When Charles Stewart Rolls, met Frederick Henry Royce at new Midland Hotel in Manchester in May 1904, they formed a company called Rolls-Royce Ltd. and created one of the great marques of global motoring. And curiously enough, buyers in India fell completely in love with the company’s cars, so much so that a major percentage of its products was sold here.
The company had its own share of myths and Calcutta was the city where their best products could be seen. In an earlier issue, we had looked into the crucial role played by RR cars for the city’s peace keeping force under the aegis of Calcutta Presidency Battalion Auxilliary Force. In this issue we will look into the truths and myths that surround the brand.
Jewels for Maharajas
The sales team of RR had their first major success when eight cars were ordered for the use of King George V and Queen Mary who were attending the Delhi Durbar in 1911. Since almost all the rulers of princely states, landowners, major businessmen and tycoons of the country were invited to the Durbar, the brand got a major boost as the rulers were keen to ape the British royalty.
Earlier, a RR Silver Ghost model had been driven around the country and paid a visit to the Maharajas in their kingdoms to prove that the car was suitable for city use as well in rural areas. This trial car – nicknamed Jewel of the East – was picked up by the haughty Maharaja of Gwalior although it was a used, second hand vehicle!
Other landowners, particularly, the ruling family of Coochbehar had been promoting the use of cars among fellow landowners for a long time, but they had never promoted a single brand. Delhi Durbar did the trick for RR and it got such a head start that no other company could ever catch up. RR cars became the new jewels of the rich!
Buyers in our city were so enthusiastic about the models that several stories were woven around the RR name and as any marketing guru, will tell you, these helped the growth of the RR myth. For example, it was said that a major zamindar who loved driving his Rolls (many were chauffeur driven, I guess) changed over to a noisier car while touring his estate because the RR was too silent. His ryots never heard him coming and therefore never stopped by the roadside to pay the customary obeisance when he passed by; with the noisier car, they knew he was coming and paid their respect in the appropriate manner.
Others – like the ruling family of Darbhanga, Santosh, Coochbehar, Mysore, Bharatpur and Hyderabad, and some key business tycoons – reportedly bought two or three or seven cars at a time. RR salesmen reportedly came to describe a bulk sale of seven cars as ‘doing a Mysore’, or three cars as ‘doing a Bharatpur’, and so on.
There existed a robust trade in second hand RR cars as well, because most models were very well built and survived the Indian weather and driving conditions well. The bodywork needed work as they had a separate chassis, decaying sedan coachwork gave way to coupés or carriages depending upon the preference of the owners.
But not all buyers were happy with RR. Pradumnya Nath Tagore of Calcutta reportedly visited the RR showroom at 10 Conduit Street, London in a dhoti and was not shown enough courtesy. He bought several Silver Ghost models that were ready for delivery in the showroom (as bare chassis, in keeping with RR practice) and shipped them back to Calcutta for use as garbage vans!
The RR company owned showroom was opened at Park Street in 1921, but several garages were selling, servicing and maintaining RR cars and building bodies since the initial days. These included French Motor Cars, Dykes & Co. and Steuart & Co. and the workforce included top European managers, engineers and Indian workers.
Teams from RR company often came to inspect these works. On one such visit, they reportedly saw a Bengali mechanic working in a dhoti and not in the company uniform, and so they cancelled the dealership licence. However, customers continued to send cars there because the Bengali mechanic was far more skilled and had better understanding of the local conditions than his European superiors.
The cheaper RR models like the 20 hp or 20/25 were quite underpowered and yet fitted with stately, heavy bodies for large families. Mechanics reportedly saved the owners from embarrassment while being overtaken on roads by American or other European cars by gently tweaking their mechanicals. The RR Phantom III model with its 12 cylinder engine sadly had several design defects. These were routinely re-engineered and reworked in our city and kept roadworthy just because of the fantastic skills of local mechanics.
RR continued to dominate the Indian market till Independence. Nearly 900 cars were sold in India and sadly, many were smuggled out after 1947. But the love and respect enjoyed by the brand continues today with vintage RR prices in India reportedly being the highest in the world.