By the turn of 20th Century a few cars had been imported to India but it was the tour of Prince (later King George V) and Princess of Wales in 1905-06 that popularised cars among the rich, leading to a significant increase in the sale of automobiles in this country.
Two key people who deserve credit for kick starting the car revolution in India were – Nripendra Narayan, the head of the princely state of Cooch Behar and his employee cum friend, the British aristocrat Montague Grahame-White. A celebrated motorist, Montague claimed he had “driven approximately 50 miles per week since March 1896”, and participated in international races including racing a Wolseley car in the 1902 Paris-Vienna race. Montague was instrumental in introducing large cars in India at Delhi Durbar, where he acted as A.D.C. to the Maharajah of Cooch Behar.
Between 1902 and 1910, Montague became a hugely successful car, yacht and aeroplane broker and enjoyed almost unlimited access to the crème de la crème of Indian society and the members of British aristocracy. His clients included heads of princely states in India whom he helped during their visits to Britain and they ended up buying cars, airplanes and boats from him.
Earlier, he had established his reputation in India after successfully arranging and launching the first three cars in India upon a commission from the Prince of Cooch Behar.
Immediately, the Sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, Mahbub Ali Pasha (1869-1911) readily agreed to purchase automobiles after being bowled over by the prestige and utility of the special cars arranged by the Government of India for the tour. He immediately bought a car from Bombay and followed it up by buying around thirty more cars within the next three years.
Madhava Rao Scindia of the princely state of Gwalior bought a special Rolls-Royce later called the ‘Pearl of East’, that was actually a R-R Silver Ghost demonstration car brought to India for display before princes and merchants. After he purchased the car in 1908 motor show at Bombay, many other princely states bought Rolls-Royce cars too. In fact, around 800 Rolls-Royces were imported before independence, making India the largest market for British built R-Rs.
The rulers of princely states and wealthy businessmen recognised the prestige and utility of automobiles and used them for official, private and commercial purposes in increasing numbers.
Some bought second hand cars from Europe or received them as gifts.
For example, a Maybach (out of the six manufactured) was presented by Adolf Hitler to Bhupinder Singh of Patiala state in 1935. Incidentally, Hitler favoured Mercedes-Benz cars, so may be the gift was of little import to him!
Other than the R-R Silver Ghost model, the best cars of that time were often American or European cars, built by companies like Deusenberg or Cadillac (USA) or Mercedes-Benz, Hispano-Suiza or Bugatti. These companies too sold cars in large numbers, often through motor dealerships like the French Motor Company (established in Calcutta and one of the largest importers and retailers in India). Interestingly, French was the first in India to begin a department called the ‘School of motoring’ to impart training in driving and maintenance. The Bombay Garage was the largest car dealers and repairers of the region while Simpson and Company was the largest dealer and provider of after-sales service in south India.
However, assembly of vehicles in India, from components and parts, imported in Completely Knocked Down (CKD) condition was started only in 1920 by the General Motors and Ford Motor Company in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras.
In contrast, the British Government was not interested in setting up automobile manufacturing units in India. Only during the Second World War (1938-47) did the British Government realise the importance of Indian automobile industry and appointed a ‘Panel on Automobiles and Tractors’ to examine the feasibility of automobile industry. In 1942, in response, the Birla family established Hindustan Motors Limited (HM) in Calcutta and the Walchand group set up Premier Auto Limited (PAL) in Bombay in 1944. The first PAL car rolled out in 1946 and the first HM car in 1949.
Meanwhile, in 1902, S F Edge, an Englishman won the 1902 Gordon Bennett Trophy for Britain on a 44 h.p., 4-cylinder Napier and his victory was of immense value to the sales of the British motor industry in India. This helped Montague push sales in a big way. One of the biggest beneficiaries was Napier (often seen as a car equal to the R-R) as well as Wolseley. As these vehicles had all British-manufactured elements – Dunlop tyres, Coventry and Renold steel products and springs, these cars were sold as a proof of British excellence. For example, Wolseley marketed its cars with a patriotic slogan, “Designed and Built throughout in Britain” in its advertisements. Montague hosted films on cars at the Palace Theatre in London where affluent Indians were reportedly invited. In addition, he was married to a well-known film actress, so his parties were spiced up by the presence of her friends from theatre too.