La Folie des Concours: Vadodara, Here We Come

Images: T.R. Raghunandan, Sai Krishna & Srinand Piedpet

‘Do not risk taking the Mumbai expressway from Pune, you are far better off on the Nasik road’, advised my friend Navroze Contractor, the intrepid classic motorbike enthusiast.

An hour out of Pune, I wondered if we had made a serious mistake. The previous night we had flopped into bed exhausted, aiming to make an early start. But at 5.30 AM, buses and trucks whizzed past perilously close, in Nasik’s direction, crowding us off the road. If this was the state of affairs at dawn, I wondered what it would be like at 9 AM.

And then the traffic suddenly thinned out.

With relief, I realized that we had timed our Pune departure with the changing of shifts at the Mercedes plant in Chakan. Past the factory, we were on the open highway. Now warm, Dev joyously accelerated on the straight stretches, his throaty exhaust ringing in one’s ears. The road began to wind gently, and the low hills echoed the engine’s beat.

The Aravalli range dates from when the Indian peninsula was part of the Gondwanaland supercontinent. Once higher than the Himalayas, only the stubs of once lofty mountains remain now. The TC’s stiff suspension ensures limpet like road-holding. It was really in its element on the short ghat sections.

But then, the brakes began to snatch again. At breakfast time, a check underneath revealed that the problem was not merely with the spring; a slight misalignment of the brake rod with the master cylinder piston meant that the pedal sometimes tended to stay slightly depressed; a condition rectified by sliding one’s foot underneath it and yanking it back to its rightful position. Since fixing this annoyance would take some time, we decided to soldier on that way.

All brake troubles were forgotten when we stopped for a sumptuous Maharashtrian lunch. Thus fortified, we headed northward past Nasik, crossing the second grand peninsular river, the east flowing Godavari, into the beautiful vineyard countryside. India’s best vineyards are located here, where the light, rich soil supports grapevine growing in abundance. The signboards pleaded with us to stop and enjoy some wine tasting, and buy a bottle or two. I hesitated at the idea; we were to stay overnight at Saputara, which is in prohibition bound Gujarat. I doubted whether the police would be swayed by our little car and look away from our bottles.

Strawberry fields forever

Once past Nasik, we passed through some magnificent layered hills. This is dinosaur country, I reflected. Many of India’s fossil finds come from the Narmada region. Would we find, I wondered, a surviving T Rex when we wound around the next hill? Would the next sequel to Jurassic Park feature a green MG TC, outpacing an angry reptile raptor?

We found strawberries, instead; women and men lining the roads, with baskets of fresh and juicy strawberries. Stocked to the brim, we feasted on strawberries for dessert, after a spicy chicken curry for dinner. We regretted not buying wine; our night stop was just before the Gujarat border!

Early morning, and it was bitterly cold at Saputara. I carried no woolens, save a beret that I pulled over my ears. Here, take my pullover, said Krishna; he towers a good six inches over me. Warm and comfortable in the face of a stiff easterly wind, with the roof up, we drove through the deserted hill station. Past its pretty lake the road descends steeply towards the north from the main circle.

Our dancing headlight beams caught a lithe civet cat in mid leap, its bushy ringed tail held straight for balance. The surprised fellow stopped just beyond the grassy verge and stared at our ghostly apparition. As we sped past, I smiled and gave him the thumbs up; a moment that captured all the fun there is, in vintage motoring.

Catching some rest beneath an ancient Banyan tree

There was a mist of silence, beyond the sound of our warm engine. We sped through gentle valleys, towering roadside trees parted to reveal a bubbling stream in the blue grey dawn. In companionable silence I began my usual game; how fast could we go before the wheels would squeal, using the engine to slow ourselves without braking? Click-click, the gear shift went, as I moved between second and third, only shifting to top for the brief straight stretches.

Breakfast was a piping hot Gujarat variant masala dosa and a refreshing adrak-infused chai.

Cap tied down with cotton waste, we head to ambush the classic car convoy near Baroda

As we descended towards the busy Gujarat plains, we sidestepped Surat and headed for Rajpipla, which nestles at the northwest rim of the Aravalis. At Mandvi, we crossed the Tapi and at Kevadia, the magnificent Narmada, the last of the peninsular rivers in our path.

‘How far are our friends?’ I asked Krishna, while lunching on thick rotis dipped in a fragrant dal. We had missed the day drive that preceded the Concours; a price paid for our departure from Bangalore, late by a day. ‘They are just 20 kilometers away’, Krishna replied. We caught each other’s eyes and knew exactly what we would do; we would head in the direction of the classic car convoy that had driven out from the Baroda palace that morning.

We waylaid friends from Bangalore on our drive

Surprise them, we did. As we passed the first cars of the convoy, they glanced at us, wondering who we, dusty interlopers, were. We parked on the roadside for our friends from Bangalore, Srinand and Manju, driving Subbaiah’s stately ex-Mysore Maharaja Daimler DB-18. Was that a wonderful reunion!

We drove into the Luxmi Vilas Palace at dusk. With the accumulated dust of four days of driving, we were a far cry from what Concours participants ought to look like. I spied Madan Mohan, the energetic man behind the 21 Gun Salute Concours, riding an electric cycle, marshalling his forces, checking the arrangements.

His eyes said it all: ‘surely, we did not flag off a green MG TC from the palace this morning?’ he seemed to ask.

I waved back at him. ‘We’ve driven in’, I yelled, ‘from Bangalore!’

At the magnificent Laxmi Vilas Palace

The organisers from the MG car company guided our little green elf to his appointed parking slot. Dev was sedate now; very civilized, with nary a cough or a roar from his exhaust. With my back to the magnificent palace and the setting sun, I dabbed at the accelerator just one more time, watching the rev counter needle leap to 3000 RPM. As I cut the engine, the murmurs of the people around us seemed remote. Krishna and I sat there, a quiet moment of communion with our beast. ‘You are alive’, I said to Dev, silently. ‘You are not a car. You are life itself’.

T R Raghunandan

Classic car and railway enthusiast, tireless driver, model scratch-builder, broken old machinery hoarder, teacher, raconteur, author and accountability and decentralised governance consultant.


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