Automotive Haute Couture: The Mysore Maharaja Delahaye That Elton John Owned—Part 1

Images: Courtesy the late Claude Figoni, Joseph Mingolla II & Jean-Paul Tissot

It was way back in 2008 when I was visiting my good friend Sunil Bajaj in Los Angeles that we decided to drop by at one of the world's most important car museums, the Petersen Automotive Museum. The museum’s curator Leslie Kendall was only too happy to host us and show us around, as well as allow us full access to all the cars on display, as well as some which were not (on display).

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Original B&W image of the Delahaye 175, as designed and coachbuilt by Figoni et Falaschi for the 1949 Paris Motor Show, and provided to the writer by the late Claude Figoni

Petersen, incidentally, is an independent non-profit organization specializing in the education and history of the automobile. A must-see if you are a car freak and you are visiting Los Angeles, Petersen Automotive Museum showcases over 150 rare historic vehicles in a recently constructed purpose-built high-tech museum.

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Although the design was almost like that of a ponton, the rear tapered down in a pre-war 'goutte d'eau', or teardrop, style

Thematic exhibitions that bring together Hollywood cars, or hot rods, or strange and weird cars makes the Petersen a very interesting museum. And then there are the cars of the stars that most starry-eyed visitors find fascinating.

Amongst them there used to be a very flamboyant bright orange-red Delahaye 175 that used to belong to the most flamboyant of pop stars ever, Elton John. In fact, amongst classic car enthusiasts this Delahaye has always been referred to as the Elton John Delahaye.

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The interior was striking in its elaborate design of a very symmetrical dashboard and a pair of very wide seats

But Elton John was the owner mid-way through the car’s life—from 1980 to about 1983 only. The first owner was Jayachamaraja Wodeyar Bahadur, the Maharaja of Mysore. One of the few Indian princes who was a genuine aficionado, this was perhaps the most extravagant of all the exotic machineries he owned.

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A lavishly luxurious feature was the in-built cocktail cabinet on the right shoulder of the rear seat, as well as a pair of vanity boxes aft of the seat backrest

This Delahaye 175 wasn’t one of the cars he commissioned—given that the maharaja was famous for doing a Mysore or ordering six of the same models every now and then—but was the star of the 1949 edition of the Paris Motor Show, a car that must have attracted him so much that he acquired it promptly after the salon was over.

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The Delahaye 175 for the 1947 Paris Motor Show was innovative for its use of a Plexiglass roof section. The Mysore Delahaye featured a more practical sunroof instead.

The Delahaye 175 was a development of the 135 in the post-war context (for more on the Delahaye 135, read:

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The Delahaye in India with a Mysore registration plate

With the straight-six engine 135 providing the mainstay of the Delahaye range in the 1930s, the French carmaker got rather ambitious with the V12-engined 165 (derived from the competition versions of the V12, the 145 and the 155), of which just five were made (as per Delahaye historian Jean-Paul Tissot) before WWII interrupted car production.

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An image of the car from above, at the docks just after it landed in the US

During the war years Delahaye produced trucks for military use. After the end of war, Delahaye went back into automobile production, making cars largely based on their pre-war models, specifically the 135. As the V12 was seen as very complex and expensive to make, Delahaye decided to complement the 135 with a more prestigious car that would be powered by a bigger inline six of 4.5 litres, a somewhat similar displacement to the ill-fated 165’s V12.

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The Delahaye seems to have been repainted a silver grey by the time Joseph Mingolla had acquired the car from Ramesh Thakker

With power outputs of either 120 or 140bhp (going up to 160 in 1950), this new 4455cc seven-bearing straight-six sent its power through a Cotal pre-selector four-speed gearbox to the rear wheels. With de Dion rear suspension, Dubbonet front suspension, Lockheed brakes, and novelties such as a radio and heater as standard, the Delahaye 175 was a complicated (and finicky) piece of high technology.

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The bodywork although was very complete and in a fairly good state

A shorter wheelbase version, the 175 S, was developed for competition and one such car was entered for the 1951 Monte Carlo Rally, which it won in the hands of drivers Jean Trevoux and Roger Crovetto. Longer wheelbase derivatives of the 175 (which had a wheelbase of 2.95 metres, identical to the 135) were named 178 and 180. Maximum speed of the 175 was 145 km/h for the standard version; with the 160bhp version, V-max was a more impressive 160 km/h.

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Even the trims including the one on the rocker panel was intact

The 175 was unveiled at the 1947 Paris Motor Show, and to showcase the all-new car, Delahaye commissioned France’s most prominent coachbuilder Figoni et Falaschi, to come up with one of their most flamboyant and inimitable designs.

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A few minor dents on the fenders

The show car took pride of place at the Delahaye stand, placed as it was on one of the very first rotating turntables at a motor show. Chassis # 815001 featured a flowing coupe body style in which the front fender flowed down and merged into the rear wheel spats, the rear sloping down to a wedge. With a removable transparent Plexiglas top over the front half of the greenhouse, the car was easily one of the most distinctive at the show. The interior was done up in Hermes leather.

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The rear though was extensively dented

Two years later, for the 1949 version of the Paris Salon, Figoni et Falaschi unveiled a very similar Delahaye 175 coupe. Chassis # 815036 was almost identical to the ‘47 Paris Show car, but instead of the transparent Plexiglas, it was a regular hardtop coupe with a more practical removable sunroof.

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Interesting to note that the 175 was the first Delahaye model to have left-hand drive, as the car had been developed targeting the American market. Until then, all Delahayes had been right-hand drive 

Painted a light metallic blue that gave the effect of diamond powder lacquering, it was undoubtedly a very striking car. With several enthusiasts interested in the car, it was the Maharaja of Mysore who managed to outbid the others.

For the rest of the story, please tune in tomorrow!

Gautam Sen

Serial concours judge, author, founder-editor of several Indian auto mags, as well as co-conspirator with design greats Marcello Gandini, Tom Tjaarda, and Gérard Godfroy on a few vehicle projects


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