A ruler of India’s princely states would have on an average 11 titles, 5.8 wives, 12.6 children, 2.8 private railway cars, 22.9 tigers, 9.2 elephants, killed 22.9 tigers and 3.4 Rolls-Royces. But if you were a slightly above-average prince, you would perhaps indulge in the same activities as that of Patiala’s enigmatic Maharaja Bhupinder Singh, who despite all his other indulgences, was able to accumulate 44 Rolls Royce cars. Then again, if you’re the 21st century Indian who we assume is reading this article with serious skepticism right now, we request some patience as murkier details await the end of this article.
There were more than 20,000 Rolls Royce made before the start of World War I and an estimated 20% of them made their way over to India. One estimate puts the number of Rolls Royce owned by just 230 Maharajas of India at 900 between 1908 to 1939. Bhupinder Singh is said to have owned the largest fleet of Rolls Royce in India in the 1930s with 44 cars, while some said the title belonged to the Nizam of Hyderabad. The Maharaja of Bharatpur too is said to have owned 200 cars at one point as several experts paint their own estimation with one sole agreement–grandiose was more significant than efficiency.
‘Dude, have you seen my new car? It has diamonds on it.’
Freedom At Midnight mentions that Rolls Royce was the ‘favoured automotive play thing of India’s Princes’. The princes imported every kind of Rolls Royce- from limousines, coupes, station wagons to even trucks with many unique customisations. The first Rolls Royce bought by a native Indian Prince was a ‘Pearl Of The East’, purchased by the Maharaja Of Gwalior in 1908. The Nizam Of Hyderabad, said to have 50 Rolls Royce as per one book, would send a Rolls Royce to receive guests invited over for tea. Naturally, the Rolls would be decked out with a cocktail bar in the back. A grand Silver Ghost, which was sent to him in 1913, with the handbook calling it a ‘semi-state coach,’ a kind of a throne car covered in rich, canary yellow paint with gold mountings, upholstered in gold silk brocade with matching curtains. The use of these vehicles seemed to be ceremonial at best with his fleet barely covering a 1,000 miles at the time of his death in 1967.
Homegrown’s favourite Maharaja Bhupinder Singh too, was famous for having his cars decorated with vast quantities of diamonds and precious stones, adorning even the speedometers, oil gauge and dashboard with the rocks. The servicing of the cars or their periodic overhauls would involve armed guards accompanying the cars while Singh was most famous for causing traffic jams at Strand in 1930s as his fleet of 20 Rolls Royce with five truckloads of cricket gear made their way to the Savoy’s entrance.
Who’s the fairest of them all?
The most exotic Rolls Royce was, however, said to belong to the Maharaja of Bharatpur. The silver-plated convertible was rumoured to have sexually stimulating waves emanating from its silver frame so much so that the Maharaja’s most gracious gesture would be the lending of this car to a fellow prince on the occasion of his wedding. One of his Rolls was done up in a shooting brake for his hunts and one day, in 1921, he would take Edward VIII, the Prince Of Wales and future King Of Britian, and Lord Mountbatten, India’s future viceroy, for a black buck hunt. ‘The car went over wild, open country, smashing through holes and over boulders, heaving and rocking like a boat at sea,’ remarked Mountbatten in his Diary that night.
How Rolls Royce obliged royal whims and started ‘doing Mysores’
The peculiar eccentricities and idiosyncrasies of the Maharajas made the luxury car-maker make special modifications to their vehicles. A widespread preference for many Maharajas was a cabriolet version, where the seats in the rear would be raised to allow their subjects to see them easily and pay homages while some like the Maharaja of Jodhpur got a purdah system installed with thick curtains or purdah glass and blinds to protect the royal ladies from male stares. The passion of hunting tigers amongst the royals meant that the Rolls had to be specially fitted with extra footboards for servants to stand on and high beam lamps to startle the tiger while some even had bells to fool the tiger into thinking that a herd of cattle was on approach.
There were also the peculiar embellishments such as the Maharaja of Jamnagar sending one of his wife’s pink slippers to the company to ensure that his Phantom II was of the exact colour. ‘A 1933 Rolls-Royce 20/30 (Sedanca de Ville) that belonged to Maharani Sethu Parvati Bai of Travancore had a small stool on the floor. On it sat a dwarf who massaged the queen’s legs’ states Murad Ali Baig in his book ‘Rolls Royce and The Indian Princes’. The Maharaja of Darbhanga, a teetotaller himself, ordered a Rolls Royce Phantom in 1927 to serve as the ‘drinking car’ for his wife as the vehicle was loaded with crystal glasses and decanters. The Maharaja Of Mysore would only buy the cars in batches of sevens, with ‘doing a Mysore’ becoming a common parlance in the company for selling seven cars at the same time. Some of the requests were even based on necessity such as that of the Maharaja Of Udaipur, who being a handicap, requested that controls be fitted into his steering wheel so he could drive more easily.
The Rolls punishment
The flipside of this deep love for the luxury car brand is something which is scarcely talked about, partly due to the company’s reluctance to admit to such shameful episodes and also because the amount of stories which circulate, lack veracity.
The episode seems to have been triggered by the Maharaja Of Alwar when he walked into a Mayfair car showroom in the 1920s dressed in shabby, plain clothes. He pointed to a Rolls Royce Phantom II Tourer but the young salesman snubbed him, certain that the Maharaja was just wasting his time. The Maharaja then asked for the manager and said that he would have each of the seven cars he was pointing to on the condition that the salesman who snubbed him escort these cars to India. The proud salesman did so as the cars were lined up on the appointed day in front of the Alwar palace. The prince came out to look at the freshly painted cars with raging engines and with a single nod, he told his assistant to have them used to collect municipal trash.
A version of the story states that Rolls Royce learnt of this event as the news spread over and apologised, but this made no impact on the Alwar Royals. ”We were perhaps the only royal family that was allowed to buy any car except a Rolls-Royce. We have numerous vintage cars but not a single Rolls,” said Maharaja Jeetender Singh of Alwar in 2004.
The tactic seemed to be then emulated by many of the Indian Princes as Bhupinder Singh showed his anger for the company’s refusal to accept his new order for cars by turning his old recycles into garbage trucks while another of his successor is said to have been meted out the same treatment as Maharaja Of Alwar. The Patiala Prince shipped 50 Rolls Royce cars to India and had them collect garbage in a similar manner until representatives of the company came to Patiala to personally apologise. The Maharaja of Bharatpur also threatened to convert his Rolls Royce cars into garbage carriers unless the company promptly sent the mechanics to fix the faults in his cars.
The vintage Rolls Royce now form part of grand displays and races where they are shown off as antiques but many seem to be lost or exported out of the country. A few have even been discovered, only to be broken or remodelled to be used as delivery trucks. Their demise and the erosion of these stories make the world and Indians forget how India’s royals may have ensured the survival of the world’s foremost luxury brand in a loving, albeit bitter patronage.
Words: Devang Pathak