Rolls-Royce & Calcutta

Pradeep Gooptu

A silently purring engine, unbelievable build quality promising decades of trouble free motoring and magnificent bodywork – by all standards this was the unbeatable combination that Rolls-Royce cars promised. In addition, ownership of the car bestowed social prestige beyond measure. It really did not matter that RR cars did not offer the latest in technology or that they were expensive to buy. Their unmatched reliability and regal yet silent presence were enough; if you owned a RR, you had arrived.

Indian buyers
There is thankfully quite a bit of information about who bought RR cars to Calcutta. Overall, around 900 cars built by RR before 1939 made their way to this country, which was around a quarter of the company’s total production. The list of buyers in Calcutta for obvious reasons featured quite a few princely states. The ruling families of Cooch Behar and Dighapatia (Natore, now in Bangladesh) deserve special mention. Cooch Behar was a pioneer in development of motoring in the country and not only helped automobile companies bring in their models and hold demonstrations but also provided recommendations to other ruling states in the country. Besides the famous RR Silver Ghost, the family later bought smaller RR cars as well. In any case, it possessed a huge fleet of cars.

The Natore family was famous for buying fine cars and possibly, the first RR sold in Calcutta was bought by the family around 1910. This was at a time when the RR dealership was located in Bombay. Sale of RR cars really took off after the Delhi Durbar of 1911 at which the Emperor of British Empire rode a Rolls and gave that car unique prestige. The family of Sir R N Mukherjee and Martin Burn co-owner Sir Leslie Martin were equally well known for their RR cars, some of which they had bought in England for touring before shipping them back here.

The famous ruling family of Darbhanga (in Bihar) was another well known buyer of Rolls models. Several cars are still seen at their garages in Bihar but this may be a rumour. This family was also one of the major philanthropist aiding in the setting up of Calcutta University. One of the Darbhanga cars was at Walfords Garage in Park Street and on the market till 1960s, with the legendary Walfords manager M C David still trying to sell it.

The Tagore family of Pathuriaghata was another prominent buyer. In fact, the famous incident of a buyer ordering RR cars as garbage vans is attributed to this family by most experts.

Till the 1950s, the second hand car market flourished. We find advertisements for sale of different models in newspapers of the day with prices ranging from Rs18,000 to Rs 24,000. Old Rolls were bought by wealthy merchants or smaller princely states of Bihar and Orissa, after the cars had been refurbished by well known local garages like French or Steuart.

Rolls bodies were built by famous London coachbuilders like Mulliner, Park Ward, James Young or Gurney but were occasionally rebuilt according to original or new design by the Calcutta garages mentioned earlier. In an amusing episode, a RR car was put on the market with bodywork by an unknown Indian company with a very traditional name (say Das & Ali). It was later discovered that the bodywork had been rebuilt by a famous palanquin and horse coach maker! It appears that several Rolls were sold from Calcutta to buyers from as far away as Lahore and Karachi to the west and Jammu and Jaipur to the north. Some of these cars were kept in Calcutta garages for use by their owners whenever they visited the city.

A different class of buyers
The Viceroy and later the Governor of Bengal had several Rolls in Raj Bhavan garages which were later sold off. One of the cars is still in Calcutta, owned by a famous business family; the car had been sent from Calcutta to Delhi and then shipped back and sold. One was reportedly destroyed in fire or by vandals.

Similarly, the army commanders in the Calcutta/Barrackpore region also bought several RR cars from local dealers in keeping with their eminent status in society. The heads of the British companies made up the group of foreign buyers who flaunted Rolls on city streets.

Prominent business families like the Colahs or Galstaun and the Gubbays also bought Rolls according to the sales record. Jews from Aleppo/ Baghdad had settled in Calcutta for generations and besides their huge contribution to the development of western education and culture in the city, they were major players in the city’s real estate and jewellery sectors. They owned race horses and made Calcutta Turf Club one of the most important in the country. The Calcutta races attracted riders and polo players from all over the world-thanks to them.

The most significant buyer among them was Sir David Ezra whose ‘top hat limousine’ bodied Silver Ghost was stored till recently at a school-cum-hospital complex on Park Street. This car has since then vanished.

Information about Rolls-Royce cars sold in the city provides us with a unique view of the glamorous world of motoring in Calcutta. Their use by civilian and government owners was supplemented by the presence of the RR armoured car battalion in the city.

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