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India’s love of the automobile is a seam that runs deep.
It’s a legacy that can be traced back to the golden age of the Maharajas and Maharanis, and a passion for the luxurious and opulent that eclipsed all others.
The great kings of the subcontinent lavished their riches on the finest motor cars the western world had to offer, with a particular penchant for Rolls-Royces, more often than not finished as elaborately personalised hunting cars even more exotic than their endangered quarry.
At the point when India gained its independence from Great Britain in 1947, the country comprised more than 600 kingdoms, many of which were ruled by royals of incredible wealth.
As the partition came down and the Punjab was cleaved from Bengal, the great houses and princely states were disbanded.
By the early 1970s, titles and privy purses were further stripped, palaces fell into ruin and glittering collections were abandoned; many of the country’s crown jewels were sold abroad as foreign collectors picked at the bones.
Yohan Poonawalla wasn’t born into that world, and he isn’t descended from royalty.
Instead, his family worked its way to the top, founding a famous stud farm and engineering business, then later diversifying into the medical field.
The company has been at the forefront of the global battle against COVID-19, and it has produced many millions of vaccines.
Success brought with it an opportunity to protect and preserve India’s heritage, and at the same time indulge a lifelong passion for classics and sports cars, in particular those fantastic automobiles from the time of the British Raj.
Poonawalla’s love affair with classics began with a 1931 Chevrolet – the only car to be inherited from his father, and the machine in which his passion was born while playing on the family farm as a small boy.
The contents of his garages also reflect the region’s enduring fascination with Rolls-Royce.
A fleet of modern luxury limousines that would put a central London dealership to shame sits alongside a number of rare Ferraris, including a Pista Spider and a Speciale Aperta.
“I also have a pair of drophead coupés, one a Centenary Edition, and two Phantom Limousines, one of which is a Sapphire Edition – one of only 27 made,” says Poonawalla.
But it’s historic machines that have become the focus in recent years, in particular those with a connection to royalty.
“By the early to mid-1950s, all the Maharaja cars started leaving,” he goes on to explain.
“Many went to England, Europe and America until the 1970s, when the government put a ban on the export of vintage machinery.
“It was a good thing that they stopped the practice, so the cars would remain here, but you also couldn’t import old cars into India, either.”
A recent rule change that allowed people to bring pre-1950 classics back into the country has given the Indian collector-car market – and the Poonawalla collection in particular – a much-needed shot in the arm.
The repatriation of culturally significant vehicles has gained pace in recent years, with Poonawalla at the forefront of the effort.
“The first car that I bought was a 1937 Phantom III convertible, which was very special,” he says.
The concours scene in India is growing stronger by the year, boosted by the celebration of Maharaja cars at the Pebble Beach Concours in 2018 that reignited a global fascination.
Poonawalla played his part in that revival by travelling to the United Kingdom once global travel restrictions began to ease and showing three of his prized royal cars at Salon Privé and the Concours of Elegance at Hampton Court Palace.
Two of those vehicles were returning to British soil for the first time in 70 years.
The most striking machine is without doubt Poonawalla’s 1949 Bentley MkVI, a gorgeous example of the marque’s post-war move towards mass production.
But while the lion’s share of MkVIs were Standard Steels – the first model to be completely assembled and finished at the factory – there remained the option to buy it as a rolling chassis for those who possessed deep enough pockets to engage a coachbuilder.
Chassis B-294-EY was one such example, bodied by Hooper to its elegant 8111 saloon design and powered by the firm’s 4257cc F-head straight-six.
While most were painted in a more restrained palette, Poonawalla’s car is finished in perhaps the most intriguing colour scheme of any ‘razor-edge’ Bentley, wearing as it does a combination of bright red and yellow coachwork that gave rise to the affectionate nickname of the ‘rhubarb and custard’ car.
The jazzy livery was just one of the changes organised by Captain ST Binstead, the Putney-based trade commissioner of one of the most powerful and wealthy men in India: the Maharaja of Mysore.
“I believe he ordered cars by the half-dozen or dozen,” explains Poonawalla, with the practice reputedly giving rise to the phrase ‘Doing a Mysore’.
“This batch was nicknamed ‘The Seven Sisters’.”
Outside, the Bentley is adorned with personalised touches ranging from hand-painted coats of arms on each door to silver and gold shields front and rear; in the middle of the roof sat an elaborate illuminated plaque featuring the state seal, lit to indicate when the royal was aboard.
The extravagance continues inside.
Cream leather upholstery is piped in green, while the opulent rear compartment features every luxury imaginable: it gives the impression of a private gentlemen’s club with powered windows.
Each front seatback holds a cabinet with decanters and tumblers, while the hollow armrest houses a silver and cut-glass vanity set, a tray for the Maharaja’s spectacles and even a small lunchbox.
“I bought it in 2005 and didn’t even know that it was a Maharaja car until I asked for the build sheets,” explains Poonawalla.
“It was the first Bentley I bought and was in rather ordinary condition.
“There was no hint at all at that time: the colours were blue and silver with no coats of arms, no flags, no crests.”
As time went on, the history of B-294-EY began to emerge, along with period photographs of the car at Hampton Court prior to being shipped to Allied Motors Ltd, the Crewe firm’s Indian agent in Bombay.
The research led to a detailed restoration in 2019 to return the car to the condition in which it was delivered to its first owner, His Highness Jayachamaraja Wadiyar Bahadur, Maharaja of Mysore.
Fully rebuilt to its original splendour, the MkVI won Best of Show at the 21 Gun Salute International Vintage Rally & Concours d’Elegance, and on its 2021 visit to Salon Privé it picked up the coveted Duke of Marlborough Award.
Rarer still, and the oldest of Poonawalla’s trio, is the collector’s magnificent 1927 Rolls-Royce Twenty, the first ‘small’ car built by the firm during the 1920s.
Unlike the outgoing Phantom, the Twenty was designed to appeal to wealthy customers who were not only chauffeured, but also held their own enthusiasm for getting behind the wheel from time to time.
As a car fanatic, Poonawalla is a fitting custodian for this wonderful machine, and regularly takes it for trips with his children, Zayan and Tania.
“Once in a while we go for Sunday drives, when my busy schedule allows,” enthuses Poonawalla, “and when we’re not in one of the Ferraris!”
Though no match for a Prancing Horse, the Twenty nonetheless offers spirited performance for a pre-war luxury car.
It was launched with an all-new 3127cc straight-six that was good for as much as 60mph.
Further improvements came in 1925 by way of four-wheel brakes and a four-speed gearbox.
Of the 2885 Twentys built, around 80 made their way to India, including chassis GRJ1, which was used as a demonstrator for its first four years before being sold to the Nawab of Sachin, His Highness Haidar Muhammad Yakut Khan, in February 1931.
Sachin lacked the sheer real estate of a ‘21-gun’ state – some of which were larger than the whole of Great Britain – but the 49-square-mile principality of Sachin was nonetheless wealthy and the new Rolls-Royce offered a fitting mode of transport for ceremonial duties.
By 1948 the state had become part of the Indian Union, but the family managed to hold on to the car before eventually selling it to a successful orchid cultivator, an eccentric rumoured to have kept a 2m-long rat snake in the vehicle to keep hungry rodents at bay.
Despite the dazzling paintwork of the Bentley, it’s the pre-war Rolls-Royce that first catches your attention.
Finished in jet black, the Barker-bodied open tourer simply shimmers, with countless chromed parts that twinkle in the sun – many of which were painstakingly sourced when the car was restored by its former owner, also a renowned collector.
The work took the best part of two and half years and included the fitment of twin Stephen Grebel headlights, plus a pair of Grebel spotlights – one mounted on the front of the car, with a second hunting light operated by the driver and arranged to the side of the dual windscreen.
Given India’s road network in the 1930s, the addition of a third spare wheel is a sensible upgrade, while inside a number of modifications were made to adapt the Royce to the hotter climate.
The steering wheel, gearlever, Barker headlight-dipping lever and dashboard control knobs – anything that might have been touched during the car’s normal operation – are finished in an ivory colour to reflect the sun and remain as cool as possible.
The nickel-plated dials, meanwhile, are faced in black, so as not to dazzle the driver.
A lifelong love affair with Phantoms, both vintage and modern, has led Poonawalla to assemble a collection that includes Sir Malcolm Campbell’s 1933 Phantom II and the Maharaja of Panchkote’s 1937 Phantom III, so it’s fitting that he has recently managed to acquire an example of the last model built before the firm’s takeover – the ultimate Phantom.
It’s difficult to comprehend just how vast the 1979 Phantom VI is until it hoves into view, dwarfing the other two cars from Poonawalla’s collection; it reminds me of standing on the quay as a cruise ship draws alongside.
Where the other cars in the collection serve a duality of roles for the owner-driver, the 6.75-litre V8-engined Phantom was built with the sole purpose of transporting heads of state.
As the company’s official demonstrator, chassis PGH 116 was fitted with every conceivable luxury and extra, ranging from reading lights and headrests to curtains and cocktail cabinets.
“It was the flagship of the fleet, built to the highest specification,” explains Poonawalla.
“It has electric seats, velvet upholstery and cushions, air conditioning and a glass division for when you don’t want to be heard.”
Such levels of comfort and privacy were vital to one of the car’s regular occupants.
Though it remained with Rolls-Royce and later Bentley until being bought by Poonawalla, the Phantom was often loaned to the royal family and served as a state car for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on a number of occasions, most notably while on a visit to Sweden in 1983.
During the trip, royal standards were flown from each front wing, while the usual numberplate was replaced by one bearing the registration HMQ 001.
The Poonawalla collection is already impressive but it continues to grow, with recent additions including a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud with government connections and a 1964 Lincoln Continental that was used by the Pope: “The Silver Cloud represented a grand opportunity because it was used by the President of India, while the Lincoln was specially imported by the Vatican before being gifted to Mother Teresa and auctioned for her leprosy charity.”
And while expansion forms a large part of Poonawalla’s ambition, so does sharing the cars at the highest level; you can’t help but wonder if Pebble Beach will eventually be on the cards.
“Sooner rather than later,” he smiles.
Images: Luc Lacey
Thanks to Mohammed Luqman Ali Khan; Terence Morley