Rajesh Ambal is in the process of restoring a 1939 Chevrolet Master Deluxe, one of the first taxis in southern India. His collection includes a 1933 Bellila Fiat that belonged to the Nizam of Hyderabad and is often used in film shoots. Also a 1933 Vauxhall Westminster that has a bar unit and a small seating arrangement for a barman to serve the passengers, and a 1947 Buick. These beauties are at his garages in Palakkad and Pollachi.
His latest addition is a barn find, a 1961 Pillarless Impala which was once owned by India’s first Foreign Secretary the late KPS Menon. Restoration kept him and his wife, Ramya Lakshminarayan, busy through the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. And they enjoyed the process so much that this year, Rajesh and Ramya launched RR Vintage & Classic Automobiles: Collection and Restoration, an outfit that brings back to life unused, rare vintage cars. Currently they have 25 cars in their collection and 35 cars from different parts of the country under restoration.
They also have a miniature car museum with more than 1,000 cars at their home in Palakkad. Inaugurated three years ago, the museum houses scale sized models of sizes 1:8 to 1:64, tin toys and realistic models of cars, bikes and trucks. The movable display, where each model is an exact replica of the original with steering moving along with the wheels, bonnet hood opening with the battery, engine replica, doors opening to show seats, boot opening to reveal spare tyre and luggage space, and some have shock absorbers too, takes part in many automobile exhibitions. As vice-president of The Historical Cars Association of India Rajesh is committed to promote the legacy of vintage cars of India.
It was a childhood fascination that led to this collection and to a passion to restore vintage cars. Last year just before the pandemic, in February 2020, Rajesh completed the restoration of a 1952 Studebaker Bulletnose. The car won the hand picked, rare, historic cars award at the 21 Gun Salute International Vintage Car Rally & Concours d’Elegance held at Karma Lakelands Golf Course, Gurugram. Locked in a garage in Hyderabad for years its restoration took over a year-and-a-half.
Ramya’s involvement began after she married Rajesh in 1995. One of her sweetest memories is receiving a big sack of miniature cars from her mother-in-law when she arrived as a bride. A year later, when Rajesh began restoring cars seriously, she too felt the excitement well up within her.
“The first car was as good as scrap. We were aghast at its condition but slowly it was put together. Rajesh has an eye for detail and looks into every curve, line of paint, beading on the door, shape of tail lights, number plates, dashboard finish…,” says Ramya, adding that it has been a labour of love for the past 25 years. She now knows every vintage car model, its value and can also identify cars in old films.
Both Rajesh and Ramya have fond memories of a 1988 model Contessa, which Rajesh had owned as an 18-year-old. “It had been sold off. Later when Rajesh began restoration work, this was one of his finds. It has been restored to its former glory and is one of our most prized possessions,” she says. Rajesh’s penchant for exploring old markets, in every city they travel to, helps them collect parts for restoration. “He knows what to pick from the junk,” says Ramya.
After turning their passion into a business, they have widened their network to connect with vintage car lovers from across the world. Many royal families are their clients now. “Restoration can take up a period of three to six months or even more, depending on the condition of the car, and can cost in the range of one to five lakh, ”says Ramya. Some of the cars they are presently working on are Austin, Vauxhall Impala and Mercedes Benz.
Once they restore a car, the first thing Rajesh and Ramya do is to drive up to Udhagamandalam to showcase the vehicle at the Vintage and Classic Car Show, which is held annually during the Flower Show in May. It is organised by the Nilgiris Vintage and Classic Cars Association (NIVICCA). “The drive is fun and takes up an entire day as we stop frequently to check the various parameters of the car. Some have small petrol tanks and need to be refuelled. The drive attracts passers-by as a vintage car is always a crowd puller,” says Ramya. Every Sunday, the couple takes their two daughters on a drive in one of the cars from their stable.