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Dilip Chhabria: The master auto designer
Bijoy Kumar Y | April 10, 2007
I first met Dilip Chhabria in 1993 at his small yet thriving workshop at Kondivita village (very much inside Mumbai city) near Marol, Andheri East. He was already a known name in automotive circles and his conversions - ranging from spruced-up Fiats, short wheelbase Gypsys and modded Sierras - were the talk of the town. He may have been busy, but he always found time to talk to an enthusiast. So it was nice to meet the man again for a cup of tea at his sprawling facility near Pimpri, Pune.
Unlike the early days, not many stripped cars were in sight and he strictly ordered a small car concept to be covered or moved out of sight. "That is a rolling prototype for a big car maker and soon you will see it at an auto show, but no one will know who built it," said Chhabria.
There, the tinge of sadness was far too obvious. DC is used to posing with these designs and letting the world know that he re-skinned a stock car to make it look like a rock-star. He is the rock star.
But today his exemplary skill with one-off prototype manufacturing has taken him behind the stage. "Big players are getting their prototyping and show cars done by me at a fraction of the cost and they want utmost secrecy, and I deliver just that." So did he run into trouble when the Aston Martin AM V8 prototype was revealed?
"Well, the client was very happy with my job so there were not many issues - but that car (the AMV8 is strikingly beautiful) opened a lot of windows for me." But does he get the same satisfaction of designing a new car from scratch? "No way, but DC Design as a company had to evolve and this is one area that we are good at."
In his early days, he was actually good at altering the looks of a donor car to make it look out of the world. His biggest asset was design sense perfected at the Automotive Art School at Pasadena in the US and he really wanted to make it big in design.
As in, he didn't want to join a large car company and retire 30 years later after designing parts of cars. He wanted to be a Giugiaro or Gandini, and not J Mays or Chris Bangle. He wanted to be the original and not the second-hand. After picking up bits from Federal Auto, a firm run by his father, Chhabria launched DC Design - a design consultancy firm.
But he was pretty busy doing his conversions - stretch limos, motorhomes, two-seat sports cars made out of Maruti 1000s and so on. Needless to say, he was enjoying every bit of it. The DC brand was growing, thanks to numerous stories in automotive magazines and colour supplements of newspapers. The DC badge was aspired by almost everyone who could splurge a few lakhs on an otherwise ordinary car.
The advent of new age cars didn't slow down the process even a wee bit. "People wanted one-offs and the only place for them to go was DC design," he says.
"Then it came to a stage where car makers found my work interesting and I started doing show cars for Auto Expos and so on." I could immediately think of the Ford Ikon based convertibles, crossovers and coupes. DC got the attention of the world with a presence at the Geneva International Motor Show too.
It was tea-time and along with piping hot 'cutting-chai' came a nice plate of poha (a rice flake preparation with peanuts and garnished with lime - a very Maharashtrian snack). Dilip Chhabria sat back and took a long sip from the cup.
"Do you think I have made most of the DC brand name?" The question came in my direction like a bold stroke from his sketch pen and I found myself stumbling on my tea and answering in the negative.
I told him how big an equity he was dealing with and even went on to say that it was a lost opportunity. "I did my bit with DC franchisees, but the quality of work was so shoddy, I had to call it quits. The passion was not there and most of the people who wanted to be associated with DC Design wanted to make some quick money and nothing else," he added.
Bike kits didn't do well either. Another big setback was trying bus body building. "It was a disaster because people copied my ideas and designs almost overnight - and why should someone pay premium money for a DC Design bus then?" he asks.
So what does he do now? "I am in an unfortunate position where I cannot cater to the average car buyer who wants me to modify his or her car - such jobs are too small for my organisation now. I still do customisation to select personalities (some motorhomes for business tycoons and Bollywood stars cost well over Rs 1 crore) and the occasional car for promotions.
"But my serious work now revolves around world class prototyping and show specials. Complete designs come to me with donor cars and power plants and we execute the finished product here. You will be surprised to know that we had a fling with aircraft grade materials too, when we were asked by HAL to develop the interiors of the luxury version of Dhruv."
I gently remind him that he moved too much within the design context - cars, refrigerators, home and office interiors, bus bodies, motorcycles, helicopter interiors - instead of focusing on one.
"As a design brand, DC Design could have done it all, but our core competency remains automobile design. And things like motorcycle redesign would have worked well only through a thorough franchisee network or a retail channel and our country was not ready for that," he says.
Even today, his office resembles the one at his erstwhile Mumbai one, littered with sketches everywhere. "I still would like to draw and create, but I have got to ensure that the business model is taken care of." What next, then?
"Well, DC Design will soon enter the field of education - I want to start an automotive school where everything to do with the auto industry is taught. It will have an international faculty and we will teach design, engineering, sales and marketing of cars there. There is an acute shortage of qualified schools that cater to this need and I have assurance from car makers that they would hire from my institute."Another masterstroke or a drift of the genius? Whatever it may be, the next time you see a spanking new concept car on a turn-table being smothered by flashlights at an international motor show, do remember that it may have been signed off by Dilip Chhabria.