Gurinder Singh Rance was bewitched. He was in his final year of college, and just 18 years old, but he knew that this was real, this was love.
He had just spotted a Volkswagen Beetle parked in the narrow by-lanes of Daryaganj in Delhi. “I immediately felt drawn. It was so different from any other car I had come across.” He quickly inquired if it was on sale — it was! — borrowed the money from his father, and bought the car.
As so often happens with young love, it didn’t work out smoothly. “I am so embarrassed saying this,” he says, “but the car didn’t even make it to Kashmiri Gate from Daryagunj.” That’s just two kilometres. He was heartbroken, but undaunted. He squared his shoulders and faced up to the truth: If he was going to get anything out of this deal, he was going to have to do some hard work.
He walked into the most well-known workshop of that time, Karachi Auto Garage. “These guys had all high profile people coming to them. I told the owner, ‘See I am a low-budget customer, please tell me what it takes to work with you.’ The guy said ‘Sure, be at the garage and get ready to get your hands dirty.’”
This the young man did. And while he worked and learned, he developed another passion: An adoration for anything Beetle. A love that has extended to all kinds of classic cars and motorcycles.
Rance is now an older, wiser 53, but the love-light still burns in his eyes. He owns three Beetles today (and yes, he still has the bug he bought in Daryaganj). He has owned as many as six, including one that he got for free — its owner couldn’t take care of it and gave it to him because he wanted him to preserve the car.
“The Beetle makes people smile,” he tells me, and the smile in his voice is clear, even over the phone. “It spreads cheer wherever it goes. Recently, at a traffic signal in Barakhambha Road, Delhi a guy sitting in a Mercedes-Benz asked me if I was willing to swap the car!”
He is full of Beetle lore. “Did you know that the Beetle was the first car to have the concept of air bags?” Really? “The car has a rear engine and the spare tyre is placed right under the tip of the bonnet. So in the event of a headlong accident, the major impact is always taken by the spare tyre.” And he goes on to regale us with many more stories.
It’s easy to understand the attraction. Everybody likes an old car that gleams with the affection and attention showered on it. We all stop to admire the graceful lines of an era long gone, the quaint fittings and décor.
Few take that love further and get into actual restoration of these old beauties. For one, it requires fairly sizeable amounts of money. And patience. And perseverance. And time. Lots of time. All currencies that are in short supply these days. Yet we’ve heard of enthusiasts who machine engine parts that are no longer manufactured; others who have worked for years with carpenters fashioning dashboards and external trim, guided only by old, grainy black-and-white photographs.
Whether it’s too much money, love, professional pride or obsessive compulsive disorder, getting that old car on the road is the reward all restorers aim for.
When you see Mumbai-based Rony Vesuna with his 1957 Fiat 1100 Elegant, you know why ‘Parsi-owned’ means so much in the ‘cars for sale’ column in the classifieds. He was reluctant to bring it out for Vikas Khot, our photographer. It was a rainy day, and as he removed invisible specks of dirt from its shining bonnet, he grumbled about the car getting wet for the very first time.
How does the car run? “Like butter,” cooed Khot, who was treated to a ride. Vesuna started young, restoring his uncle’s Fiat 1100 Select when he was still in the seventh standard, and his own son, Rohan, who is 17, seems to have inherited the itch, accompanying him to Fiat Club meetings, where all the conversation can be about spare parts. Vesuna haunts Mumbai’s automobile junkyards, in Chor Bazaar and Kurla, looking for elusive parts. He also has a network of sources who supply him with original spares from across the country.
During the restoration process, he is very particular that every single bolt and washer is authentic. He buys them even if he doesn’t need them right away, wrapping them in newspaper to protect them from coastal humidity and storing them away. He knows every single bit of trim that went into every one of Fiat’s early models in India. He can tell the difference in the pattern in the floor rubber mats as they changed over time. “Your eyes become extremely alert to look for the details when you are working on a restoration project.”
As you get deeper into this world, you understand why so much of its denizens’ conversations centre around spares. Getting your hands on them can be a frustrating process, and it can take years to get a car to its original specifications.
Inder Pal Singh Gill from Ludhiana says it took him almost two years to restore his Super Beetle. He started by ordering a how-to book off Amazon (which took more than a month to arrive), and then: “I asked Volkswagen to issue the original ‘birth certificate’ of the car which had all the original specifications — the date the car was made, the colour, parts code, interiors.” Research done, he had to wait for the complete engine overhaul kit, bumper, chrome trimmings, headlights, taillights, wheel caps and rubber kits which he imported from Canada. Just overhauling the engine took six more months.
C.S. Ananth can feel his pain. “It requires enormous amount of research, hunting for spares, sometimes even fabricating them. The Indian Customs prohibits import of used spares. This is quite funny. How does the government expect me to get new spares for a vintage car?” Ananth is 65, and recuperating from an almost fatal pneumonia infection which he contracted in the course of a routine surgery.
Over the last two decades, he has won several accolades for his restoration skills, but he doesn’t really need to rebuild other people’s car for a living. His eyes are tired, but as his gaze alights on the young man pounding metal into shape on the roof of a car, he lights up. “This is a one-of-its-kind car in India, worth all the effort in making it up.” Ananth is directing his team — a body beater, a mechanic and a carpenter — as they restore a 1946 Riley that belongs to his old friend, A. Sivasailam, chairman of the Amalgamations Group. But Ananth is getting impatient.
He has spent more than Rs. 6 lakh, almost twice his initial estimate, on the Riley. The roof and the windshield are being re-done for the sixth time. “It was just not looking right,” he says. Thanks to the four months he spent at the hospital, he is also running late: 18 months have passed since he started work.
The challenge, though, keeps him going, overruling his body’s protests. He’s very tired, and he can longer drive his vintage cars (he owns a dozen, including a 1928 Essex Super Six Convertible, the only one in India, a 1936 Fiat 500 and a 1930 Austin 12/4 Burnham Saloon). That he desperately wants this job done is clear. It’s not just wanting to make his friend happy; just as much, he is looking forward to the satisfaction of putting another rare model on the road. “It is frustrating but the Riley was a very technologically advanced car for those times. It is like preserving a piece of history for ever.”
Diljeet Titus, who heads his own law firm in Delhi, knows that feeling. He says that his motivation is simple. “Quite a few of the cars I own belonged to the Maharajas of India. This is my way of preserving the remnants of Indian nobility."
He must be a very, very successful lawyer, because his collection easily outnumbers my set of dinky cars. He owns 70 vintage and classic cars, 11 vintage motorcycles and four horse carriages. His current restoration project is the Minerva 1933 AL, a 40 HP model powered by a 6616cc 8-cylinder engine with sleeve-valves, custom-built in Belgium by Minerva Motors SA for the Maharaja of Mehmudabad.
The company made just 33 of that model from 1930 to 1934, and only eight survive today. One is with the King of Belgium, six with private collectors in the United States and Titus owns the eighth. He has already spent more than Rs. 15 lakh on the car and in another two months it should be ready. “It is 22 feet long, has gold plated interiors and the engine itself is a piece of art. She is just so graceful and elegant.”
Nice to have a hobby, isn’t it?
Types of resoration
Very popular in the US, where the restorer does all the work — mechanical, fabrication, accessorising — all by himself in his garage.
The car must be cosmetically and mechanically sound in all aspects, and is expected to be dependable and reliable.
The standard for participating in international car shows and challenges. Cars are restored to the exact original specifications.The basic typesVintage:
Cars manufactured prior to 1939Classics:
1940 to 1959Modern classics:
(This story appears in the 23 October, 2009 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)