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Every vintage car tells a story

Kolkata has around 200 of them. Coinciding with this weekend's annual rally, and just after the legendary Wanderer got restored, we revisit this slice of city nostalgia

Partha Sadhan Bose and his family with the 1926 Auburn.
Partha Sadhan Bose and his family with the 1926 Auburn.

Around the middle of last year, a senior executive of German automobile manufacturer Audi took vintage car restorer Pallab Roy to “visit" a car. He didn’t tell Roy much about the car, only that facilitating its restoration was an assignment the executive dare not ignore. He wanted Roy’s help.

Walking through the driveway of the house on Kolkata’s Elgin Road, Roy quickly realized the import of the task. Manufactured in 1937 by the German motor company Auto Union, the immediate predecessor of Audi, the four-door sedan was locked inside a glass cage. It may have looked dull but it was part of a gleaming, extraordinary history. “This was an opportunity like no other and I accepted the challenge easily," says Roy.

It took six months of painstaking toil to restore the Wanderer W24 Sedan—its number plate BLA 7169 reflecting a time when Bengal didn’t have the “West" prefixed to its name. Its unveiling on 18 January by President Pranab Mukherjee coincided with the completion of 75 years of the great escape (from the British) of freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose.

It was the wee hours of 16 December 1941, that Bose, disguised as Pathan insurance agent Mohammad Ziauddin to hoodwink British intelligence, escaped from his Elgin Road residence in the Wanderer.

“The President wasn’t scheduled to sit in the car and when he excitedly decided to after I started the engine, he sat on the front seat next to me," says Sugata Bose, grand-nephew of Bose, a member of Parliament and Gardiner professor of oceanic history and affairs at Harvard University, US. “He refused to take the back seat where Bose had sat."

It was Sugata Bose’s father, Sisir Kumar Bose, a medical student at the time, who drove his uncle over the next two days to the Gomoh railway station in present-day Jharkhand; from there, his uncle made his way to Peshawar. Though the Bose family owned another car, the bigger and faster Studebaker President, one reason the Wanderer was chosen, writes Sisir in The Great Escape, was its undistinguished looks. From Peshawar, Subhas Chandra Bose would travel half the world—Afghanistan, the Soviet Union, Germany, thereafter undertaking an exceptional journey in the German submarine, U-180, before transferring to the Japanese I-29 submarine around the Cape of Good Hope to finally reach Japan, all the while enlisting support and building an army for India’s freedom struggle against the British.

When Sisir silently drove out at 1.35am with Bose, his only passenger, it would be the last time Bose’s family or city would see him. What followed is history.

The restoration of the Wanderer comes as an interesting addition to Kolkata’s fleet of 150-200 vintage cars, says Ravindra Kumar, editor and managing director of The Statesman. The English daily has been organizing The Statesman Vintage Car Rally since 1964 in Delhi and 1968 in Kolkata. Since 1993, it has added classic cars, manufactured between 1940 and 1978, as well as vintage and classic motorbikes to the rally in Kolkata. The idea of starting the vintage car rallies, says Kumar, came from the experience of a former motoring correspondent of the newspaper who watched a lot of old cars from India being unloaded from a ship that had docked in a UK port; their Indian owners had sold them without “realizing the importance of these vehicles".

The annual vintage car rally gave owners an incentive to keep and restore such cars, initially “very basic and to make them roadworthy", but soon, with judging categories crystallizing and points being awarded on the authenticity of restoration, even the quality of restoration improved. “The Delhi rally we organize sees some outstanding cars, because the city has a strong group of collectors and an extended motoring calendar. But in terms of participation and number of cars, Kolkata has more, with new entries every year. Vintage car restorers like Sanjay Ghosh in Calcutta are outstanding and very passionate. There are such top-bracket restorers in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Coimbatore," says Kumar, himself a vintage car enthusiast who has been stopped from buying one only by his “very practical" wife, who was concerned about the time and money one needed to invest in these beauties.

The Studebaker President 8 State Limousine restored by Pallab Roy

While The Statesman’s imposing, over-a-century-old building in central Kolkata is part of the city’s architectural legacy, the newspaper itself is part of India’s heritage, says Kumar. “Being associated with the vintage car rally was natural," he says, sitting in his chamber among files, books and paper. “We may be creaking in the joints, but we have our heart in the right place."

Like the Ford Model T, one of the earliest mass-produced iconic cars from the early 20th century, owned by The Statesman, many cars rev to life during The Statesman Vintage & Classic Car Rally—this year, it’s being held over Saturday and Sunday. The late-winter season seems just ideal for cars like the 1906 Renault Frères—Kolkata’s oldest car, owned by the late Shashi Kanoria and driven by his son, Shrivardhan—and the Rolls-Royces, Adlers, Stoewers, Bentleys, Daimlers, Morris Minors and Baby Austins to leave spectators wonderstruck. The throwback to the past is reinforced by the attire of the attendees—flowing gowns, veiled hats, pristine white gloves and waistcoats are embraced as enthusiastically as crisp dhoti-panjabi and heavy saris, a nod to the Bengali babu culture.

The baton of enthrallment has been passed on to newer generations, who are now engaging more actively with the vintage car passion of their fathers and grandfathers. Documentary film-maker Madhushree Mukherjee, who recently helmed a 72-minute film, The Vintage Trail, chronicling the city’s vintage car culture, says Kolkata was the first port of call for most imported cars in the early 20th century. Indeed, an online report suggests that the first motor car in India was imported in the city in 1897, though the claim could not be verified independently. Another report suggests the first car was driven in Mumbai.

A model on display at the 51st Statesman Vintage & Classic Car Rally in Tolly Club. Photographs by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Each car has a backstory. In The Vintage Trail, Shrivardhan Kanoria, the current owner of the 1906 Renault Frères that followed on the heels of the first patented automobile (1886) by Karl Benz in Germany called the Motorwagon, describes his possession as an Edwardian car predating the vintage tag, a car belonging to the transition period between horse-drawn carriages and motor cars.

The archives of The Statesman also throw up a wide gamut of stories and trivia—Pradyumnu Mullick, a wealthy north Kolkata babu clad in the traditional dhoti, was slighted by the manager of the Rolls-Royce showroom and ended up importing six Rolls for Rs50,000 each. The manager, of course, was sacked. The Rambler that Bengali matinee idol Uttam Kumar used to romance actor Supriya Devi in real life was later restored by Sanjay Ghosh; the unsuccessful journey that former West Bengal chief minister Siddhartha Sankar Ray undertook to retrieve a Sunbeam-Talbot car from a garage in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is recorded. Ravindra Kumar says one of the vintage cars, a regular participant in the rally, is said to have belonged to A.A.K. Niazi, the Pakistani general during 1971’s Bangladesh War, before it was seized by the Indian Army.

At a vintage car display at Kolkata’s elite Tolly Club last Sunday, I met the elderly Partha Sadhan Bose, who was there with his family and four of his 12 vintage cars. Partha runs a 166-year-old family stevedoring business, his stable of vintage cars highlighting his status and passion. In 1985, when he was travelling through Bihar, he noticed an old wooden rim while sitting at a tea stall. His eyes lit up at the evidence of a rare vintage car. The hunt led him to a disused Ford Model T. While the villagers were willing to sell him the car, they wouldn’t let go of its powerful engine, which they were using to draw water from the village well. It was only after Partha bought them a Kirloskar pump set that he could gain possession of both the car and its engine.

The unveiling of the restored Wanderer W 24 Sedan.

His son, Debarshi, has inherited the family business as well as his father’s obsession with vintage cars. As the senior Bose pulled on his pipe and a member of their team moved around with a cockatoo perched on her shoulder, Debarshi recounted the story of how the family acquired the gleaming brick-red 1926 Auburn parked behind them.

The car belonged to the Deb family of Sovabazar Rajbari, one of the most prosperous and earliest Bengali aristocratic families of Kolkata, known for their business acumen and proximity to the British. When they fell on hard times, the Auburn fell into a state of disrepair. When Partha sought to buy the car, the owner offered to give it for free. “Their pride didn’t allow them to sell the car, but my father refused to take the car for free," says Debarshi. Finally, a deal was struck. The Auburn changed hands only after Partha went over to meet the owner with a pot of rabri, a dessert. “It was a 10-kilo pot bought from north Kolkata’s Nalin Chandra Das & Sons," says Partha.

Pallab Roy and Saurav Roy with the 1928-made Studebaker .

For this sect of aficionados, Kolkata seems the inevitable stage for their interest—a former capital of British India; regarded once as the second city of the empire after London; and a melting pot of European thought and influence. The continuing roll of the wheel is indicative of the rise, plateauing and revival of the fortunes of individuals, if not of the city itself. “Unlike in Delhi, where vintage cars are a professional business, Kolkata sees entire families involved with them and the whole affair is still conducted amateurishly," says Kumar. “These cars are treated as heirlooms."

For Subhas Chandra Bose’s family too, it was a narrative of fortunes made, lost and regained. After Bose’s escape from India in 1941, his elder brother Sarat Chandra and nephew Sisir too were imprisoned by the British. “The British attached the properties of Subhas Chandra Bose. Sarat Chandra Bose was arrested in December 1941 and taken to a prison in south India. My father was also arrested. They both were released in the latter half of September 1945. They were in dire financial condition," recounts Sugata. While the family had to “regretfully" sell the Studebaker President, the Wanderer was sold to a family friend. It was with him from 1943-1945. Sisir repurchased the Wanderer, understanding the “historical significance" of the car, says Sugata—the vehicle is now one of the prime tourist attractions at the Netaji Research Bureau on Elgin Road. “Subhas Chandra Bose became Netaji only after his escape, for which the Wanderer played a crucial role."

Models on display at the rally. Photographs by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

At his spacious English manor-fashioned home on Kolkata’s Harish Mukherjee Road, Pallab Roy, the restorer of the Wanderer, lets me into a little “secret". Only three people, Sugata, Pallab and his son Saurav, who assists him during restorations, have been privy to the story, he adds. A vintage car restoration can take up to a few years, but he was given a very tight deadline of six months for the Wanderer, without any compromises on the authenticity of the restoration. Audi and Sugata helped in sourcing components, but Pallab couldn’t procure the original windscreen wipers. “I couldn’t bear the thought of the President of India unveiling the restored car without wipers. I had to quickly do something," says Pallab. Till he could source the wipers, Pallab decided to “lend" the wipers of one of his own vintage cars, a 1928-made Studebaker President 8 State Limousine (FA), a top-of-the-line Studebaker model that a reviewer on describes as “extremely rare".

With two other vintage cars in his stable, including a recently acquired 1947 Chevrolet FleetMaster State Sedan formerly owned by Karni Singh, the last maharaja of Bikaner, the Studebaker President commands special devotion from the Roys. It’s the only surviving car from the stable of Kamalaranjan Roy, the raja of Cossimbazar; at one point they were considered among the wealthiest zamindari estates in Bengal. A rich and interesting history is the invisible occupant of the Studebaker President. Before the Wanderer, Pallab, along with his son, had restored two other cars from his private collection: a 1967 Mercedes Benz 230 S and the Studebaker. The Wanderer was his first professional restoration assignment.

Models on display at the rally. Photographs by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Perched at the crucial crossroads of India’s past, the Roys trace their genealogy 11 generations back to Ajodhya Ram Roy, a merchant with a flourishing trade in Murshidabadi silk around the early 18th century. After British forces led by Lord Clive defeated the Bengal nawab, Siraj-ud-Daulah, in the epochal Battle of Plassey in 1757, Cossimbazar lost its eminence as a trading post. Later generations purchased swathes of land in eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh) and became one of the most prosperous zamindars in Bengal, but they suffered with the emergence of a competitive zamindari family, palace intrigues and a case of an enterprising Roy patriarch getting poisoned—family history that Pallab doesn’t care to delve into.

Pallab’s grandfather, Raja Kamalaranjan Roy, who nurtured a love for cars and bought the Studebaker in 1928, after the American automobile company exhibited the car in the city as part of a roadshow, witnessed many of the pitfalls of modern Indian history. Partition saw much of the family’s zamindari land fall in East Pakistan, a territory they had no access to; the abolition of the zamindari system after independence ate further into the family treasury. This was followed by Operation Barga, the extensive land reforms movement undertaken by the Left Front government in West Bengal from 1978, and the Naxalite movement during the same period. “Our fortunes went down. The people our family looked after for so long suddenly turned against us. That no physical harm came upon my grandfather is because of the goodwill the Roy family had for doing benevolent work, yet a lot of people took pride in the fact that the rajas were reduced to ashes," says Pallab.

As the years went by, all the cars owned by the Roys were sold off. Only the Studebaker survived, but it went into disrepair, revived only for short phases when Pallab’s father, Prosanta Kumar Roy, and later Pallab himself, chose the stately car to travel for weddings. For a long time, it stood motionless at one of the family garages. “This was a very difficult phase of our lives," Pallab recounts. In 1990, his mother, Supriya, chose the garage space fronting the Harish Mukherjee Road residence to start a small bakery outlet. Soon, cakes and pastries started flying off the shelves.

Today, the Sugarr & Spice brand that she founded, and where Pallab is now a director, has over 120 outlets, employing over 200 people. Pallab was looking after a wholesale business in medicines when he decided it was time to turn his attention towards the long-ignored Studebaker.

Saurav by his side, they toiled over the car for four years, using the Studebaker’s sales catalogue for reference. The body colour, the state of the metal body, the rubber fitments, the upholstery, the mohair-covered ceiling, the silk assist cords, the robe rail, the one-way intercom service between passenger and driver used when the separating glass is rolled up, the silk curtains, the suction technology-equipped interior fans, the wiring, the headlights, the wire wheels, the whitewall tyres, the Atalanta figurine mascot, the foot warmer with the coal drawer—these were all gradually returned to their original state. “Restoration of a vintage car is meticulous work and requires a careful eye for detail. The idea is to return the car to its factory state using the same technology used back then," Pallab says.

The glinting lion and unicorn emblem of the Cossimbazar royal family on the left side of the 1928-made Studebaker President 8 State Limousine (FA) takes you back in time. Even as Pallab carefully wipes off the specks of dust on a side mirror, he enthusiastically explains the working of the car. The Roy scion is serious about his role as the future custodian of the family’s past.

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