The Arabian Sea is mostly calm at this time of the year, a marked change from the monsoons when it rages against the terrapods heaped seaside along the wall enclosing the parapet and the spacious promenade along the road that runs six-lane for much of its length to the north of the city. Among other sights the road passes by the Taraporewala Aquarium, Islam Gymkhaha, Wilson College, and Chowpatty where lakhs of devotees descend on the beach to immerse the deity Ganpati on Anantchaturdashi, the last day of the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi when Bombay comes to a standstill. Heading north the sweep along the sea is to the left.

To the right, set back from the road, Art Deco buildings from the 1920s and the 1930s squat in easy comfort facing the sea. Built by Parsis most of the buildings still retain their original names, offering a peep into the past and the classy touch of a small community that lent the city architecture and the Arts scene its unique flavour and style, cementing the cosmopolitanism of the city with a culture that most still define as Bombay long after Shiv Sena, a local right-wing party feared for its street muscle and violence forced a change in the name to Mumbai, vandalizing establishments that did not.

The setting was apt. Watching the fleet of shiny vintage cars entered for the rally awaiting their turn to be flagged off in a district known for its mix of architectural styles evolving from the early 1900s, one could be pardoned for rewinding time to a gentler era when road rage was unheard of, and language refined to a fault, when dressing confirmed to styles, and rebel was someone you would associate with a guerilla, when people had time to stand and stare, and talk, and ruminate over the day’s events, when smiles were unaffected and came easy and there was nowhere to hurry to, and when it still mattered how others were doing with their lives and small talk cemented the local into a wider worldview.

We landed at Nariman Point opposite the Trident Hotel at half past eight just in time to see the flagging off of the annual Vintage and Classic Car Rally organized by the Vintage and Classic Car Club of India (VCCCI), marking its 90th year of existence. VCCCI teamed up with Western India Automobile Association for the event earlier this month. Last year the Vintage and Classic Car Rally rolled out from Kala Ghoda in February, this year from Nariman Point in early April. The rally is not restricted to Vintage and Classic cars alone, vintage motorcycles make their presence felt in the event as well. Unlike last year I noticed fewer vintage motorcycles this year.

I looked for Sudarshan Chemburkar among the participants gathered around their preening bikes, scanning heads for a floppy hat shielding a ruddy complexion from the heat of an Indian summer, or striding purposefully among the gathered bikers. No one answered to the description. Sudarshan wasn’t around this year. It was while I was admiring a shiny 1956 BSA Goldstar last year at the VCCCI event in Kala Ghoda that I met Sudarshan Chemburkar from Pune.

“She’s from Calcutta,” he said, looking at me from under the hat, his hand rolling over the handle. If he was pleased with the attention ‘she’ was getting he didn’t show it. “Somebody in the 1980s must have raced her lots. I bought her through a friend of mine and restored her from the brink of collapse.”

Sudarshan was getting on in years but as he spoke of the Goldstar his fondness for the bike stripped away the years quickly. We were standing in front of Stylo Tailors and Clothiers, Film Costumers from years ago, best known for the costumes they created for the 1973 Bollywood hit Bobby.

“BSA Goldstars were known for their racing prowess. In the top ten finishers in a race you could count on 5-6 to be Goldstars,” he explained. Standing among Triumphs and Nortons in the row of bikes warming in the early morning Sun I could imagine the generational shift in loyalties from the Triumphs and Nortons to the Goldstars once they began to beat the former at the races.

“They were known as the Immortal Goldies in the racing arena,” Sudarshan said.

He had started out by restoring a 1956 Suprema scooter. Soon the hobby turned into a passion after he acquired a Diploma in Automobile Engineering from St. Joseph’s in Kurla. Patting the 1956 BSA Goldstar, he said, “You feel young at all times when riding these machines. This is my fourth trip to Bombay from Pune on this bike.”

“Want to hear how she sounds?” he had thrown the question at me knowing well I was up for it.

I nodded and held my breath. The crowd behind us went silent as he bent forward on the handle and placed his foot on the kick, and BAM.

The Goldstar reverberated to life, inducing passing people into pausing in their stride to turn to look at us, and the bike. That was last year at Kala Ghoda.

And I wonder why Sudarshan Chemburkar did not ride his Immortal Goldie to the rally this year around!

Maybe he will be back the next year like A. R. Dadachanji, the elderly Parsi priest at the Vatcha Gandhi Fire Temple on Hughes Road, Bombay - 7, returned to the lineup this year with his 1948 Morris 8 after skipping the last edition in 2008.

It was at the 2007 edition of the VCCCI rally two years ago that I first saw A. R. Dadachanji. The vintage cars had returned to the finish line at Flora Fountain when I saw him by his Morris 8 warmly greeting visitors who stopped by to admire his shiny green vintage car. He stood out in the crowd in his traditional Parsi attire that set off his twinkling eyes against the flowing white beard. Watching him from the distance I was struck by his unfailingly polite demeanour in acknowledging visitors curious of his car, and the warmth with which he greeted acquaintances who stopped by the Morris 8 for a quick chat, possibly fellow Parsis regular at the Fire Temple. It was lunch time and the Sun beat down hard, rarely denting his smile in the time I was there.

Two years on little seems to have changed except the Morris 8’s colour, from deep green in 2007 to black this year. And the elderly Parsi priest has barely aged in the time.

“This car is a family member of our family,” he told me. “We went to Sri Lanka in this car in 1981.” At 70 Dadachanji is only ten years older than his 1948 Morris 8.

Two visitors passing by step up to him and wish him well with the rally. He steps forward and bows gently, clasping their hands in his before thanking them, smiling. A light breeze blowing in from the sea stirs his beard.

On the promenade behind us a passing madari (monkey handler) leading two monkeys on a leash pauses to watch the spectacle of vintage beauties. The sky and sea merge in a featureless shade of dull grey. There’re no clouds on the horizon.

Among the vintage cars on display there’ll have been few if any among them that haven’t played their part on Bombay roads, riding the breeze along the Marine Drive, gracing narrow lanes that criss-cross Fort and the heritage precinct of Kala Ghoda in the decades the city came to acquire a character distinct from the one it has been forced to acquiesce to now.

Dadachanji’s 1948 Morris 8 had the Morris family for company – Mahendra Bhagat’s 1935 Morris, Aslam Makandar’s 1937 Morris 8, Fali Patel’s 1938 Morris 12, and Kirti Anand’s 1951 Morris Minor.

However, missing from the lineup this year were several Morris Minors that had participated last year, year of make in brackets – Ajay Khakhar (1932), Sanjay Mistry (1935), Shamun A. Karachiwala (1948), Shree Kishan Joshi (1951), Kishore Shah (1952), and Umesh Rele (1955). Hopefully they’ll make it next year.

Like Dadachanji, the Pandit family is a regular at the Vintage and Classic Car Club of India’s annual event. Initially I failed to recognize them in the royal outfit the family had turned out in, riding their open-top 1930 Ford A into town.

The Pandits are Brahmins. It took me a few moments to place them at the rally for, last year, Dr. Manohar Pandit, had turned out in a Forest Ranger’s uniform though the fake mustache that later shifted in the heat by a bit reminded one more of the dreaded bandit Veerappan than a Forest officer. Dr. Manohar Pandit had espoused protecting wildlife at the rally, a placard reading ‘Save Wildlife’ prominently displayed behind them. A fake gun and an empty cartridge belt left no one in doubt about the message. He had handed out wildlife conservation pamphlets to the effect.

This year the Pandit family was turned out in traditional attire. I cannot be sure if it was royal attire or that of the brahmins from an earlier era. They were parked by the road divider across the road from the Trident Hotel, in the backdrop of flowering bougainvillea and palm trees. Their dress attracted as much attention as their car, both resplendent in the setting. Television cameras came rushing to the 1930 Ford A. First up was a Marathi language television channel. Dr. Manohar Pandit spoke in a Marathi unique to Maharashtrian Brahmins. Like the elderly Parsi priest, Dadachanji, Dr. Pandit stressed how the Ford A is a member of his family having been in their possession since the year of manufacture, 1930.

“There’s more fun to be had riding the old cars than the new,” he told the camera crew.

A cardboard cutout featuring two elephants holding up a logo Jin Ghar Jin Takt hung from the front of the car. Large letters below the two elephants read BARODA. I couldn’t quite make the connection between the two. I wondered if the cutout was the insignia of a royal family from Baroda in Gujarat, and if the attire the Pandit family had turned out in mirrored that of the royal family. I cannot be sure of either.

Elsewhere, Jackie Shroff, sporting dark shades, had joined a few others on the platform to flag off the rally, and the first off the marks was Vijay Mallya’s 1903 Humber Humberette.

The Humber is British, tracing its beginnings to the bicycle company that Thomas Humber founded in 1868, not producing the first car until 1898, a three-wheeled tricar. Though the Humberette has a single-cylinder-engine the first four-wheeled cars to roll out of Humber in 1901 were powered by 2- or 4-cylinder engines. The Humberette is powered by a 611 CC, 5 HP single-cylinder engine that helps the 650 pounds four-wheeler along at a healthy 25 mph.

The 1903 Humberette drew a large number of onlookers as it readied to lead the way out. For a car this light the two-seater took off the blocks fairly briskly, egged on by a cheering crowd. In no time it had disappeared from view.

Jackie Shroff had entered his 1930 Jaguar SS in the rally. At the flag-off he drew curious looks from the gathered crowd, many of whom had grown up on hindi films starring him in lead roles.

We walk to the back of the line of backed up cars awaiting their turn at the flag-off. Some of the cars are parked with their backs to the promenade, drawing surprised looks from joggers on their early morning run past the stretch. A middle-aged man sat in a yoga pose on the platform, facing the sea, his trainers by his side and seemingly oblivious to the rally behind him.

The promenade is popular with visitors on an evening out in the city. To the calls of vendors vending everything from peanuts, lollipops, balloons, mineral water, and potato chips to toys, books, and ice-cream, visitors loll along the promenade while joggers and brisk-walkers dodge them.

It is not uncommon to see maids or family members walk the sick and the elderly from the NCPA high-rise apartments opposite the promenade for a fill of seaside air. Every once in a while cars come to a halt by the promenade and the elderly in wheelchairs or otherwise are chaperoned by family, helped along by a firm grip under the elbow before being commandeered gently to the platform for a bit of rest and activity. Boisterous friends and courting couples from nearby colleges and beyond frequent the promenade in large numbers. Those looking for peace and quiet turn their backs to the world and face the sea, legs dangling from the platform.

With little or no regular traffic early that Sunday morning, and punctuated by a smattering of colourful holiday attires, hats and all, one might as well have been strolling around in a 1950s or 1960s Bombay. Running the names off the list heightened the feeling further – Humberette (1903), Fiat 501 (1919), Steyr II (1922), Rover (1923), Rolls Royce 20 HP (1925), Cadillac (1928), Austin Harley (1933), Packard (1934), Dodge Bros (1935), Buick (1937), Daimler (1939), and Chevrolet (1940) among others, totaling 43 cars in the Vintage Car (1900 – 1940) category.

The Classic Car category (1941 – 1960) had 49 entries, including Buicks, Packards, Bentleys, Austins, Desotos, Daimlers, Wolseleys, Lincolns, Hillmans, Fiats, Volkswagens, Rovers, and the Mercedes among others.

However the Recent Classic Car category spanning the years between 1961 and 2008 had only 14 cars making up the list.

It was a remarkable scene no less, a temporary museum by the sea.

Gopilal Sharma was busy chatting with fellow chauffeurs who had ridden their employers’ cars to the venue. While some waited for the owners to make an appearance and get behind the wheels for the rally others would be doing the honours themselves, accompanied by the owners’ relatives or friends or both. Seeing us approach the 1956 Mercedes 300 I noticed Gopilal Sharma turn his face towards us and smile under his bushy mustache before walking up to us. It was easy to see that Gopilal loved a good chat in the long tradition of genteel souls who’d seen the city’s metamorphoses from a quiet port to the hurly burly of India’s financial center. The Sharmas are Brahmins, largely from North India. Gopilal Sharma told us he’s been in the employ of the Singhanias for a long time now.

Gopilal took immense pride in his bushy mustache, twirling them to good effect when visitors stopping by the 1956 Mercedes 300 shaped up to photograph it. In the gentle light of the morning by the sea it was raining rainbows in the street.

“I drove this car down from the Maharaja of Kutch forty-five years ago,” he said. “It belongs to Ajaypat Singhania but he won’t be coming down to participate in the rally. His brother, Vijaypatji, will.” Vijaypat Singhania, Chairman Emeritus, Raymond Group, is a former Sheriff of Mumbai and a Padma Bhushan awardee.

“Take a picture while I’m twirling my mustache,” Gopilal said with a smile, readily posing in front of the Mercedes 300 and twirling his bushy mustache in the time honoured way of mustache-preening as I prepared to photograph him. I thought it interesting hearing him refer to the Mercedes 300 as his car, more for the bonding between man and machine that inspires such devotion that the issue of ownership blurs with time. In some ways I feel it is in the nature of his generation where loyalty stems in part from attachment that in turn strengthens a sense of responsibility towards one’s charges.

About then Jackie Shroff came into view, trailed by curious hangers-on. Gopilal’s eyes lit up and he walked up to Jackie Shroff with open arms suggesting he knew Jackie well. It didn’t matter in the least if Gopilal Sharma knew Jackie Shroff or not, he could make anyone feel at home anytime of the day. There was no guile about him. Jackie Shroff smiled and let Gopilal put his arms around him, playing along while Gopilal struck a pose for cameras that were following Jackie Shroff.

Sensing Shroff’s unease with the attention the impromptu photo session was beginning to draw, Gopilal was quick to seize the moment, telling the former film star, “Come this way, you must see our car.” Placing his hand around Shroff’s back Gopilal Sharma gently but firmly led Jackie Shroff to where the 1956 Mercedes 300 basked in the morning light. And the procession paused by Gopilal’s car.

From the distance I couldn’t help smiling watching the unlikely scene unfold.

It was a nice day to be out in the Sun and among aficionados who reveled in the atmosphere the vintage and classic cars had turned the day into. No one was in a hurry to get anywhere.

Gopilal’s words describing the Mercedes 300 follow me on the light breeze blowing in from the sea.

“Kings used to go out in the evenings (in these cars).” And turning his hands palm-up he continued, “Yeh bhagnewali gaadi nahin. Aram se chalao. Thandi hawa khao. No radio. No A/C.” (This is not a racing car, more for a leisurely drive, to enjoy cool breeze. No radio (to divert attention). No A/C.)

I turn around to have another look at the cars I've little or no chance of seeing until it's show time again a year from now.

Fleeting moments linger longer, always. It is the way of the world.