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I’ve never been much impressed by what seemed to me to be the overly garish vehicles owned by the royal families of India and now exhibited in various car museums. Thus my expectations this past weekend at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance of simply hustling past the Motor Cars of the Raj class to better spend my time with the Tuckers or the classics bodied by Rollston or the early rear-engined Indy racers, or, for that matter, pretty much any other class.
And yet, seeing a group of the Indian cars together on the 18th fairway of the Pebble Beach Golf Links, they were beautiful. If gaudy, it was only in the same vein as the gorgeous architecture of Antoni Gaudi I found so mesmerizing when I visited Barcelona several years ago.
I was captivated by the Motor Cars of the Raj as soon as I saw them early in the morning Sunday, before the gates opened to others than media and VIP, even before their owners and families had decorated the rope that separates spectators from the featured classes parked along the oceanfront with orange artificial flowers, another gesture I took as being culturally correct and welcoming.
And I wasn’t the only one impressed by the cars. The Pebble Beach concours organizers presented the prestigious Lorin Tyron Trophy to His Highness Manvendra Singh Barwani, the long-time Indian automotive enthusiast and historian who not only organized that country’s own major concours, but who organized the Motor Cars of the Raj class for Pebble Beach.
I kept being drawn back to the cars throughout the late morning and early afternoon, when I wanted to take just one more look at these amazing machines, which date to the era when traditional provincial princes governed part of India, most of which was rulesd from 1858 until independence in 1947 by the British Crown.
At one point in the afternoon, I was privileged to have a conversation with Maharaj Daivat Singh of Sirohi, Raj, India, who noted that the car I was admiring wasn’t his, but was owned by his daughter and her husband.
The car was a 1921 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost James & Company open tourer entered in Pebble’s Prewar Preservation class. The car had been in the Maharaj’s son-in-law’s family since it originally was purchased by His Highness the Maharana Amar Singhji of Wankaner. The car was used only for special occasions, such as visits by government officials, and has been driven only 3,000 miles in nearly 100 years.
As our conversation continued, I learned that even when the British ruled, one third of India was still the domain of the native royal families. Many of those families kept their classics even after India became an independent nation where older vehicles were seen as dinosaurs to be destroyed and replaced with smaller modern vehicles.
Fortunately, many of those princes kept their classics, and their families shared them this year at Pebble Beach.