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Marques of the maharajas

Yohan Poonawalla’s incredible car collection, soon to be converted into a museum, is preserving India’s rich Rolls-Royce legacy. By Mohammed Luqman Ali Khan

During the first half of the 20th century, the hugely wealthy maharajas and nawabs of colonial India were fascinated by Rolls-Royce motor cars. They often competed with each other, ordering bespoke models in all conceivable shapes and styles – some were even adorned with jewels and gemstones. These cars were used for a variety of purposes, from day-to-day transport, to sport and hunting, to grand ceremonial occasions.

The departure of the British in 1947 and the merger of the 565 princely states into the India union, however, heralded an end to this automotive love affair, with the newly independent nation going on to scrap the princes’ privy purses.

Fast forward to the present day, and the automotive legacy of the country’s erstwhile royalty is being preserved by a collector extraordinaire, Yohan Poonawalla. Success in the world of business has allowed the Pune-based industrialist to pursue his passion for collecting historic motor cars, Rolls-Royce and Bentley in particular. As a keen motorist, Yohan can often be seen at domestic and international concours shows, displaying his automotive treasures and admiring the cars of his fellow enthusiasts.

His own extensive fleet of exquisite cars resides in the Yohan Poonawalla Collection, which is soon to be converted into a museum in his home city of Pune. The collection is the result of many years of commitment and effort, and a labour of love for the Poonawallas – Yohan; his wife Michelle, an acclaimed artist, businesswoman and philanthropist; and their children Tania and Zayan, who have both taken up motoring at an early age. It features a vast array of motor cars, from the dawn of motoring to modern-day supercars, phenomenal Phantoms to Italian stallions, and continues to expand.

As India’s foremost collector of Rolls-Royce and Bentley motor cars, Yohan treats each of his unique cars with love and respect, and each has its own story to tell. Here is a selection of some of the most prominent automobiles in his collection.

1927 Rolls-Royce 20hp Tourer by Barker
Chassis number: GRJ 1
Engine number: W8E

In 1927, Rolls-Royce sent this handsome car out to India. As per its build sheets and factory records, it was designated “Indian Trials” and “Indian Demonstration”. In 1931, it was sold to the Nawab of Sachin (in Gujarat) His Highness Haydar Mohammad Yakut Khan (1909–70) – a descendant of the Siddi dynasty, which was of Abyssinian origin.

This elegant four-door tourer by Barker was used for state ceremonial and touring purposes. Uniquely, its steering wheel, steering controls, dash controls, brake lever knobs, gear lever and headlamp dipping lever are all painted the colour of ivory. Other features include Stephen Grebel hunting lights, a dual windshield with twin aprons, the Sachin state flag mounted on the radiator, aluminium-caste “Sachin State No 1” red enamelled identification plates, the Nawab’s personal monogram hand-painted on the doors, nickel-plated instrument dials and an unusual set of three spare wheels.

While examining period photographs of GRJ 1, I discovered that when in use by the Nawab of Sachin, the car sported a prancing horse hood ornament, which had replaced the Spirit of Ecstasy. The car also features in The Rolls-Royce Twentyby marque historian John Fasal and is described in great detail by author Gautam Sen in Osian’s auction guide.

It was comprehensively rebuilt to its original specifications by renowned restorer Prince Manvendra Singh Barwani and was subsequently shown at the 2019 Cartier Concours d’Elégance in Jaipur. A year later, it was displayed at the 21 Gun Salute International Vintage Car Rally & Concours Show in New Delhi, and in 2021 it was shown at Salon Privé Concours d’Elégance at Blenheim Palace, where it won the award for Most Exceptional Coachwork. In May 2022, GRJ 1 participated in the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este in Italy, and in June it was presented at the Pageant of Motoring at Sandringham Estate, held to mark the Platinum Jubilee.

1933 Rolls-Royce Phantom II Continental Sports Saloon by Barker
Chassis number: 140MY
Engine number: GF45
Body number: 9988

The Phantom II was the third and last of Rolls-Royce’s great 40/50hp six-cylinder models. While it was known for its length, which could accommodate lavish coachwork, the short wheelbase Continental with its lighter and sportier body proved more suitable for touring.

140MY is known the world over, having been owned previously by the legendary Sir Malcolm Campbell, who held multiple world records for speed on land and water during the 1920s and 1930s. This was the third of three Phantom IIs that he owned. In fact, such was his admiration for the model that Sir Malcolm wrote a promotional piece for the car’s official brochure entitled “The best Rolls-Royce yet produced”.

The car came with many extras and a few accessories were transferred from his previous Phantom, such as the large Atlantic spot lamp with mirror, a siren, a tri-tone set of Bosch horns and a St Christopher’s medal, which is affixed to the dashboard. Sir Malcolm had traded in his older Phantom (55GX) for this latest model. Records show that this was a loss-making transaction for Rolls-Royce, but one that the company was presumably happy to absorb, given the customer’s widespread appeal and patronage of the marque.

This Phantom II was finished in Sir Malcolm’s favourite shade of blue, like his record-breaking Blue Birds, and the interior has blue leather with grey headlining, with dark blue carpets and beautifully detailed wooden door cappings and dashboard. Special features include a low rake steering column, wider track, higher axle ratio, Andre Hartford tele-friction dampers and sports continental springs and sunshine roof.

The historically important car was displayed at The Great Eight Phantoms exhibition held in July 2017 at Bonhams on Bond Street in London, not far from Old Bond Street, where it was delivered new to Campbell back in March 1933. Yohan Poonawalla attended the exhibition and, having fallen for 140MY’s considerable charms, he successfully acquired the car in 2020. Since then, it has been shown at the Concours of Elegance at Hampton Court Palace and Salon Privé at Blenheim Palace, where it won the Most Exceptional Coachwork Award.

1937 Rolls-Royce Phantom III by Park Ward
Chassis number: 3CM37

Originally produced for the Maharaja of Panchkote as a closed saloon but subsequently rebodied as a tourer, this Phantom III presented its current owner, who is a purist when it comes to originality, with the quandary of whether to restore it to its sedan state or keep it as a tourer. Having been discovered in a dilapidated state and reconstructed as a tourer by its previous owner, that style has become part of the car’s rich history and is retained to this day.

Rolls-Royce historian Steve Stuckey says of the car, “It was originally a sports saloon by Park Ward in Harbour Mist Grey duco with the wheels to remain in the original black finish. The upholstery was in grey leather throughout to match the car, with grey carpet and headcloth. The woodwork was in Circassian walnut, an electric fan was fitted to the rear compartment, and silver and enamel monograms adorned all four doors. The complete car costed £2,036. It was ordered by Allied Motors Ltd for His Highness Lieutenant-Colonel Mahi Mahendra Maharao Sir Umed II Singhji Bahadur of Kotah, Rajputana (1873–1941), the Raja of Panchkote.”

1939 Bentley 4¼-Litre All-Weather Tourer by Park Ward
Chassis number: B104 MR
Engine number: T3BU
Body number: 3296

B104 MR was delivered new in 1939 to Prince Moazzam Jah of Hyderabad. Known as the “Junior Prince”, he was the younger son of the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad, His Exalted Highness Nawab Mir Osman Ali Khan Bahadur. As the offspring of the then “richest man in the world” (according to a 1937 cover of Time magazine), he purchased some of the most expensive automobiles of the time, including Rolls-Royce and Duesenberg cars.

This all-weather tourer by Park Ward was finished in light blue with polished aluminium wings, a white concealable hood and mellotone horns. The car was supplied through Allied Motors Ltd and sported a covered spare wheel carrier on each side. A special instruction was given to not fit the standard wing and tail lamps – something only the son of the sovereign could get away with! There was also a provision made for a wireless set.

After the prince, it reportedly went into the ownership of the Nawab of Janjira. It was a regular participant in local shows, including the Statesman Vintage & Classic Car Rally. Having been repainted a number of times over the years, the car, now showing signs of fatigue, is due to be fully refurbished by its current owner, who has embarked on a comprehensive restoration of the car to its former glory.

During my research into the Bentleys formerly owned by the Nizams, I discovered that they are scattered around the world, from America to Australia. B104 MR features on the cover of my forthcoming book Automobiles of the Nizams, which was made possible thanks to Her Highness Princess Esra and His Highness Prince Azmet Jah Bahadur, the Prince of Berar, who kindly granted me access to the Nizam’s palace archives.

1949 Bentley Mark VI Touring Saloon by Hooper
Chassis number: B-294-EY

The flamboyant Maharajas of Mysore owned many Rolls-Royce and Bentley motor cars. In fact, the orders were so frequent that they gave birth to the phrase “doing a Mysore” in Rolls-Royce and Bentley factory circles. While these included several Mark VI Bentleys, however, one stood out as the most striking and colourful.

In 1949, B-294-EY was coachbuilt by Hooper to design number 8111 and delivered via Allied Motors Ltd (Bentley’s Indian agents in Bombay) to His Highness Dr Jaya Chamaraja Wadiyar Bahadur, the wealthy maharaja of the princely state of Mysore. The maharaja was reportedly the second richest man in the world, after the Nizam of Hyderabad.

Finished in bright red and yellow, and upholstered in cream leather with green piping, it came with a range of extras and regalia. These included cabinets to the back of the front seats with flasks and a picnic set, a hollow arm-rest fitted with a cut-glass toiletries kit with silver tops, an open tray for spectacles, two suitcases in solid hide leather for the boot, folding trays and a recess in the top part of the rear seats to accommodate water bottles, thermos flasks and four silver beakers.

This was in addition to power-operated windows, two flagpoles, an illuminated plaque fitted to the front and rear of the car, and an illuminated plaque on the centre of the front of roof, engraved with the royal arms of Mysore. The Mysore coat of arms on the doors and the unique MYSORE 1 number plate completed the royal car.

B-294-EY was acquired by Yohan Poonawalla in Mumbai in 2002. At the time, its body colour was a two-tone combination of blue and grey. The car has since been carefully renovated to showroom condition. This involved an engine overhaul, and the complete renewal of chassis components, brakes, clutch and more. The colour schemes of the body and interior were returned to the original combination and the car’s crests and shields were carefully replicated using the Mysore Palace records. The shields, which are made of solid silver and 24-karat gold, can be lit, which would originally have indicated the presence of the maharaja in the car.

In February 2020, B-294-EY was named Best in Class and won Best of Show at the 21 Gun Salute International Vintage Car Rally & Concours Show in New Delhi. The following September it received the prestigious Duke of Marlborough Award at Salon Privé and in July 2022 it won the coveted Rob Emberson Trophy at the RREC Annual Rally and Concours d’Elegance at Burghley House. Thanks to its pedigree and distinct character, the “rhubarb and custard” car continues to be a showstopper at car events around the world.

1962 Rolls-Royce Phantom V Seven-Passenger Limousine by James Young
Chassis number: 5LCG25

This Phantom V by James Young appeared at the 1962 Geneva Motor show and was delivered new to the Emir and founding father of modern Qatar, His Highness Sheikh Ahmed Bin Ali Al Thani, to his Avenue de Miremont address in Geneva, Switzerland.

Features of the left-hand-drive car include a sunroof, reading lights, clock and speedometer on the division, purdah windows, white wall tyres, complete refrigeration, fine gold lines and a chrome-plated luggage rack on the roof. Photographs show it wore a number plate that read LIBAN 1 CD105 in both English and Arabic, and also had a flagpole as it was used by the Qatar embassy in Lebanon and was reportedly lent to the king of Saudi Arabia.

Of particular historical interest is the fact that it was used by the Emir when he attended the 1968 Conference of the Nine Emirates in Abu Dhabi, where he decided not to join the federation of seven emirates that resulted in the formation of the UAE, choosing instead to keep Qatar as an independent country.

Three years later, in 1971, 5LCG25 was again in the news, this time being reported as the world’s most expensive car when it was sold to a businessman in Chicago.

On my recommendation, the car was bought by Yohan Poonawalla in 2020 in New York, where it was serving as a rental limousine. Since acquiring it, he has embarked on a comprehensive frame-off restoration, with plans to showcase the majestic car at major events in 2023.

1979 Rolls-Royce Phantom VI Limousine by Mulliner Park Ward
Chassis number: PGH 116
Body number: 20453
Engine number: 116

PGH 116 was constructed as the showpiece demonstration car to promote Rolls-Royce’s latest model – the Phantom VI. In addition to representing the best Rolls-Royce had to offer, it also aimed to promote the extras that Mulliner Park Ward could provide.

Built to royal specifications, the car was owned by Rolls-Royce Motors and subsequently by Bentley Motors, and was used by Her Majesty The Queen and other members of the royal household. Photographs show it conveying The Queen on her state visit to Sweden in 1983, where the royal standard could be seen on its flagposts, along with the unique HMQ 001 number plates. The flags of several countries that were found in its boot indicated the number of official visits this stately Phantom VI undertook across the world, from America to Japan.

Bodied by Mulliner Park Ward, PGH 116 was built to the highest possible specifications, which included a cocktail cabinet in its division, curtains and cushions in red velvet, carpet in cherry red, electrically operated rear seats, reading lights, vanity mirrors, air conditioning and heater, and a black over burgundy colour scheme.

Described as “the ultimate Phantom”, “the last word in motoring luxury” and “the last of the original Phantom models”, in 1986, PGH 116 won the top prize in a contest organised by the Worshipful Company of Coachmakers and Coach Harness Makers in the UK. It also participated in Motor 100, an event that was held at Silverstone in May 1985 to celebrate the centenary of motoring.

In 2021, it was shown at the Concours of Elegance at Hampton Court Palace to mark The Queen’s 95th birthday. It was also displayed at Salon Privé that same year, and in June 2022 it was presented at the Sandringham Pageant of Motoring.

2005 Phantom VII
Chassis number: SCA1S68025UH00263

This bespoke Phantom VII was the first Goodwood-produced Rolls-Royce to be delivered to India. It is fully personalised, bearing a plaque that reads “Hand built for Poonawalla” and featuring the Poonawalla “P” logo on its B pillars and headrests.

The car received worldwide acclaim and considerable media coverage, featuring on national TV and in national newspapers in Indian, as well as in The Times and on the BBC in the UK. All told, it served as a great launch pad for Rolls-Royce’s re-entry into India, following a 50-year hiatus – an important market for the company that dates back to the pre-war days of the maharajas.

Mohammed Luqman Ali Khan is a UAE-based author, curator and motoring historian. He is a collector car and concours consultant and a member of the Society of Automotive Historians in the US and the Guild of Motoring Historians in the UK. In 2018, he discovered Abu Dhabi and Sheikh Zayed’s long-lost Rolls-Royce Phantom V Chassis 5VE15, for which he was awarded the UAE Golden Visa