Cars have always held him under their spell. Growing up while witnessing his father, the late Suresh Kumar, build customised cars and Kinny Lall racing them at the Barrackpore and Alipore Mint Tracks, he was struck by speed fever at an early age. The Chairman of Calcutta Motor Sports Club, Ravi Kumar’s love for cars and motor sports is apparent in his chat with us. One can gauge his attachment tone of his most prized possessions – the Q’marri – from his words virtually bordering on nothing other than poetry
Let’s begin with your favourite cars. Which is the one you cherished most?
As far as my early recollection goes, the custom made cars in my father’s workshop were my all-time favourites. These cars, often mere machines, underwent a sort of metamorphosis in the magical hands of the skilled workers. The surfaces were ripple free, smooth curves and straight lines – all pointed to the marvelous skills of an artisan. The paintwork gleamed and the chrome shone brightly and when you unconsciously broke into a smile you could catch its reflection on the gleaming surface.
I remember the cream, red and silver streamliner gliding through the wind on a sunny day or starry night. It no longer resembled the Studebaker it once was, retaining only the chassis, suspension and drive train; however, it was eventually endowed with a Cadillac V-8 and Jaguar close-ratio gearbox. I loved the classy cruiser for its retracting roof, rakish fifties tailfins, silky ride and ability to draw admiring looks wherever it went. Everyone we knew wanted to go for a drive and missing out on one would leave me disconsolate for days thereafter.
Did you ever grow out of love for that car?
You know I still see it in the mind’s eye. I smell the leather and petrol and feel the city sweeping by. I hear the exhaust rumbling reassuringly – soft and deep, feel the wind in my hair, eyes and face and realise why it made us all feel so good. I was considered too young to go to the garage where the cars were being crafted and hence the arrival of a new customised design at home was always a surprise to me. Yet I remained faithful to the classic convertible throughout, even when we became owners (much against my mother’s wishes, I must admit) of a 1934 Rolls Royce with H J Mulliner coachwork. That is until “She” arrived, and then suddenly I wasn’t so sure anymore.
Hmm…Tell me about the ‘new arrival’?
Inspired by the Aston Martin DBIII, her finery was a fastback with flowing lines in fiberglass and painted Firecracker Red all over. Someone gave me a ride that made me forget forever who did this favour. My head spun with the acceleration, the siren song of the engine, the whiplash exhaust and the super-stiff suspension. I’d never seen anything like it in my life. What really bowled me over completely was her perfume, the unforgettable aroma of Castrol R that followed her everywhere. Having spent the night dreaming of her, I would wake up at dawn to go and look at her, always wishing I was old enough to take her out. Few believed us when we told them she had started life as a humble Herald. My mother christened her “Q’marri”.
Tell us about your association with Kinny Lall?
Diwan Rahul Lall, better known to everyone as Kinny was a family friend. He raced Formula 2 and Formula 3 cars in Europe and England where the racing season ended in October and resumed in April. This break coincided perfectly with the racing season in Calcutta (October to May), not to mention our desire to field a competitive car and driver combination in the Calcutta races. Though the Q’marri salon car built by us was nowhere near the technology of Formula Car racing, Kinny, forever the good sport, agreed to drive.
When did your family decide to build the Q’marri sports car?
After tasting success at the various races that our team participated in with the Q’marri salon, Kinny convinced my father to build the country’s first Formula India. Finally, the dream was transformed into reality in 1969 when my father built the Q’marri sports car.
When and where was this Q’marri sports car raced for the first time?
It 1971, Kinny raced this Q’marri in Sholavaram. It led the Grand Prix for many laps, ahead of Dr. C C Rossi’s Ferrari 275 GTB C. Then the brakes (Ambassador!) failed and Kinny had to stop. It was her first outing. Thereafter, she was raced several times from 1974 onwards (on many occasion by yours truly) in Calcutta at CMSC’s Barrackpore Track. Even though it was always flagged off last in the handicap races, it beat a Porsche 911, a Triumph TR3, a Mercedes, a Peugeot 504, a Fiat 124 and many, many other imported cars.
Share with us your experience of watching Kinny driving the Q’marri?
Watching Kinny and the Q’marri win at Barrackpore and Alipore was always thrilling, especially when time handicaps meant he started off last. Competition in the saloon car class came from Peter Adams’ Fiat and Mackertich’s hot rod Herald and Choudhuri’s Ambassador. There were others too, but I remember these three were the real competition and the racing was always fast and frantic. Kinny’s natural flair amazed us all and spiced up the action on the track. Off it, his charm and savoir faire added immeasurably to the ambience that was Barrackpore in the ‘60s.
Apart from Kinny and the Q’marri, who were your other favourites from those times?
My other favourites were Mike Satow’s “Cheetah” and Dicky Richards’ “Bijou”, both redoubtable race cars and drivers. The Cheetah was India’s first indigenous racing car, beautiful and with sumptuous sports car lines, her deep growl reinforcing the impression that she was a fleet-footed feline. I remember Mike Satow as tall, quintessentially British, the big boss at ICI and sparing no effort to bring out the animal in his car. Dicky Richards, a local lad who flew Dakotas for a living, really went out of his way to make his jewel sparkle and glow. His Bijou was a gem of an open-wheeler, its Fiat engine and gearbox more than a match for any and all comers. Their duels were legendary; the crowds constantly cried out for more.
There were other specials too; most notable among them were Ferozeshah’s innovative machines and those designed by the David brothers, all state-of-art then – multiple carburettors, racing camshafts, big brakes, ported heads, tuned exhausts, independent suspensions, low-slung and light – I loved them. Whenever Kinny won, it helped us to forget that racing also meant disappointments, breakdowns, lost races and heartache too. Winning also brought fame (with a capital F), a trophy, and the additional fillip of a kiss from the ever-so-lovely ladies who gave away the prizes. I soaked it all up like a sponge. It was a different world altogether. Those were the golden days of racing in Calcutta.
Is it true that the Q’marri sports car has been modified several times since it was first built?
That is correct. What you see today is the sixth avatar of the Q’marri sports car and the man behind the latest avatar is none other than my brother Rishi Kumar who has re-modified the car.
As the Chairman of the Calcutta Motor Sports Club (CMSC), what are your future plans?
CMSC has a track record of pre-eminence and providing leadership in motor sport in India. We have several “Firsts” to our credit – the First Grand Prix in India (1953), the First indigenous racing car in India – the “Cheetah” (1962), the First Formula India car in the country – the “Q’marri” (1969), India’s First Formula 2 and Formula 3 driver – Diwan Rahul “Kinny” Lall, India’s First professional motor racing team “Q’marri Racing” and several others. A club for the ages. We are committed to the objective of promoting motor sport in India and contributing towards its betterment in every way possible.