A Special Chevy And Its Indian Heritage
Images: Donovan Woodhouse for The Titus Museum, Karl Bhote & the Sewak family album
The Diljeet Titus Collection in Delhi is home to numerous flamboyant vintage and classic cars ranging from a 1929 Bugatti to various Cadillacs and Rolls-Royces to ultra-rare unicorns such as the 1933 Minerva (one of the eleven surviving in the world) and the 1930 Stutz Series M (one of the three in India). That begs the question of why I have chosen a run-of-the-mill 1951 Chevrolet Styleline Deluxe as the subject of this piece. Let me explain why this Chevy is special.
But first, a brief history lesson.
General Motors’ tryst with India dates back to December 1928 when it opened its plant at Sewrie in Bombay’s industrial belt. Chevrolet, known for its robustness and work-horse reputation, was a popular choice amongst Indian families for decades as the most preferred American car manufacturer. Unsurprisingly, the initial models assembled at GM’s Indian plant were Chevrolet cars and trucks, with a few of the sister brands later. GM either assembled or sold all its brands including Pontiac, Oakland, Oldsmobile, Buick, LaSalle, Cadillac, and Vauxhall.
Post World War II, Chevrolet made its mark in India with the Fleetmaster, produced from 1946 to 1948. Thanks to its runaway success, GM’s Sales and Service distribution was incentivised to open outlets nationwide, including in remote smaller towns.
In 1949, the Fleetmaster was phased out to make way for the Styleline. Featuring a distinctive pontoon styling with sleeker lines, the Styline assembled in India was only available in the Deluxe sedan variant with its fair share of chrome. Though a mass-market car in general, I am a fan of its jet-inspired hood ornament and wide rear fenders bulging out, giving it a handsome stance. The engine was the tried and tested carburetted 216 cubic inch (3.5 litre) overhead valve in-line six, carried over from the 1941-42 model year cars, which was mated to a 3-speed column shifter.
And yes, the cars assembled at the Bombay plant were in right-hand drive.
Regular model updates were introduced in sync with the home market cars, except for the dashboard, which remained unchanged till its final model year in 1952. Rumour has it that it beat the sales of arch-rivals Ford with their Custom and the Chrysler Corp with their Dodge, Plymouth, and DeSoto models.
What makes this particular example special is the story behind it. The car is a tribute to the 1951 Chevrolet Styline Deluxe owned by keen motorist Perry Noel Sewak. He bought it from a used car dealer in Bombay in 1953, who told him that Bollywood superstar Dev Anand once owned the car. Registered as BMU 3904 (Bombay State), the car was finished in Trophy Blue with grey interiors, white wall tires, and fender skirts. The Sewak family enjoyed BMU 3904 for eight years before replacing it with a brand-new Fiat 1100.
The Chevy in question is almost identical to BMU 3904, wearing the same BMU series number plate, registered as BMU 2959. The cars were likely assembled at the Bombay plant just a few months apart!
BMU 2959 was assembled in 1951 and delivered new in February 1952 by Bombay Garage. The original owners were the Khosla family, well-known industrialists at the time. Poona-based collector Zaheer Vakil purchased it in the late 1990s and restored the car to a high standard. The car remained with Vakil for 30 years before being sold to Mumbai-based collector Amir Ali Jetha in September 2017, who used it for cross-country touring. Finally, in August 2019, Amir Ali Jetha decided to part with the car, which is how it ended up in the Titus Collection.
Upon acquisition, BMU 2959 was immediately restored to the exact specification as the BMU 3904 in Trophy Blue (its earlier specification was Enamel Blue with a white top) with grey upholstery and correct Argent Silver pinstripes on the wheels. It underwent a complete mechanical overhaul with correct original parts including an engine rebuild.
My first rendezvous with BMU 2959 was at the 10th Edition of the 21 Gun Salute Concours d’Elegance at the Lakshmi Vilas Palace in Baroda, where it was adjudged as Runners-Up in the Indian Heritage category. Mr. Titus was kind enough to let me drive it around the magnificent Palace, which turned out to be an amazing experience. Restored to the Concours level, the mechanical simplicity, clubbed with its practicality, is what stood out for me. The inline-six engine from the 1940s was nothing to write home about, but I found the column-mounted shifter smooth, easy to navigate and satisfyingly mechanical. Its build quality is a homage to its reliability and dependability, which made it the perfect choice for family road trips back in the day.
When one thinks of Chevrolet as a brand, the Corvette or the Camaro is the first thing that comes to mind, and maybe rightly so. But right-hand drive, India-assembled Chevys, which significantly influenced Indian mobility and economy, deserve more acknowledgment and respect. BMU 2959 is a testament to that.
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