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Dazzle the tigers

The fantastically wealthy maharajas of India had a unique relationship with the Rolls-Royce motor car under the British Raj, using them as a conspicuous display of opulence and splendour. Words by Michael Moran

The word “Maharaja” – literally “great ruler” – conjures up images of opulence and splendour: a turbanned figure, body concealed by priceless fabrics, loaded with pearls and diamonds, jewelled swords and daggers; a figure of wealth and power seated in a canopied golden howdah atop a fabulously caparisoned elephant, the centrepiece of a military procession. As the motor age dawned, extravagant Rolls-Royces and Daimlers replaced the elephant as a vehicle of display. In Indian religious sensibility, the notion of “darshan” – the conspicuous sight of a deity – empowers both the viewer and the viewed, especially if a person is of great authority.

The first maharaja to acquire a motor car was the Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala (a princely state that was afforded a 19-gun salute under the British Raj’s rather complex hierarchy of status, which varied from 9-gun to 21-gun salutes). He purchased an 1897 De Dion-Bouton in 1901 and displayed this novelty for guests on the palace lawns rather than driving it on the rough oxen tracks of his state. Queen Victoria disliked early motor cars but extravagant ceremonial vehicles came to reflect many aspects of Indian heritage and culture.

One spectacle above all confirmed the hierarchy of power. This was the fantastical visual symbolism of the Imperial Durbar, an ostentatious display of fealty by powerful Indian Princes towards British royalty. At the 1877 Durbar, Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India (and thus afforded a whopping 101-gun salute), establishing the title and medal “Kaiser-i-Hind” awarded for Indian public service. Though she never visited India during her reign, Victoria passionately embraced the culture by studying Urdu and Hindi and commissioning an enormous Durbar Room at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. She acquired an Indian attendant, Abdul Karim, known as the “munshi” (teacher), whom she mothered, sampled his exotic curries and, according to Victoria’s biographer Elizabeth Longford, “increased the nation’s dizzy infatuation with an inferior dream, the dream of Colonial Empire”. Conservative royal circles attempted to suppress the friendship between Abdul and the Queen, before and after Victoria’s death.

The British Raj conceived the grand opera of India as “The Jewel in the Crown” of imperial, political, social, economic and cultural influence. The magnificent Durbar to celebrate the creation of King Edward VII as Emperor of India in 1903 was overseen by the masterly Viceroy, Lord Curzon. As Prince of Wales and a passionate motorist, “Bertie” had bought his first car, a Daimler 56C, in 1900. Lord and Lady Llangattock, parents of the renowned racing motorist and balloonist the Honourable Charles Stewart Rolls, attended these Durbar celebrations. Charles was racing and selling French Panhard and Mors motor cars in London when they alerted him to the motoring obsession of wealthy Indian maharajas. A lucrative opportunity opened in India for Rolls-Royce after the company’s Paris Salon debut in December 1904.

The fertile seed of veritable “Rolls-Royce madness” among maharajas was planted when the Maharaja Madhavrao Scindia of Gwalior (a princely state awarded a 21-gun salute) purchased the first Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost in India in 1908 from the Manchester printer Frank Norbury. Known as the “Pearl of the East”, this 40/50 hp Silver Ghost and 37th car in the series (60576) was furnished with Cockshoot coachwork and faultlessly contested the Bombay (Mumbai) to Kolhapur Reliability Trial covering a previously inconceivable 620 mountainous miles. The Ghost was purchased second-hand by the maharaja after its record-breaking trans-India run. He allegedly arranged that mixed crushed pearls be added to the paint during the personalisation of the car to give it a lustrous appearance in sunlight.

The sumptuous Coronation Delhi Durbar in 1911 of King George V and Queen Mary continued the imperial tradition. The first British sovereigns to visit the subcontinent were proclaimed Emperor and Empress of India at this zenith of grandiosity. Mary of Teck predicted that when she died “India” would be found engraved upon her heart. Seated on thrones beneath an ornate dome they received important maharajas in serial obeisance.

Both sovereigns were passionate motorists and fascinated by all things mechanical, as were the maharajas. The ceremony offered car manufacturers an opportunity to display their latest models. Rolls-Royce placed eight Silver Ghosts with identical landaulette bodies at their disposal and that of senior Indian government officials. An ostentatious landaulette, replacing the redoubtable elephants, would enable the maharajas to appear in conspicuous splendour. The Nizam Mahbub Ali Khan of Hyderabad (awarded the maximum 21-gun salute) commissioned the “Throne Car”, a rich canary yellow 1911 Barker 40/50 hp Silver Ghost (2117) with silver-plated fittings and a raised, gold silk brocade “throne” set high under a domed roof with fleur-de-lys frieze.

Hunting tigers was considered a noble sport in India during the early 1900s. Many distinctive and highly individual “shikar” (hunting) vehicles were commissioned with substantial bumpers, Purdey shotgun racks and swivelling seats to work alongside guns mounted on elephants. Less alarming bells replaced strident klaxons as warnings of approach. The Rolls-Royce chassis coped well with rough terrain and bush tracks on lengthy expeditions. Queen Elizabeth II went tiger hunting in India and Kathmandu on her popular visit in 1961 but her request to use a calf as bait for tigers was “gently” turned down by Prime Minister Nehru.

In 1925, Sahib Bahadur, Umed Singh II, Maharaja of Kotah (afforded a 17-gun salute), commissioned a Barker 40/50 hp New Phantom torpedo sports tourer (23RC) painted battleship grey with black crocodile hide. Fitments included two swivelling Grebel searchlights front and rear to dazzle the tigers, a Tapley gradient meter and a nickel-plated snake horn. Fitted with tall tyres and low gearing, it towed a Bira .450 Gatling gun, then considered suitable for hunting Bengal tigers. A large-calibre, short-range firearm discouraged beasts from attacking the occupants and a Lantaka cannon elephant gun was mounted on the rear bumper. A small Chubb safe securely held cash to compensate families of hunting assistants killed while stalking big game.

Amusing ownership stories abound. The Begum Dulhan Pasha, the principal wife of the supreme ruler Nizam Osman Ali Khan of Hyderabad, was superstitious and curiously fond of reverse gear. If a black cat crossed her path she insisted the car be driven backwards. Twenty miles outside Hyderabad, a black cat rocketed across the road. The Begum ordered the chauffeur to immediately reverse to the palace. It was such a long, slow and arduous a task the driver developed neck spasms and requested permanent repatriation to England. She also believed a number of ghosts travelled with her and would stop on longer journeys to let them out to run about and take exercise.

The heat of an Indian summer made purdah cars insupportable ovens for ladies concealed behind smoked glass or heavy curtains, although steel mesh windows allowed some ventilation. A large cocktail cabinet containing cool evening refreshments was favoured by the Maharani of Darbhanga, always keen to escape the confines of the palace. Amma Maharani of Travancore had a small stool placed on the floor of her Rolls-Royce. Here an effectively invisible dwarf massaged her feet.

During the splendid launch of the RREC’s 2018 Yearbook at Goodwood House, I was enthusiastically piloted by the vivacious Katie Forrest in an historic “Indian” Silver Ghost (2154), affectionately named “Nellie”. Until 1990, it was owned by the family of the Maharaja of Nabha in Punjab (a state afforded a 13-gun salute). The acceleration and torque demonstrated along lanes and briskly up the house drive were surprising, exciting and unforgettable.

From 1910–13, General Manager Claude Johnson, known as the “hyphen” in the Rolls-Royce partnership, evolved “Trials Cars” specifically intended for local conditions. He astutely named Silver Ghost 2154 “Taj Mahal”. The vehicle has a unique place in Rolls-Royce history as the only Indian trials car from the pre-1914 era that survives exactly as it was when it left the factory in 1912, carrying Barker Torpedo Phaeton coachwork.

Many additional specifications were offered at Rolls-Royce’s newly opened showrooms and service centre in Waterloo Mansions, in the wealthy southern Bombay suburb of Colaba. “Taj Mahal” boasts larger wheels to increase ground clearance, a louvred bonnet, modified carburation and a special tropicalized electrical system. A larger fuel tank and extraordinary, unique “chain mail” front mud flaps prevented stray oxen hooves from flicking up under the front tyres and puncturing the rear. The car was extensively demonstrated to heads of government with all the renowned comfort, quietness and reliability of “the best car in the world”. Maharajas and wealthy businessmen commissioned extraordinary bespoke variants to satisfy their fertile imaginations.

During the Great War, Silver Ghosts were commandeered or loaned for military use as staff cars both in India and England. One of the 1911 Durbar landaulettes was converted for use as an armoured car. For the war effort, the Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala donated two Silver Ghosts, raised some 28,000 recruits, contributed money and bravely saw active service himself. The Maharaja Kumar Gopal Saran Narayan Singh of Tikari presented his Barker cabriolet to the Indian government for military conversion.

The Admiralty pattern 1914 Mark I Rolls-Royce armoured car was one of the most successful armoured fighting vehicles in history. The reliability, power and capacity of the Silver Ghost chassis to absorb punishment were legendary. TE Lawrence had nine Rolls-Royce 40/50 Silver Ghost motor cars under his command in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. Of his personal vehicle, Blue Mist, he wrote: “A Rolls in the desert was above rubies.”

In India, the armoured car helped to maintain internal security. Narrow passageways fortunately prevented their use in April 1919 during the appalling massacre of as many as a thousand unarmed civilians in the walled garden of Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar. This monstrous act, ordered by the infamous Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, became a catalyst for the independence movement. Mahatma Gandhi transformed the Indian National Congress into a powerful force demanding home rule. “We have no desire for revenge,” said Gandhi. “We want to change the system that produces General Dyers.” Amritsar was referred to by Queen Elizabeth during her 1997 Indian visit as “distressing”, one of “some difficult episodes in our past”, before removing her shoes and laying a wreath in silence.

Between the wars the maharajas vied with one another in commissioning hundreds of expensive Rolls-Royce motor cars adorned with fantastic appointments. Between 1908 and independence in 1947, a total of 868 Rolls-Royces were exported to India. The Maharaja of Mysore (a southern state afforded a massive 21-gun salute) always bought his Rolls-Royces in sevens. He was so famous for this that “Doing a Mysore” was a term coined by Rolls-Royce salesmen to describe the buying of multiple Rolls-Royce motor cars. The Nizam Osman Ali Khan of Hyderabad, in addition to caparisoned elephants, owned 50.

One of the company’s best clients, the bejewelled Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, owned 48, some having instruments set with precious stones. In 1915, he commissioned a theatrical Barker Silver Ghost (32PP) with myriad special fittings designated “High Speed – Alpine Eagle”. The Parisian coachbuilder Jean Henri-Labourdette influenced the flared wings and skiff body in full polished aluminium. The maharaja wore finely spun gold underwear while travelling with some of his 300 concubines and four “official wives”.

The King’s son, the glamorous Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII), visited India on a gruelling tour of the Empire in 1921. He wore the “haar” (a garland of welcome) at the spectacular Durbar. Maharajas ceremoniously presented themselves to the Prince. Schoolchildren cheered and waved handkerchiefs. However, the country was in ferment and his visit was a politically charged occasion. Indians had anticipated progress towards independence after supporting Britain militarily during the Great War at a cost of 75,000 lives.

The Indian rulers and their British overlords developed a curious rivalry of status and wealth. Between the wars, the maharajas were greatly influenced by the luxurious tastes of the British royals. However, it was the maharajas, not the relatively impecunious British administrators, who commissioned the Royal Worcester dinner services, priceless Asprey silver, Baccarat glass and bespoke Rolls-Royces. In 1928, Cartier of Paris supplied the Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala with the legendary “Patiala Necklace” containing 2,930 diamonds (962.25 carats), Burmese rubies, topazes and pear-shaped diamonds set in platinum. “Dreams take shape,” observed the weekly French Newspaper L’Illustration. “We are in the world of One Thousand and One Nights. The beauty and the extent of his collection surpasses imagination.”

The Prince of Wales set an example, owning some 11 Rolls-Royces during his life. After the war, he gratified his passion for Silver Ghosts and the smaller 20hp. In 1928, he acquired an outstanding 40/50 hp New Phantom (14RF) with a “Weymann” type body by Gurney Nutting with spotlights, external sun blind, police lamp and a trunk for golf clubs. He kept his last Rolls-Royce, a Phantom II (115WJ), until 1931 when his motoring and romantic diversions revolved increasingly around American tastes.

The maharajas favoured the Phantom II as well. In 1934, the Thakore Sahib Dharmendrasinhji Lakhajiraj of Rajkot (a Gujarati state afforded a 9-gun salute), decided to replace his inherited 1909 Barker Silver Ghost open-drive landaulette (60797) with a Phantom II Thrupp & Maberly all-weather cabriolet (188PY). Named the “Star of India” after the famous 563-carat star sapphire, it was painted saffron ochre, a colour symbolizing purity, while the bonnet and wings were polished aluminium. The interior was trimmed with ochre leather, and the wooden dashboard marbled with saffron paste. The Rajkot state crest on the doors had the heartening motto in Gujarati “Dharmi praja raja” meaning “An impartial ruler of men of all faiths”.

The rakish V12 Rolls-Royce Phantom III appeared at the 1935 Olympia Motor Show. This formidable motor car also became a desirable model among British royalty and maharajas. The popular, unconventional, matinee-idol handsome Prince George, Duke of Kent, ordered a black, rather louche, Barker Phantom III sports saloon (3AZ43) with division and pigskin interior in 1936. Special features were Marchal side and headlamps, chromium-plated dashboard and luggage rack. For continental driving, a sunshine roof was fitted as well as an American police siren and headlamp-dimming switches. His wife, “this lovely, chic creature”, Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, did not complain when he drove the Phantom fast.

The wealthy Maharaja Bahadur Sir Kameshwar Singh Goutam, otherwise known as the Maharaja of Darbhanga, commissioned a glamorous Phantom III to add to his more than 20 Rolls-Royces. He replaced the “gently used” original Barker limousine coachwork with a concealed head drophead coupe – a sportif, vivid sky-blue, two-door convertible by Thrupp & Maberly (3AZ178).

In November 1947, Princess Elizabeth was married to the distinguished naval officer Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, who was made Duke of Edinburgh on the morning of their wedding. After courting the princess in a black 1946 MG TC with apple-green leather (registration XHD99), the daredevil Duke impatiently commissioned a fast, straight-eight-engined Phantom IV, codenamed for confidentiality “Nabha” (4AF2). The Duke was intensely interested in the dashing razor-edged design of the enclosed limousine and often visited the H J Mulliner drawing offices to oversee the project until delivery in 1950. The motor car was painted dark Valentine Green with green leather front seats and Liebman grey cloth to the rear. Many facilities were uniquely power-operated. The Duke drove the mud-spattered car with verve and panache, sometimes frightening Princess Elizabeth with his seductive bravado.

After Indian independence was declared on 15 August 1947, both Maharajas and the British forfeited their power. Rolls-Royce showrooms closed and this unrepeatable period of enchantment and romance faded into history. Coming full circle, an uplifting reminiscence of Rolls-Royce in India is surely the epic six-month, 7,500-mile journey made by Rupert and Jan Grey in 2012. A valued member of the 20-Ghost Club, Jan wrote succinctly back to England: “an elderly British couple driving an elderly English car across an ancient continent”. Their determinedly non-flamboyant 1936 25/30 Barker saloon (GUN7) wears its war wounds with pride, having worked hard as a family car over two generations, requiring only occasional fettling. Their documentary film Romantic Road and book Passage Across India depicts this courageous adventure with affecting humour – a post-colonial exploration, a spiritual odyssey, the power of human perseverance against impossible odds, the reaffirmation of deep married love and, of course, a magnificent expedition in a seemingly immortal Rolls-Royce.