Old Gold: How Historic Vehicles Lower Blood Pressure And Make Strangers Smile At Each Other
Images: Ranjit Lal
Once or twice every year they are roused from their slumber, their dusty tarpaulins hauled off and the cobwebs swept away. Bonnets are lifted and peered under, fingers are crossed and starting handles turned over. Banished from the roads of the city their day in the sun is hopefully nigh as the annual vintage and classic car rallies are officially permitted and scheduled.
In Delhi I make it a point to attend the flag-off of the Statesman Vintage and Classic Car Rally (its home-base being Kolkata) on a usually foggy winter morning every February or early March. It is the only time of the year you can see these chariots of yore: they’ve been externed from the roads ostensibly because of their terrible smoking habits. (Today, any petrol vehicle over 15 years and diesel one over 10 years is condemned.) But really, how many owners of such regal classics are going to risk taking them out onto the rabid roads of Delhi on a regular basis?
Yes, I do remember the days back in the mid-60s and ‘70s where in Bombay you could encounter the great galleon Chryslers, Buicks, Chevrolets and Cadillacs burbling down Marine Drive, and when the parking lot of the Willingdon Sports Club was 'the' place to go; that is, if you wanted to drool over immaculate Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Mercedes and Austin Princesses belonging to fastidious Parsi owners berthed there.
Today, in Delhi these grande-dames are given a single day’s parole every year to take part in the rally. Many have been resurrected from the scrap heap. Some—like the John Morris Fire Engine, with its clanging brass bell and solid rubber tires—are regulars at the rally.
The smaller knock-kneed Fords and Austins timorous as deer, are usually family heirlooms and lovingly cosseted over and patched up and painted by all in the family. The big gleaming Rolls-Royces, Cadillacs, Bentleys and Oldsmobiles usually have uniformed caretakers catering to their every whim. And then there are always the quirky, quaint Citroens, Renaults and Fiats.
Certainly, in deference to their age, the cars may be moody: some refuse to be woken up so early, others leak oil everywhere, still others rattle, squeak, scuttle a bit, cough, gasp and gurgle and then stop. They have their work cut out—a ‘rally’ that may involve hairpin bends and a hill-climb; which frankly is like making your granny run up six flights of spiral stairs! There are prizes and gifts galore of course, but really it’s not so much about the competition: it’s about what these chariots do to the human psyche!
The standard expression on the face of the average Delhi motorist is a scowl or a sneer, mouth drawn into a thin taut line, which may give way to a snarl and an expletive—and really who can blame him or her for it, given the way we drive? But when these great clippers and tiny tin-pots sail majestically down the roads, or appear to be tripping over their wheels, as the case may be, everything changes: strangers (and even hoodlums!) smile and grin and give you a thumbs-up. If you stall, there’ll be any number of eager hands giving you a push.
When the cars line up before the flag-off they are the cynosure of all eyes. As the owners cluck fussily over them, heads often buried under their bonnets, young men with big grins strike macho poses for photographs and ladies with lovely smiles line up for selfies. (The press photographers, of course, go berserk.) But it’s the children who really have the best time. Bulb horns are to be squished for the delightful ‘phroo-phroo’ sound they emit, jump seats are just a perfect fit, and sitting behind the giant steering wheel of a Rolls-Royce is a lifetime’s ambition fulfilled!
There are so many of these quaint, quirky cars to check out that they scamper from one to another and no one minds or shouts. Some proud owners wax eloquent on the heritage of their vehicles and its association with their own family lineage.
There’s really nothing like a collection of classic and vintage cars and bikes to collectively lower blood pressure and make strangers smile at each other. For older folks they remind them of the relaxed slow days when they trundled somnambulistically from one place to another; for the youngsters of today, they show them that even cars could have souls—unlike the bland anodyne vehicles of today.
Even if they may puff and fart a bit, there are far too few of them to cause the slightest difference in the level of pollution. But for this, these venerable veterans are locked up all year. Would you treat a respected elder this way?
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