A Case For The Contessa

Images: Deepanjan Sarkar

The car looks very much like what the name suggests: a Classic. The original classic, General Motors’ English marque Vauxhall’s fifth generation Victor, the one internally codenamed FE, was discontinued in the UK in the year 1978. The Hindustan Contessa was born from the remnants of the Vauxhall Victor FE, the former made from the toolings shipped out by GM to HM’s Uttarpara factory. Incidentally, HM borrowed the Contessa name from the Japanese Hino Contessa, which had been manufactured by the Japanese truck maker from 1961 to 1969.

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With long-hood-short-deck looks, the Hindustan Contessa was India's answer to the American muscle cars

It was in the year 1984 that the Hindustan Contessa was unveiled by HM, following the licence HM received from the government for a new model. Production began in 1985, with as many as 1,826 delivered that year. At the beginning, the Contessa was made available with the B-Series engine as used in the Ambassador, good for just 50bhp from the 1.5-litre unit, making the car markedly underpowered, with top speed a bare 125 km/h.

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Proud owner Shubhajit Kumar poses with his beautifully restored Contessa

Initially, the Hindustan Contessa was received very well as it was modern, big, and handsome, with a large and luxurious interior. The long hood short deck look gave it the proportions of one of those legendary American muscle cars, although it just had very little muscle power.

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As can be seen from the badging, Kumar's Contessa is a 1.8-litre GL version

But that shortcoming was soon rectified, with HM tying up with Japanese carmaker Isuzu, for the supply and technical collaboration of their 1.8-litre engine, which developed a decent 88bhp. With the engine mated to a five-speed gearbox, the Contessa was now capable of a top speed of 165 km/h.

With a good turn of speed and a supremely comfortable ride, thanks to deep armchair-style bucket seats, the Hindustan Contessa became the choice of netas and abhinetas. During the 1990s, movies like Baazi, Kismat, Nazar Ke Samne and several others had the Contessa in the centre of all the action.

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Excellent stance gives the Contessa a very elegant look

Senior government officials also opted for the Contessa, and the car was seen as the more prudent upmarket alternative to the relatively flashy Standard 2000. Sales averaged between two and five thousand cars over the years, with 1988 as the best when HM sold 4,982 Contessas that year.

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Designed by American designer Wayne Cherry, the Vauxhall Victor Fe was a very successful model

Over the years, the features of the Contessa were upgraded and updated, as the car received power steering, power windows, a wraparound fibreglass bumper, as well as a twin pair of headlamps, which replaced the single pair of rectangular lamps. Yet the overall shape and form remained the same. As the saying goes, ‘If it ain't broke, don't fix it’, and thus Hindustan Motors did exactly that.

Into the 1990s, HM introduced the 2-litre Isuzu 4FC1 diesel engine as an alternative to the 1.8 petrol, and this version proved to be an instant success, as more people opted for the diesel, given the lower running costs. Later, the company also introduced a turbocharged version of the relatively underpowered normally aspirated diesel.

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With more than enough legroom, the Contessa is a very comfortable five-seater

Maruti, in the meantime, had launched the Esteem, which started taking away sales from the Contessa over the following years. By 2002, Hindustan Motors had another flagship in the form of the Mitsubishi Lancer, and with sales of the Contessa dropping off, it ended production of the car. Over the years the quarter lakh Contessas made started disappearing from the Indian roads due to the non-availability of parts and the difficulty in maintaining them.

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Powering Shubhajit's Contessa is the 1.8-litre petrol unit which used to be made under licence from Isuzu

But once again, it’s the return of the reign of this queen, as enthusiasts have begun appreciating the elegance and the importance of the Hindustan Contessa in the history of the automobile in India. It’s a car that has the appeal of an American pony car but at a very accessible price, and so many of the young have been taking to the Contessa. It is also a car that lends itself to be customised, which is what the youth like to do.

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Shubhajit opted to change the headlamps to a pair of twins

Among the many recent converts to the Contessa is Kolkata-based enthusiast Shubhajit Kumar. He has several historic vehicles in his collection but the latest is a Contessa Classic, from 1990, with the 1.8-litre petrol engine. Shubhajit has always been intrigued by sports and muscle cars and, therefore, has been competing in various national and international car rallies, where his steed has been a Maruti Gypsy. Which was also the reason why he has a fascination for modifying cars.

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Shubhajit Kumar and his Contessa

For his Contessa Classic, Kumar did not modify the car, but restored it beautifully, within a time span of 18 months, after finding the car in a near-scrap condition. After his Contessa had been lying dead for some 20 years, Shubhajit Kumar decided to give the car all the love to bring it back to life. Choosing to have the car painted in a metallic bronze shade, the wheels have been painted a shiny silver, for the aluminium alloy effect on the standard steel rims. The rectangular headlamps have been changed to a pair of twins, as fitted to the Contessa later. With a few subtle modifications, although keeping the car mostly as per stock trim, Shubhajit Kumar believes that his Contessa is even better than the original, as he continues to keep working on it.

Ambreen Hossain

Ambreen Hossain

My love for automobile is something which runs in my blood especially for the vintage ones. I like to portray it through my words and verse. Hope you enjoyed the read!


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