The automobile and the Maharajas
These extravagant cars are featured at this year's Pebble Beach Concours.
Indian royalty -- the Maharajas, Rajas, Ranas, Nawabs and Nizams of the country's hundreds of princely states -- once owned some the finest and most extravagant automobiles ever made. Their fascination with the motorcar began almost as soon as the automobile made its appearance in India. It was a novelty then, and the Indian royals desired the unusual.
Among the first Maharajas to acquire a car was Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala; an 1897 De Dion-Bouton arrived in India in 1901 by order of his father, Maharaja Rajinder Singh, who had since died. Most of the roads in India at that time were little better than dirt tracks, so the car was hardly used and became more of a display item. It is said that the Maharaja would have the car driven around the lawns as after-dinner entertainment for his guests, many of whom had never before seen an automobile. The car survives, and is parked in the Maharaja of Patalia's museum.
When the automobile became more commonplace, the Maharajas sought to own the most novel examples. During the period when car bodies were custom made by coachbuilders, the Maharajas had the opportunity and the wealth to pander to even the most excessive of their own desires. The cars created for them reflect an era of opulence; silver and gold plating, ivory and gem-encrusted accessories, expensive tapestries, special lights and hidden compartments are but a few of the things that went into the luxurious cars they ordered. It is no wonder then that renowned carmakers and coachbuilders from around the world bent over backwards to court this royal clientele.
Cars for Ceremonial Processions
When an Indian Maharaja was in a ceremonial procession, his ride, whether a majestic elephant or a horse-drawn landau, had to be spectacular. Not only was the howdah (seat/saddle) or the coach covered in silver or gold leaf and intricately carved, but the animals themselves were adorned with gem-encrusted silver or gold jewelry. So when cars replaced animals, the Maharajas thought nothing of replicating some of the grandeur on the cars.
Maharaja Ghulab Singh of Rewa desired a ceremonial car made completely of gold, but this precious metal was too soft to be viable, so he was persuaded to settle for a car made of silver with highly polished nickel alloy that gave out a warm golden glow. This car is famously referred to as the Grey Star of India, after the sapphire by that name. A mammoth 1926 45-hp Barker-bodied Daimler All Weather Tourer, the car weights 6 tons, has a wheelbase of 13.5 feet, measures 21 feet long, 7 feet wide and 7 feet high with the top on, and rides on tires as tall as stagecoach wheels. Horns in the shape of silver serpents slither over broad fenders. Red forked tongues hang out of the gaping mouths of the snakes and drape the sides of the radiator cap, which is in the form of the head of a Greek goddess. The car has a double window system, one dark enough to shield the Maharani from prying eyes when she rode in it. It also has broad footboards -- essential on ceremonial cars so the accompanying attendants have a place to stand while they hold the chowries (horsetail whisks) that, along with the white umbrella, are part of the paraphernalia of a royal procession. Out of consideration for his staff, the Maharaja had two small foldable seats attached to the car's footboards so the attendants could rest from time to time. The walnut dashboard features 16 instruments. The Grey Star has a 15-gallon gas tank, and its 9-liter engine can push it to 100 mph.
Cars Built for Sport
Hunting, at one time an important part of a ruler's duty to protect his subjects or provide additional food for his army while in battle, became a finely honed sport for the Maharajas in the early 1900s. Along with the finest weapons and associated accessories was the requirement for a proper vehicle.
The state of Bharatpur is a haven for birds, and the 1925 Rolls-Royce 20 HP of Maharaja Brijendra Singh was adapted so that it could be driven right onto the temporary mud mounds set up on the edges of lakes and ponds for duck hunting.
The state of Rewa, on the other hand, is famous for its tigers, especially white tigers, and the land allows for cars with larger chassis, so the Maharaja's Rolls-Royce was well-equipped for hunting in comfort. He also had a 1923 two-seater Hispano-Suiza sports tourer by Kellner, believed to have been given to him by his good friend, the Maharaja of Alwar. It included a seat capable of turning a full 360 degrees, so the Maharaja could follow the path of an animal or bird without having to twist his body.