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Vintage cars are back in vogue

By Maitreyee Handique in New Delhi
February 16, 2005 11:16 IST
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When a Bollywood director recently offered Rs 100,000 to Nitin Dossa to loan his 1947 Cadillac for a shoot, Dossa put his foot down, although it was hard to resist. "The director wanted to lift the car in mid-air with a crane for an action scene," says Dossa, a car collector.

Vintage and classic cars are getting a new lease of life. Even as prices of vintage (produced before 1929) and classic cars (up to 1965) are escalating at the rate of 15-20 per cent every year, owners are seeing an additional source of revenue.

While the recent Bollywood film Black and Rang De Basanti, a forthcoming film, have hired Buick convertibles and 1947 Chryslers for authentic effect, Rolls Royces and Cadillacs are getting increasingly popular with high-profile weddings.

For instance, when Ritu Beri got married last year, the baraat arrived with an impressive line-up of six vintage models. A family member of Zee TV boss Subhash Goel similarly hired a Buick 47 for a wedding this week.

"We get at least one request a week for cars," says Dossa, who is honorary secretary of the Vintage and Classic Cars Club of India, an association of 150 car owners.

Apart from films and marriages, the hospitality industry is also hoping that the craze will catch on. While the Taj hotel in Udaipur already has nine cars to service high-spending tourists, the Le Meridien hotel in Delhi plans to start a similar facility.

"A Mercedes E class cost Rs 10,000 a day; we can easily double that for a vintage," says Tarun Thakral, general manager, Le Meridien.

Rental prices could vary anywhere between Rs 25,000-Rs 50,000 a day for a Rolls Royce. A Cadillac and Buick can go for Rs 15,000 a day, while an Austin can be hired for between Rs 5,000-Rs 7,000.

The growth of museums and car rallies, and the accompanying media attention, has increased the level of interest in heritage cars.

While the two vintage car museums in Ahmedabad and Udaipur have been around for a while, Diljeet Titus, a corporate lawyer and founder member of the Heritage Motoring Club of India, set up a private car museum -- Pro Bono Publico -- last year. Located near Delhi, the museum showcases 24 cars, all privately owned by Titus.

Until 1947, the rulers of the princely states were the biggest patrons of luxury cars. According to Kumar Manvendra Singh, author of The Automobiles of the Maharajas, a fourth of the Rolls Royce production fed the Indian market between 1912 and 1947.

With demand soaring, General Motors set up an assembly line unit in Mumbai way back in 1927, going on to produce 11,000 cars, including Buicks, Chevrolets and Vauxhalls, in the next decade.

After independence, however, most of these cars were smuggled out of the country to feed the huge demand of vintage car collectors' market in the US and Europe.

Experts say, not more than 1,000-3,000 vintage cars exist in India today, valued at Rs 350 crore (Rs 3.5 billion). Some of the country's biggest collectors -- Pranlal Bhogilal of Ahmedabad, Sharad Shanghi of Indore and UB group chairman Vijay Mallya -- own 350-odd vintage and classic cars between them, including the rare Mercedes 540 K and the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, both valued at over Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million).

But fuelled by a new kind of demand, prices of old cars have doubled in the past six months. If an unrestored Buick cost between Rs 60,000 and Rs 70,000 three years ago, it costs Rs 300,000-400,000 today, says Titus, who owns a rare 1927 Minerva, one of the nine that exist in the world.

An unrestored Morris similarly cost Rs 15,000 a couple days ago; today it is difficult to buy one below Rs 35,000 to Rs 40,000.

Limited volume is also driving up the prices of these cars, sometimes higher than the international prices, says Thakral. "But with growing interest, people are today scouting for cars in villages and havelis across the country," he says.

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Maitreyee Handique in New Delhi
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