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Down memory lane: The Statesman car rally that became a movement

IANS | New Delhi |

On the second Sunday of March 1964 — more than five decades ago — 25 vintage cars lined up on the capital’s Barakhamba Road at about 7.30 a.m. The historic Statesman red brick-building added an old-world charm to the gathering of bygone beauties and their proud owners as the first edition of Statesman Vintage Car Rally took off. The rally which now also features classic cars, turns 52 this year — a rare feat achieved by few in this field.

The cars were flagged off by the then Union Transport Minister Raj Bahadur. A 1912 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, with the Maharaja of Nabha (the titles could be used till 1971, when privy purses were abolished) at the wheel, was the first to depart. And thus began this tryst with vintage cars, which gradually transpired into a movement to preserve them and prevent them from fading away into silent oblivion. Along the way, it has also propelled several other such events. But when it began, it was the only one of its kind.

Even on its debut run, The Statesman Vintage Car Rally turned out to be a happening affair as hundreds of people gathered at The Statesman building for the flag-off and then watched the beauties make their way along the route. But not many would have believed that as many as 23 out of 25 crocks would have been able to complete the 115-mile journey to Bharatpur.

And what a delight it was for this young reporter, then working at The Statesman, to flick through the newspaper’s archives and read some personal accounts of those who attended and participated in the historic rally.

Vintage car rally Delhi
An expert checking a car at the pre-judging event (Photo: Subrata Dutta/SNS)

An anonymous writer, in the brochure for The 25th Statesman Vintage Car rally in 1990 mentioned: “As one who accompanied this odd but beautiful caravan I can disclose that except for two that developed mechanical trouble en route, the cars (others) never gave any indication that they would get tired of running..” Much like the cars of the first run, The Statesman Vintage and Classic Car Rally has also never given any indication of slowing down — in fact, it has grown but stronger with every passing year.

(Only twice since the inaugural event has the rally not run. The first was in 1971 when war clouds loomed over the sub-continent with the unilateral declaration of independence by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, an event that saw the emergence of Bangladesh out East Pakistan. The second time was in 1973 due to an impending fuel crisis.)

The first halt for the 1964 Delhi-Bharatpur Rally was short of the Moghul Bridge, past Nizammudin East. One of the cars, an old 1921 Farman, had already used up four litres of Petrol for a run of the same number of miles and its owner was well-apprehensive of the speed that he was required to maintain. The best he could get out of his old machine was 75 m.p.h and, therefore, ultimately it could not complete the 115-mile journey to Bharatpur.

Those who attended the rally have mentioned that the engines and sirens made a wonderful sound. “The sirens particularly must have unnerved many dogs and cows on the route, though to the human ear it was far more peaceful than the modern double horns.”

After a brief halt at Kosi, the caravan proceeded towards Deeg, where the participants had a picnic lunch amidst beautiful surroundings. The journey between Deeg and Bharatpur, the records say, was the most fascinating. At all the villages along the way, the local population had queued up along the road to cheer the participants and at Bharatpur, the civic chief publicly welcome to the caravan. “We were at Bharatpur at 4 p.m ~ as guests of His Highness, the Maharaja of Bharatpur. Everything was done to make us comfortable and the evening ended with a sumptuous banquet and the distribution of prizes”, recalled the anonymous writer.

A path-breaking initiative taken by the organisers was the addition of the cars from the “post-War period”, in the Classic category. Initially, the rally confined itself to pre-1939 models only but now sections have been added for more recent cars — of course nothing younger than 35 years is allowed to join the bandwagon. This expansion has led to the preservation of a large number of cars that had fallen into an awkward category — too old for regular use but not old enough to acquire antique value.

Vintage car rally Delhi
Visitors admiring a vintage car at the pre-judging event in Delhi. (Photo: Subrata DUtta/SNS)

The clock has turned full circle and even today, The Statesman Vintage and Classic car rally stands tall and stable as along the way, hundreds of cars have been retrieved from the scrap heap and restored to glory. Many discarded and sold out (to kabadiwalas) bygone beauties have not just been reclaimed but have also made their presence felt in the National Capital through their participation in this rally.

Meanwhile, the rally has grown much beyond its lengthy entry list. The various competitions and trophies have fuelled a keen interest in the more solemn aspects of renovation, led some of the enthusiasts to really study the subject and all of this has resulted in the cars being maintained better.

The 52nd edition of The Statesman Vintage and Classic Car Rally will be flagged off from the Statesman House on February 11 and will culminate with a prize distribution ceremony at the Dhyanchand National Stadium in the capital. Save the date as the entry is free and open to all.