Rallying through life

Sooraj Rajmohan | Updated on January 09, 2018
Pride of place: Rare vintage cars such as Buicks, Austins, Mercedes and BMWs are lined up and tended to lovingly in Ravi Prakash’s garage. Photo: Sampath Kumar GP

Pride of place: Rare vintage cars such as Buicks, Austins, Mercedes and BMWs are lined up and tended to lovingly in Ravi Prakash’s garage. Photo: Sampath Kumar GP   -  The Hindu

Old faithful A 1909 Wolseley finds place in Prakash’s garage

Petrolheads: (From right to left) Ravi Prakash, his daughter Rupali and wife Sabena

Petrolheads: (From right to left) Ravi Prakash, his daughter Rupali and wife Sabena

First wheels: An 1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen, invented by Karl and Berta Benz and the first vehicle to run on gasoline

First wheels: An 1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen, invented by Karl and Berta Benz and the first vehicle to run on gasoline

Ravi Prakash’s collection of cars spans vehicles from manufacturers across the world going back over two centuries

Beyond a little blue gate next to a bus depot in Rajarajeshwari Nagar, located on the outskirts of Bengaluru’s urban sprawl, lies a hidden paradise filled with automotive heritage. A 14-and-a-half acre farm that contains five garages is home to a collection of classic cars, dating all the way back to the 1800s.

This property belongs to Ravi Prakash, a former cardiothoracic surgeon who has turned his lifelong love for cars into a passion project. Prakash, who used to get behind the wheel of his father’s Ambassador at an early age, also owned a 125cc Honda twin cylinder motorcycle by the time he was 14. Around this time, his grandfather bought four-and-half-acres of the property that I currently stand on, which Prakash extended by another 10 acres in the early ’90s.

Inside that little blue gate, the place is relatively untouched by time. A dirt road weaves through the trees with garages dotting it on either side, but our first stop is the doctor’s office, for a little dose of history. In the large reception area stand the oldest members of Prakash’s collection, a wooden-frame bicycle from the 1860s and a high-wheeled penny-farthing from the 1870s. Occupying pride of place next to them is an 1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen, invented by Karl and Berta Benz and the first vehicle to run on gasoline. This particular one is among the 25 from the original production run.


The beginning

Within his large office space, Prakash sheds more light on how it all began. At a little over the age of 16, he joined medical school at St John’s National Academy of Health Sciences in Bengaluru, and two years later, started competing in races and rallies with friends from Mysore.

“I knew this was not something I could continue doing as a doctor, and it so happened that during a trip to Sholavaram to attend a rally in 1979, I saw a classic car that caught my eye, which a friend informed was for sale,” he says, sipping the jasmine-flavoured tea acquired during a recent trip to Sri Lanka.

Prakash met its owner, an Army General, and decided he couldn’t afford the ₹40,000 asking price, but still helped out the family when the General fractured his leg later the same day. That car, a 1937 Sunbeam-Talbot two-litre, which was originally shipped to India from Britain with another Sunbeam intended for Lord Mountbatten, became the first car in Prakash’s collection, willed to him after the General’s death, in 1979.

After his marriage in 1987, this car was often used by his wife Sabena, who runs a nursery on the farm premises, for classic car rallies. Rupali, his daughter, a classic automotive illustrator and petrolhead in her own right, runs a venture named Classic Chase. In other words, Rupali creates illustrated items for automotive clubs and the like, and offers some of the vehicles at the garage for special events. They try to get people interested in restoration through talks at colleges, and through Classic Chase products.

“There are so many mechanical engineering students who take up the course wanting to get their hands dirty, but end up working behind computers at modern automotive facilities. Working with vintage cars gives people the opportunity to work with so many vehicles from different manufacturers and time periods,” she says, as we enter the first garage down the road from the offices.

Dedicated to the larger vehicles in the collection, this one features massive carriages off to one side, with a variety of signal lamps adorning the walls around a pool table tucked away behind a light blue 1909 Wolseley.

The right side of the garage is dominated by Prakash’s motorcycle collection, which include a few BMWs, Harley-Davidsons, Triumphs, Royal Enfields, Nortons, Matchless, Sunbeam and more, but the crowning glory is a Lanchester Straight 8, one of the oldest of the 11 cars that exist, which once belonged to Motilal Nehru. Next to this stands a Mercedes Nurburg, once owned by the Maharaja of Rajkot.


A motley collection

The garages are not organised in any particular order, though within each one, cars find themselves grouped by manufacturer. One is largely taken up by American vehicles, with a line of Fords, comprising a Model A, one of Prakash’s early acquisitions, and a Model T, which came to him in a bunch of gunny sacks. “The car had been in Nagaland, and was then brought by a friend to Bengaluru in the hope of restoring it. But when he never got around to it, he passed it on to me as a project,” Prakash, sourced blueprints for the Model T from a dealer in the US, and took the better part of four years to restore the car.

In yet another garage, with a Mercedes 170V, a Jaguar Mark V and an Austin Healey for company, sits the silver Sunbeam Talbot, shiny and well-preserved. Prakash informs that until the mid ’90s, he sent his cars outside for repair and restoration. “It was in 1996 that a man named Paul D’Souza entered my life, and he was a walking encylopaedia on cars. He helped put most of my collection back into shape and since he arrived, we’ve had a restoration centre on the farm where we fix up the cars ourselves.”

While D’Souza passed away a few years ago, two of his apprentices, aided by a team of mechanics, help keep the inhabitants of the garages in top shape. As we pass by one, where Rupali checks on the polishing work that is underway on a 1956 Triumph TR3, the experts come over to brief her and her father on the status of the projects they are on. Here, behind a bathtub that is also undergoing some restoration, sits one of the crown jewels of the collection, a Series 1 flat floor 3.8-litre Jaguar E-Type, among the most instantly recognisable machines in the collection. Familiar logos and shapes pop up wherever the eye goes, from the galloping horse on the front of a dusty Mustang to the the winged badge on an old red Mini, as they move along the process of getting fully restored.

With rain clouds gathering and a drizzle for company, we quickly go through the other garages, taking in the flowing, bulbous lines of big Chryslers and Buicks, the low-slung Triumphs and Austins, and come across a few Mercedes-es that found their way from the Rashtrapati Bhavan, after serving in R Venkataraman and KR Narayanan’s retinue. The long, black bulletproof bodies provide an imposing sight even in a full garage. A neighbouring structure sees a red Mercedes 320 with two windscreens and a Buick that once belonged to one of India’s many royal families, with the latter exuding flamboyance, complete with a silver snake horn lunging out from behind the front wheel.

Prakash says that while all his cars are dear to him and have their own stories to tell, the historically noteworthy ones are a 1940 Buick that belonged to JRD Tata, CK Birla’s Mercedes 560, and a Studebaker Commander that belonged to Kannada poet and novelist Kuvempu.


Preserving history

Prakash’s next big venture is to build an automotive museum, for which he has earmarked a 16-and-a-half acre property down the road from the farm the family lives on. The complex, which will also house an auto mall, commercial space and a hotel, is in the planning and permission phase, but he hopes to have it ready and thrown open to public by 2020. The museum will also see some of his collection from overseas — part of which is in the UK under the care of his other daughter Shefali — return to India. The family is also actively trying to get more people interested in and educated about automotive heritage, including the government.

For Prakash, the upcoming museum will be the culmination of nearly 40 years invested in a passion. With the stories these legends on wheels have to tell between them from the many time periods they represent, it promises to be a destination to warm any petrolhead’s heart. And we can’t wait.

Published on August 23, 2017

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