Farman: The French Connection With A British Flavour That An Indian Maharaj Acquired—Part 2

Images: Maguette Soukouna

Selling from the brothers’ palatial showroom at the Champs-Élysées, Farman became the car to have for those who knew their automobile, and soon the list of a very exclusive clientele included the likes of cinema’s first woman star Pearl White, and royalties such as the Shah of Persia and the Sultan of Morocco.

Farman_Aviation_A6 B_01
Design expert Robert Cumberford believes that this Farman A6 B is a milestone design from before WWII

Plus, a certain person of royal blood from India too: Maharaj Man Singhji Dowlat Singhji, the brother of the maharaja, His Highness Himat Singhji Dowlat Singhji of Idar, a 15-gun salute state from Gujarat. Now, why the maharaja’s brother ordered a Farman, and not a standard issue Rolls-Royce, or even a Hispano-Suiza, is not very clear. But his son, Maharaj Umeg Singhji explained to this author that his father was a true-blue enthusiast, who not only had a passion for exciting cars, but also had an abiding interest in aviation, as did his brother, the Maharaja.

Farman_Aviation_A6 B_02
Although Idar 1 is on the registration plaque of this restored car, it is doubtful whether it would have been a 1

The Maharaja was a founder member of the Bombay Flying Club and his love of flying and speed must have reflected in their choice of cars. As they were into aviation, obviously they knew of the name Farman, and were, in all likelihood, a fan of the marque. Their knowledge and enthusiasm could be borne out by the fact that, in addition to the Farman, they had, over time, a Bugatti, a Delage, an Auburn Speedster and even a Duesenberg.

Moreover, the Maharaj didn’t just order a conventional body—a tourer or a closed body saloon, as did most Maharajas—instead, he ordered a very unusual four-door torpedo body style with a tapering boattail. Well-known car designer and journalist Robert Cumberford has this to say of the Idar Farman: “The boat-tail shape is unusual on a car with four seats; usually boat-tail speedsters were two-seaters. The lines of this A6 B are graceful and rather advanced for 1919.” Points out Cumberford: “There is no hiding the fact that the car is tall and looks heavy, but the flowing lines of the wings and the straight waistline are to its advantage, giving it the appearance of a car made ten years later.”

One of the most unusual aspects of the Idar Farman was the colour combination: the very distinctive silver body with all underpinnings in a matt rust red. The fact that the car’s body colour was silver is borne out by Umeg Singhji, who clearly remembers the car. Of course, metallic silver wasn’t possible in those days, and the silver finish was achieved, in all likelihood, by retaining the unpainted aluminium sheet metal in a brushed or machine-turned alloy finish. And that may have given it a fish scale look, which perhaps gave rise to the legend that the Idar car’s silver finish was achieved by a paint that used grounded fish scales!

Period photographs also showed that the car had a two-tone look. But what was the colour of the underbody is something that Umeg Singhji couldn’t quite remember. Nevertheless when restoring the car in recent times, scraping the underbody showed a red shade, so the restorer decided upon that.

Farman_Aviation_A6 B_03
The Farman starring at the Bonhams auction at Retromobile, Paris, in 2008, where it did not sell

Sometime during the 1930s the Farman was gifted to the Maharaj’s brother-in-law, Maharaja Ganesh Pal, the ruler of Karauli, in Rajasthan. From there it was taken by the Maharaja of Bharatpur sometime in the early 1960s for display and the car was never returned; and in lieu of the same, Rs20,000 was paid to the Maharaja of Karauli. Subsequently this car, along with several Bharatpur cars, was acquired by Rolls-Royce authority John Fasal. The cars were then brought to Bombay, where they remained in storage for some years—as the ban on the export of cars had come into being. Eventually the Farman was smuggled out of India sometime in the late 1980s, early 1990s. At that point of time the Farman’s odometer reading was barely 17,400km!

Out of India, the car was acquired by noted collector Wolfgang Gawor, who had the car extensively restored, at which time it got its current metallic silver finish along with the rust red matt underbody. With the restoration complete, the car was featured in several European classic car magazines. The car remained in Gawor’s custody until his death and was purchased by another collector in 2004.

Farman_Aviation_A6 B_04
At Retromobile in 2008

At the 2008 edition of Paris’ Rétromobile, at the Bonhams stand, the Farman was there, up for auction—the star amongst 70, very rare and exotic machinery, waiting for the auctioneer’s hammer. Yet the bidding didn’t quite make the reserve (of €500,000). But a week or two after the end of Rétromobile the car was bought for an undisclosed sum, and the Farman has a new home now.

The tale of Farman, the carmaker, was less fortuitous. By 1931 with The Great Depression, Farman’s car making division, like so many others, had gone the way of the dinosaur. Their airplane factory continued until 1956, but it had to be nationalized by the French government in 1936. Henri returned to his first love—painting—and was awarded a Legion d'Honneur in 1955. He died, a naturalised French citizen, at his home in Paris in 1958.

Farman_Aviation_A6 B_05
The Farman mascot was a beautifully sculpted ‘Icarus’ by artist and sculptor Georges Colin (1876–1917) 

In all of its dozen years of existence, barely 120 Farmans seem to have been made—averaging merely ten per year! And only four are known to have survived, of which two are at the Musée de l'Automobile - Collection Schlumpf, at Mulhouse, in France. Another is also in a museum, and this one—the most beautiful of the four survivors—is the only one that’s in a private collection.

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


Sign in or become a deRivaz & Ives member to join the conversation.
Just enter your email below to get a log in link.