My first memories of cars and bikes in the family starts with trucks, actually. Transportation – cars, trucks, buses and driving – was always in the blood, as I am the third generation of a family which had a business in bulk and passenger transport, with our headquarters in Mettur Dam near Salem, in Tamil Nadu. So, the very first memories are of a GMC truck with our company logo on the doors: the letters MKS stylised in a circle. MDY 3758 was purchased second-hand from Mysore state, sometime around 1958. This historic truck with which my grandfather started the transport business was like the venerable grandpa among the other Tatas and Ashok Leylands. It stood apart even when I was a child – so it’s no wonder that it’s imprinted in my mind. Among cars there was a dark blue Plymouth Savoy which too was purchased second-hand. Exclusively driven by the cantankerous, lungi-clad Abbasbhai, the Plymouth inevitably received a diesel engine transplant in our spacious workshop in Mettur. It was the special car compared to the other chubby Ambassadors around.
The one we had in Mumbai was a Hindustan Motors Ambassador Mark II, stylishly finished in a green-and-cream dual tone. MMB 4856 was the first one we had in the city. I remember being ferried around in Chembur – where I have been staying all my life – sitting on my dad’s lap while he was driving. Today, when I see other dads doing the same, I dissuade them – it’s so dangerous. But in those days…
I was caught by the cops while learning to drive. Because I didn’t have a learner’s license. And why didn’t I have one? Because I was only thirteen years old. In my defence, I was not driving alone – my driver was teaching me to drive in MMB 4856. It so happened that I couldn’t get the hang of shifting gears and stalled the car on the road near Deonar. It came to the attention of some cops who were passing by. I think they took the driver’s licence away and my father had to pay a fine. I think it was around 750 bucks, which was pretty hefty in those days. My father also told me that I was going to be thrown in jail. I protested, saying that he was the one who allowed me to go! So, the point I am making is that: 1. I was underage, but I was ‘officially’ allowed to learn to drive.
2. As mentioned, it was in our blood. Even if my father didn’t allow me, I would have sneaked out with the car – driver or no driver.
I added the finishing touches to my basic driving skills in the car that replaced the faithful Ambassador. Sorry, not car, but jeep. It was a Mahindra Commander. Which was just as well, because column-shifts were giving way to floor-shifts. And SUVs would eventually become trendy (after two-three decades, of course, but it’s nice to think we were ahead of the curve). Well before the time I turned 18 I was pretty competent in my driving skills and giving the driving test was just a formality. In fact, the RTO officer actually complimented me on my driving and familiarity with all the road signs – unlike academics, it was the one of the few tests I passed with flying colours.
However I would like to add though we may think of ourselves as expert drivers, learning to drive never ends. Each day is different, as driving situations change every single time you get behind the wheel. Though I am lucky to have attended advanced driver training schools as part of my motoring journalism career, one should never take one’s capabilities for granted. Always exercise a sense of caution, especially on the unpredictable conditions of our Indian roads.
My first wife is Miriam, my 1960 Volkswagen Beetle and she is also my first car. I knew it all the while that my first car had to be something special, something different. So Miriam has been part of my life over the last twenty-plus years. I shall shamefacedly admit for half of that time, she was either parked in my building stilts or in a garage. But now she gets out more frequently, at least once a week. Though she is not in great condition, she at least starts quickly and runs on her own power. And she wears the brightest yellow on the planet – a paint scheme that is luminous even after ten-plus years, so she is pretty hard to miss on the roads.
For a daily driver, I have a 1.3 Suzuki S-Cross. It fits my needs perfectly – it’s of the right height so that my parents find it easy to get in and out. Also it has a massive boot so that Aditya Bengali – that crack photographer – can comfortably take tracking shots of me driving other old cars. While on the inside, three adults can sit comfortably abreast in the rear seat, and with good leg room too. I could have done with some additional torque and horses, but other than that, the S-Cross drives well, build quality is good and it is easily the best Suzuki in the market today when it comes to ride quality.
There is no doubt that, I would give little parts of my body to own a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing. To me, no car comes close to it. It is the pinnacle when it comes to my automotive desires, though I wouldn’t pass up the offer to acquire the legendary Uhlenhaut coupe if it was possible (only two were produced). The Gullwing is like one of God’s creations because everything about it was functional but that’s exactly what made it so visceral in appearance. Like a shark which is designed down to its dermal denticles to be an apex predator, the Gullwing was designed to be the most affordable way to get closest to breaking the speed of sound back in the 1950s. Well, you get what I mean. And here’s my favourite factoid about the 300 SL – the road-going car that customers could buy was even more powerful than the thoroughbred race car it was based on! Other than my Beetle, it has also the best butt in the business. Oh, I could go on and on…
Here’s what’s interesting about my relationship with the Gullwing but, it’s a bit of a soppy and sentimental story, so if you want to skip it, please do…
When I started life as a motoring journalist, I had decided that if I ever get the chance to drive a Gullwing, that would be my acme. I will have no reason to be a motoring journalist anymore because that would be my singular achievement. Well what do you know, it took 15 years to realise that dream. Yes, a decade and a half. So on June 30, 2012, the exact day I completed 15 years at Business Standard, I drove the Gullwing. It happened during the Goodwood Festival of Speed, and I must thank Mercedes-Benz for that. And also Autocar India’s rough diamond Shapur Kotwal – a slightly unhinged but supremely knowledgeable petrolhead (aviationfuelhead and metalhead) – for making it happen for me.
It so happened that in the morning leading up to the drive, I was all excited that my dream was going to become real. But as the day progressed, the chance seemed more and more remote. Several Japanese journalists commandeered the most iconic cars of Mercedes-Benz’s historic fleet and wouldn’t let go of the Museum’s road-worthy Silver Arrow. Seeing me coming close to committing hara-kiri using a sword forged in the hottest flames of disappointment, he decided to take them on to ensure I got around driving the what was arguably world’s first supercar. He abused the Japanese media and the Mercedes-Benz Japan PR in the choicest language only rabid Bawajis can summon and was just about prevented by other media persons from punching them. I do think however that he managed to land a blow or two.
Sometime later, I was drowning my sorrows in scoops of Blackforest cake when a discreet tap on my shoulder indicated I should step outside with Shapur. At a corner of the Goodwood estate, just where all the big rigs were being loaded to take the cars back to Germany, the Gullwing was standing there. It was for me to drive, and the truck was being held back till I finished with it! The instructions being told to me by the car’s caretaker were all a blur as I eased myself inside via that iconic high sill.
It was the quickest minutes of my life (read about it here). I got out of the car and watched it being loaded onto the car carriers. It happened. I think there were two or three people who spotted a grown man sob silently in Goodwood.
I think being a motoring journalist gives you the opportunity to drive on roads others can only dream of. So, I consider myself lucky as a well as been given the privilege to have driven in some of the most fascinating ribbons of tarmac around the world. And in some cases not just tarmac, but packed ice, desert sands, rock-strewn rivers and slippery mud. So rather than tell you where I have already been to, I would like to put out my wishlist: Iceland, the roads of New Zealand, the route of the Carrera Panamericana, Mille Miglia and Targa Florio and of course more of Ladakh, Ladakh and Ladakh.