Exuberant displays of wealth give a hint of India’s future, says Charlotte Metcalf
It is largely forgotten that, until 1954 when the government banned the import of cars, India was home to a vast number of exquisite automobiles. In 1940 alone, a quarter of all Rolls-Royces made were to be found in India. Such facts have long been buried, along with many of India’s past glories — until now. At the end of October, those lucky enough to receive an invitation will gather at the Royal West Indian Turf Club in Mumbai and have a chance to view the rarest collection of classic cars ever seen. Hosted by Cartier, the ‘Travel with Style’ Concours is one of India’s most eagerly awaited events of the year. It is so exclusive that there is not even a dedicated website, though already the internet is buzzing with tantalising snippets of information.
The Concours will consist of four categories: Vintage Classics, Post-War Classics, Exotic Cars and Roadsters and the Best Car of the Show Award. The identity of the judges alone hints at the event’s splendour — they include Prince Michael of Kent, Imran Khan, Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, Don McCullin, Sophie Marceau, Olivier Martinez, Monica Bellucci and the Earl of March.
Orchestrating the Concours is the Duchess of Cornwall’s brother, the travel writer and conservationist Mark Shand. Following the success of the Cartier Elephant Polo Match that he laid on in Jaipur two years ago, Shand has temporarily switched his attention to the motor car. ‘Elephants and motor cars are not so dissimilar — both are means of transport after all,’ he says, twinkling.
Key to him pulling off this ambitious event is Manvendra Singh Barwani, who co-authored a handsome and rigorously researched book, The Automobiles of the Maharajas. Mark and Manvendra have been working in close partnership for 18 months, using all Manvendra’s knowledge and expertise to track down the rarest cars from India’s remotest corners.
Mark’s relationship with Cartier extends back to the time he was in partnership with Harry Fane, selling their jewellery. When Cartier was looking to draw attention to its Indian market, elephant polo was the perfect stylish event to do it and the Concours is his follow-up. Mark and Manvendra aim for ‘Travel with Style’ to rank alongside Goodwood’s Cartier Style et Luxe, the Concorsa d’Eleganza at the Villa D’Este and the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in California. On Saturday night there will be a gala dinner for 130 at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel, overlooking the Victorian Gateway to India. When it comes to whipping up a whirlwind of anticipation, Mark Shand is an established master.
I meet Mark and Manvendra at their Mayfair office. Despite the windowless, cramped room from which they are operating, their enthusiasm is infectious and Manvendra is beaming. ‘This is set to be a permanent fixture on the international calendar,’ Mark assures me, smiling with the relaxed confidence of someone who knows how to handle a project of this magnitude.
The list of cars to be showcased is an indication of the lavish opulence associated with India’s maharajas. Current owners include the Aga Khan, the film star Shashi Kapoor and even our own Queen and Prince of Wales. But it is the stories behind the cars that testify most to the magnificence of a bygone era.
In the Vintage Classics section is a 1936 Daimler V12, commissioned for the visit of King George V. The visit was cancelled but the car remained in the Viceroy’s garage until independence when the Maharaja of Durbhanga bought it. Its tall body, nicknamed ‘Top Hat’, is unique, featuring extra high windows so people could see the King.
Other cars include the white Jaguar XK120 with red leather interior, a gift from the Maharajah of Jaipur to his legendary wife, the beautiful sportswoman Gayatri Devi, after she had spotted a similar roadster in the south of France in the 1940s. Her blue Arrow Coupé 1937 Bentley with its original ‘cockerel’ mascot will also be shown. Guests will be able to see the only car ever made for an entire cricket team, a car designed for the Maharajah of Bharatpur to shoot duck from and three identical Pierce-Arrows sent to the Princes’ Convention in Delhi in 1931. In an effort to compete with Rolls-Royce, the Americans changed their signature teardrop headlights to look jauntier so as not to depress the fun-loving maharajahs.
Mark and Manvendra have succeeded in snatching the motorcar right away from the petrol heads and repositioning it firmly at the very apex of luxury. ‘Travel with Style’ positively reeks of glamour and an unashamed display of outrageous wealth. Welcome to a flavour of India’s future.
Cartier’s ‘Travel with Style’ Concours
31 October to 2 November
Tel: 020 3147 4850 or visit www.cartier.com