It’s a bright December Sunday morning, and the usual crowd of joggers, walkers and cyclists on the south Mumbai boulevard of Marine Drive have more than just a view of the sea to admire.
At the Nariman Point end of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose road (as Marine Drive is officially known), there’s possibly the biggest collection of vintage Mercedes-Benz cars India has ever seen, and a crowd of 100 people jostling for the best view of the classics.
The 70 cars have gathered for the Classic Car Rally, started last year by the German car giant in association with Autocar India.
Some of the oldest, rarest and best maintained Mercedes motors in the country have come to Mumbai for the event, which allows collectors to come together and show off their precious gems. And what beauties they are.
The cars are assembled in chronological order, and walking from the front of the line-up to the back before the rally gets underway offers a visual history of Mercedes’ heritage.
It’s a bit of a battle walking through the crowds, filled with owners, family members, and classic car aficionados who are spoilt for choice, but first up behind the start line there’s perhaps the biggest gaggle of all trying to get a view of where it all began; the 1886 Patentwagen.
It’s not the original (of course) but a replica that is lovingly owned by Hemant Kumar Ruia, who says only him and his sons drive it.
“I don’t even take it out onto the street,” Ruia says.“This rally is an extremely rare occasion.”
His sense of protection towards the car is shared by many owners here, but it’s understandable, because it isn’t an easy job getting some of these ancient examples in shape.
Maintenance is a serious consideration for the owners of vintage and classic cars. For many it’s a hobby that becomes as time-consuming as a profession, and it’s not cheap either, due to expensive import taxes and a lack of readily available parts. Most custodians have a favourite workshop and monthly schedule they follow to keep the car in shape – and deep pockets, too.
Some of the cars were salvaged from dire situations: paint peeling off, rust clinging to ancient parts, engines struck by the sickness of age. One such perfectly restored example lies next to the replica of the Patentwagen, and draws many admirers.
It’s the 1937 170 V, and it is dripping with elegance in the Mumbai sunshine, but owner Shamoon Karachiwalla, reveals just how much work was required to get it in its current state.
“Only the body shell was intact when I found it, everything else inside had fallen apart,” he recalls.
“It took nearly a year’s worth of restoration work, importing parts and even fabricating some others to get it back into shape.
“But, once you get it up and running out on the road, there are few joys that are comparable.”
All the hard work seems to be worth it, then, and not only does it look great, it runs like a dream, too, and many of the owners are quick to praise the running condition of their darlings.
“Once the restoration work was done, it has stayed in top-notch shape,” Karachiwalla explains.
“Since I got the car nearly 25 years ago, I’ve hardly had to make any repairs and am only careful not to expose it to rain. Except for the mechanisms at work, you wouldn’t be able to tell that my 170 V is almost 80 years old.”
Walking through the line-up transports you through the decades from the 170 Vs and Adenauers to the glorious Pontons from the 1950s which helped Mercedes recover from the aftermath of World War II, and then to some wonderful Fintail 190s which replaced the Ponton in the 1960s.
The Adenauers (named after the first Chancellor of post-war Germany), especially, have an incredible presence even among such esteemed company, and turn heads in a way that a modern S-class would struggle to do. The ground-breaking pillarless Adenauers from the 1950s were much sought-after at the time and became one of the most prominent models for Mercedes, and it still holds itself with a regal air of superiority today.
Past them are the 190 SLs – designed to be more accessible versions of the much lauded 300 SL – followed by two Pagodas, from the 1960s and 1970s, regarded by many enthusiasts as the epitome of the perfect classic car.
There’s almost every iteration of the S-class and E-class in this line-up, too, and one of the stranger models on show is attracting a lot of attention; the six-door E-class W124 limousine, for extra-leggy VIP customers from the 1990s.
While some cars have required a lot of work, there are lucky owners who haven’t had to go to great lengths of restoration, having purchased their classics from careful previous owners as passionate about the upkeep of these invaluable machines as themselves.
Jerxis Vandrewalla, proud owner of the only 500 SEL at the show (one of just a couple in the country, with original paintwork and wheels), is one beneficiary of careful custodians, and he knows every step the car has taken.
“This car was originally built in Stuttgart, Germany in 1988,” he says.
“It was shipped to the UK and eventually ended up in Delhi, under the wing of a politician. And then, a famous collector got hold of it, and I bought it from them about 10 years ago.
“Luckily for me, this car had been taken very good care of and when I got my hands on her, she was in pristine condition.”
Roland Folger, Mercedes India CEO, owned a 1988 380 SL in the US and is also among the crowds, chatting to owners and enthusiasts admiring the classics, and he’s amazed at the number of cars in impeccable shape at the rally.
“The level of attention and care put into these vehicles by the owners is amazing, and everybody is enjoying themselves,” Folger says.
Early cars on show, like the replica of the Patentwagen, may only rarely get a runout, but Pritesh Javeri, owner of a beautiful 190 E, sees no harm in getting some use out of his precious classic from the 1990s and uses it as a daily driver.
“I go to work every day in it, drop my daughter to school and even run errands when I have to. I simply love driving this car at all times and any excuse to drive it will do.”
It’s clear the participants are itching to get behind the wheel and take these beauties for a spin, and the rally is soon flagged off by Folger, who quickly hops into the 170 V Cabriolet (his pick of the bunch), and the 70 classics take off from in front of the NCPA to a soundtrack of cheering crowds and burbling engines.
The convoy wafts along Marine Drive, wowing crowds and turning heads, all the way down through Walkeshwar, Neapaen Sea Road, Warden Road, Haji Ali, onto Worli Seaface, the Bandra Worli Sealink to Bandra, before turning back.
Everywhere the procession passes, cameras are whipped out, other cars slow down to get a better look, and pedestrians wave them past. It’s pretty smooth going through the city roads and the convoy wafts back to Nariman Point, where the drivers get out, thrilled to have been given this platform to showcase their treasures.
With Mercedes set to celebrate its 130th birthday next year, it’s sure to be another Classic Car Rally to remember.
INTERVIEW Roland Folger, Mercedes-Benz India CEO
What cars catch your eye in this line-up?
I’m surprised by the quantity and condition of some of the cars here today; it’s fantastic to see. I especially like the 170 Vs, but it’s great to see the Ponton with all the other S-classes. The convertibles are my personal favourites as well. Of the sportier classics on show, I really like the old Gullwings, like the 300SL. They are very hard to drive now, though.
Why is it important to have events like these to showcase the vintage cars?
There are very few companies in the world that can claim to have been around for close to 130 years. When we take groups like this – aficionados of the Mercedes-Benz brand – out to showcase their cars, you can see from the crowd that is attending that there is a real family spirit around. I think that is something that is passed down from the grandparents, to the parents, to the children, and they all can enjoy an outing like this together, and they all can enjoy the cars together.
Have you owned a classic Mercedes?
Yes, I owned a 380 SL. It was quite old and banged up when we bought it, but together with some friends, we started restoring it and really enjoyed it.
This is the second consecutive Classic Car Rally, is Mercedes keen to carry this on in the future?
Of course! We have a Classic Centre back in Germany supporting events like this, through creative help but also with spare parts, if necessary, and we have a team of people in Germany dedicated to do nothing but support our vintage and classic cars around the globe.
The view from the convoy
From the back oF this classic Mercedes-Benz 280 SEL, I’m struggling to work out which view is better.
Is it the glorious sunshine making Mahim Bay sparkle while we cross the Sealink as part of the procession, or, is it the vintage, opulent interior from the 1980s clad in green leather which I find myself in? It’s too close to call.
Perched on the rear bench, it’s as comfortable and relaxing as sitting in a living room, even when travelling over Mumbai’s many rough surfaces, and it offers a perfect vantage point to admire the long stretch of classic Mercedeses travelling in convoy in front and behind us.
There was some nervousness as the engine faltered a few times on start-up, but the old girl eventually purred into life and is doing a fine job of wafting us along Mumbai’s coastline.
After the Sealink, we catch up with the traffic in the city and passers by gawp at the convoy as we breeze past. It’s a great occasion and I realise, as we wind our way back to Nariman Point, my delight is surely only a fraction of what the owners experience.
Doug Revolta and Samarpan Bhowmik