Once popular with Indian princes, classic cars are now housed in a Rajasthan museum

A fleet of Rolls-Royces owned by an Indian royal house are the centrepiece of a vintage car collection in Rajasthan, says Mark Sharp

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 July, 2013, 9:39am

More than 600 stately princes ruled over half of India's territory during British colonial times. Along with their opulent palaces and grand mansions, other trappings of royalty included fleets of luxury cars.

In the first half of the 20th century, Rolls-Royce exported more than 800 cars to India, second only to the number bound for the United States. The so-called playboy princes were so obsessed with the British marque that they often ordered several at a time, reserving one that could be cannibalised for spare parts.

Distinguished passengers over the years have included Queen Elizabeth and Jacqueline Kennedy

After India won its independence in 1947, the princes ceded administration of the fiefdoms to the state. Then, in 1971, Indira Gandhi's Congress party, under pressure to address crippling poverty, stripped the rulers of their titles, withdrew their privy purse and burdened them with land taxes.

They kept their grand properties but were suddenly in need of new sources of income. Many became businessmen, even transforming their lavish homes into luxury hotels that are now regarded as some of the world's most romantic.

The House of Mewar, which is based in the city of Udaipur in Rajasthan state, has gone a step further. The family has turned the Mewar State Motor Garage into a classic car museum housing historic vehicles belonging to the last three maharana.

Located in the grounds of the Garden Hotel, a mansion built in the 1920s, the Vintage and Classic Car Museum houses a collection of 20 vehicles, some more than 70 years old, and with some interesting stories to tell.

The museum is a semi-circular brick building nestled around a paved courtyard, and was built at a time when the only cars in Udaipur belonged to the maharanas. An original Shell petrol pump stands frozen in time, still in working order.

In pride of place is the family's fleet of Rolls-Royces, including a 1934 Rolls-Royce 20/25 that was converted into a pickup to carry the maharana's cricket team to the field.

The collection was started by Maharana Fateh Singh, who ruled from 1884 to 1930. But it was his successor, Maharana Bhupal Singh (1930-1955), who was the diehard enthusiast.

"He had a great taste for cars, Rolls-Royce in particular. He started procuring the cars even when he was still the crown [prince]," says museum spokesman Shyam Kaikini, who is also general manager of the Taj Lake Palace hotel.

Kaikini says the present head of the family, Maharana Arvind Singh, is also a keen collector, and is responsible for having the vintage motors restored. All are in full working condition and are still used by the family on special occasions.

Among other Rolls-Royce cars in the collection is a 1924 20HP, one of the first acquired by the family. It was originally ordered by the maharaja of Jodhpur, but was acquired by the House of Mewar in the late 1930s. In 1999, with the car in a poor state of repair, restoration work began at the palace, with mechanical engineering experts flown to Udaipur from Britain. Major parts had to be flown to Britain for repair, and new tyres were sourced in New Zealand.

The leather seating was reupholstered, all the chromework replated and the car lovingly repainted. The restoration took almost five years to complete and, in 2008, the car was awarded best in the vintage classic category at the Cartier Travel with Style Concours in Mumbai.

There is also a 1930-31 Rolls-Royce 20/25 that was originally a tourer and later converted into a shooting brake. Another, a 1934 Phantom II, was immortalised in the James Bond film Octopussy, as the vehicle of the villainous Afghan prince Kamal Khan.

Other cars in the collection include a pair of huge 1938 Cadillacs that are used regularly. One is a four-door convertible that has undoubtedly the richest history in the collection.

Distinguished passengers in the convertible over the years have included Britain's Queen Elizabeth, former US first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and the Shah of Iran. The other Cadillac is a saloon that is used by the maharani (the maharana's wife) and has curtained rear windows for privacy.

The sportiest car in the collection is a bright red 1946 MG-TC convertible. Morris stopped making cars during the second world war, after which it returned to the market with the MG-TC, making exactly 10,000 of the two-seat sports cars. The maharana's car is one of just 49 exported to India. It was fully restored in the early 2000s.

Restoration workers searched far and wide to source the exact original MG red colour, while the two seats were remade in keeping with the original design and using the same beige coloured leather that would have been used in 1946.

Another car in the collection is a 1930 Ford Model-A, which the House of Mewar bought brand new more than 70 years ago. The museum says that when restoration work on the car began, it was a dilapidated shell with only a chassis and engine. The entire body had to be removed from the chassis before each piece of the bodywork was checked for damage and repaired.

There is also a 1947 Vauxhall-12 (Delux). The museum claims that the House of Mewar took possession of the first model ever produced. It was one of the first cars of the collection to be restored at the hotel's palace workshop, taking a year to overhaul.

Kaikini says the museum is a popular tourist attraction in Udaipur, and most visitors to the city include it in their itinerary - although the garage may not always be full.

"The cars are kept in running condition and are used in some ceremonies at the palace and by the maharana and his family," he says. The museum also conducts tours, where guides share anecdotes about the maharanas and their cars.