The Flashy Cars Of A Maharajah For Modern Times

Yohan Poonawalla cannot remember exactly how many cars he owns. Probably around 30, he says vaguely.

Just as most people don’t waste their time counting up trifling possessions like, say, underwear or socks, Poonawalla has no interest in taking stock of his car collection. He has a large number of them but certainly not yet enough.

“I’ve lost count. Anyway, I know I’ve got eight Rolls Royces,” he concludes, casually gesturing somewhere beyond the verandah of his mansion, past the three cages of brightly-plumed parrots, (imported from Latin America), past the lemon yellow Lamborghini, past the waiting line of uniformed chauffeurs, to a cluster of shining vehicles.

Since he took possession of the first new Rolls Royce to be sold in India in five decades, Poonawalla has become a poster boy for a new era of conspicuous consumption here. Featured on the front of society magazines dangling the keys to his new $940,000 Phantom from fingers heavy with diamond-encrusted jewelry, his style is that of a modern maharajah, a man with no reserve about flaunting his money.

A multimillionaire through his family business – which encompasses pharmaceuticals, hotels and horse breeding – he devotes both his cash and his spare time to nurturing a lifelong obsession with expensive cars.

Still, it’s not easy to be a car collector in a country where the dreadful state of the road system is seen as one of the most pressing obstacles to economic development.

And it’s a particularly peculiar passion to have in a city like Pune – a quiet, emerging software center in southern India – where the roads are truly abysmal, and where expensive cars are such a rarity that the locals go into a frenzy of excitement every time they see one.

Poonawalla finds driving in these conditions so nerve-racking that he has pretty much given it up. “I don’t like driving any more; I no longer find it fun,” he says mournfully. “The traffic is bad. The roads are bad. You have to worry about cows and dogs coming the wrong way up the street. It’s very, very stressful and anyway I have high blood pressure.”

Luckily he has a team of drivers to step in. When he bought the Phantom last year, he sent six of his chauffeurs to Mumbai for a specialist driving course with Rolls Royce staff who had been sent to India from Britain. (The family’s other 20 or so drivers are not allowed to get behind the wheel of the Phantom).

Being rich in India’s smaller cities remains a lonely affair and there’s not much opportunity in Pune for flashing one’s wealth – the occasional wedding, the odd party. On the rare instances he decides to drive himself in one of his most treasured automobiles, perhaps to take his wife out for a drink in the city’s best hotel, Le Meridien, he is followed by a chauffeur driving a lesser vehicle (“My BMW maybe, or a Porsche”) to ensure that no one smashes into the back of the really valuable car, and to make sure that there is a trained chauffeur on hand to help with parking.

Poonawalla, 34, is scrupulous in pointing out the details that he believes justify the Phantom’s price tag. The words “Custom Built for Poonawalla” are embossed in silver on the doorsill, at about the spot where you might stamp a muddy foot stepping into the car. There are two telephones, a couple of televisions, an array of walnut paneling, the letter “P” stitched and embossed at prominent spots in and outside the car, a button that slowly closes the door for you (saving the wearisome labor of stretching out your arm), another button that pulls black curtains across all the back windows for total privacy, long black umbrellas that slot ingeniously into the door panels, with built-in drying systems so that raindrops don’t mildew.

He demonstrated how the silver figure at the helm of the car, the flying lady, sinks inside the hood if anyone tries to steal it – although under the circumstances this is a rather redundant feature. The guards in pearl gray uniforms with gold-trimmed red sashes around their waists who stand beneath the cast- iron stags looming over his front gates ward off any potential thieves, and the car is never left unattended.

Poonawalla pauses to consider whether it was really worth the money. “Was it a good investment? No. The day you take it out of the showroom its value drops 30 percent. But I was looking for a nice car. This car offered a lot in terms of road presence, comfort and prestige,” he says. “People ask me where I plan to drive these cars, what I’m going to do with them. But driving them is not really the point. My passion is just for spending time with them on Sunday morning. I like to check they’ve all been cleaned nicely, and that my chaps are not lazing around.

“It is a lot of money, but if you love cars, then that’s a lot of car. These cars are all about attracting attention.”

Grabbing attention in Pune is not difficult. If residents of India’s biggest cities are becoming blasé when faced with displays of exceptional wealth, the novel thrill of big money is still intense in small-town Pune.

When he takes out his $450,000 Lamborghini (a present for his wife in May) to demonstrate the hysteria it causes, people on motorbikes swerve to follow him and passengers fumble to take pictures with their mobile phones. As it races along shady roads, beneath the long, dangling trellises of banyan trees, every head turns to look at a car painted the same yellow and black as the local three-wheeled rickshaw, but otherwise an alien phenomenon.

Strangely there are no number plates on the vehicle, but the chauffeur driving the car behind Poonawalla explains that his boss doesn’t need to worry about that kind of detail. “Mr. Poonawalla is a big man. Nobody in the police would touch him. He’s royalty here.”

When the Lamborghini stops at the lights for a minute, dozens of beggars holding skinny, half-naked babies beeline for the car and start tapping on the window.

Poonawalla is undismayed. In a country where around 300 million people earn less than $1 a day, he claims he encounters no malice or envy. “Even though we live in such a poor country there is no resentment. You will always see a smile on a poor person watching the car go by,” he insists, and drives away, offering no alms.

He finds it harder to keep his cool a few minutes later when there is a terrible crack as the low slung car drives at speed over a pothole. Dust flies everywhere, the car struggles on and Poonawalla makes a brave attempt at feigning indifference.

Source: NY times