The favourite car of the maharajahs is making a comeback in India after half-a-century.
Rolls Royce, the preferred car of the Indian royals, is about to sell its first car in India through a local dealer in almost 50 years.
The customer is a 33-year-old industrialist and stud farm owner from the western Indian city of Pune.
Yohan Poonawalla will be adding a black and silver Phantom – price nearly $920,000 – to his existing collection of three Rolls Royces.
He already owns a 1937 Phantom 3, a 1934 seven-seater limousine and a 1992 Silver Spur 2.
Mr Poonawalla, who runs flourishing horse breeding, pharmaceuticals and engineering businesses, is an inveterate car collector, but says the Rolls Royces have a special place in his collection.
The new Phantom luxury car with electronically operated seats and plush interiors has a 6.75 litre, 12 cylinder engine with a top speed of 240 km (150 miles)/hour and it accelerates to 100km in 5.9 seconds.
Six of Mr Poonawalla’s chauffeurs are receiving special training on how to drive and maintain the car from a Rolls Royce representative flown in from London to Mumbai (Bombay).
Mr Poonawalla does have concerns about driving a luxury car like Phantom on the pot-holed, traffic choked roads of India where vehicles travel cheek by jowl and easily bump into and scrape against each other.
“It is frightening at times with all the lorries and trucks on our roads. But till now, none of my Rolls Royce cars have been involved in any brushes,” he says.
Imports of Rolls Royces came to a virtual halt half a century ago due to stifling government regulations on overseas goods.
A car industry expert reckons that there are some 200 Rolls Royces on Indian roads today, a good number of them in the cities of Mumbai and Indore.
Even though there is a steep 107% duty on importing luxury cars into India, there has been some interest in the comeback of the Rolls Royce.
Mumbai-based Navnit Motors, the only Rolls Royce dealer in India, is hoping to sell eight cars in the first year.
“We have quite a few enquiries from industrialists, the rich and celebrities from all over the country,” says Navnit Kachalia of Navnit Motors.
“It is a very niche market. The buyers who have wealth, and a passion for cars are our customers.”
The market for high-price, luxury cars in an India with a rising number of new economy millionaires, is still small.
DaimlerChrysler has managed to sell just one of its flagship $1.15 million Maybach 62s since they introduced it in India 15 months ago.
BMW does better, selling about 150 of their top-range cars a year in India. The most expensive reach $93,000.
Landrover sells about 30 luxury models a year at a price of $162,790.
The mystique of Rolls Royce is, however, a part of India’s history.
Before independence, about 730 Rolls Royce cars were imported to India, all owned by the maharajahs and a few wealthy traders.
The first car was imported in 1907, three years after the world famous company was born in Manchester.
The owner was the maharajah of the northern princely state of Gwalior, Madhav Rao Scindia.
The same year, an English businessman brought a Rolls Royce to India.
The car, christened Pearl of the East, participated in a 620-mile ‘reliability trial’, travelling over six mountain passes. It also won the first prize at the Mumbai motor show.
Over the years, the company set up a repair depot in Mumbai and carried out extensive publicity tours in India taking Rolls Royce cars all over the country – a 1910 trip to Kashmir featuring a Silver Ghost, was one of them.
When the Prince of Wales visited India in 1921, many of the maharajahs ordered a number of Rolls Royce cars for the occasion.
The maharajah of Patiala became one of the inveterate Rolls Royce collectors – and the company’s best pre-war client – with 44 cars in his collection.With its high-flared wings and pointed wheel discs, polished aluminium skiff torpedo body, the Silver Ghosts were a favourite with the kings.
Sir Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji, maharajah of Nawanagar, who was also known as ‘Ranji’, one of the world’s greatest cricketers, had eight Rolls Royce cars in his 450-automobile collection.
The cars meant for India were custom designed to please their rich clients.
Purdah glass in limousines, sirens, thermos flasks, hunting lamps, gun racks, ivory steering wheels and control knobs were some of the special accessories added.
India’s new maharajahs are the burgeoning community of millionaires, some of whom are splurging on luxury cars.
These people, hopes Navnit Kachalia, will power the demand for luxury cars.
Only time will tell whether they will begin splashing out on the Rolls Royce again