In fluent Nepalese, Sam Manekshaw, India’s first Field Marshal, instructed Sule Bahadur, his trusted and loyal aide from his beloved Gurkha Regiment, to bring home his Sunbeam Rapier from the staff college in Coonoor. It took an hour for Sule Bahadur to return but time flew by as the eloquent Manekshaw regaled us with stories of his illustrious life in the army.
Manekshaw joined the army at a time when motorised transport was non-existent.
“When I joined my regiment, we only had mules and horses and we began getting motorised three-tonners in 1936. The first time we used tanks was in 1948 when we opened the Zoji La Pass to get to Ladakh. I was then director of military operations.”
During his early years in the army, Manekshaw developed a fondness for driving and wanted a car that was more than just transport. So after his course at the Imperial Defence College in London, he returned with a Sunbeam Rapier which he bought for the “princely sum of £600.” It cost him another £100 to ship the car to India and Rs 6,000 in customs duty. “In those days one pound was worth 12 or 13 rupees, so the total cost to me was around Rs 15,000.”
Manekshaw was posted all over the country but his Rapier followed him wherever he went.
“Almost immediately after I got back from London, I was given the command of a division in Kashmir, so I drove the Rapier up there. It was wonderful driving it in the hills as I had enough power from its twin-carb engine. I would drive from Kashmir to Bombay regularly but with no air-conditioning, the summer heat would be scorching.”
When Manekshaw was posted back in the Nilgiris he would drive back to Bombay regularly for his holidays. The Rapier went to the East as well when Manekshaw was posted in Calcutta as Eastern army commandant. “It’s given me excellent service and all it has required is normal maintenance from a regular garage. But when I came to Coonoor, I got TVS to do a really good job and get it into shape. It’s a bit heavy on petrol in the hills but still runs without missing a beat.”
The Rapier was driven mostly by Manekshaw himself, except for the last four to five years when he stopped driving. “My eyesight is not so good now and neither is my hearing. Besides I have a bad temper, so I’ve stopped driving altogether.”
“Since I don’t drive anymore I don’t care what car I have, as long as it is comfortable and the air-conditioning works well.”
Manekshaw also has an old Maruti 800 which belonged to his late wife, Silloo.
“That is my wife’s car, which she used almost till the day she died. Now the Gurkhas use it for shopping and the odd errand. Occasionally, I use it myself when I have to go down to the market, which is pretty congested to take a big car.”
Manekshaw loved bikes as well and bought a James motorcycle from a British officer for Rs 1,600 in 1947. Just two days before partition, his good friend Major Yahya Khan, who went on to become President of Pakistan, begged Manekshaw to sell him the bike.
“What will I use?” asked Manekshaw. To which Yahya replied. “Sir, you will get everything in India, we will get nothing in Pakistan.” Manekshaw agreed to sell the bike for a thousand rupees and said: “Okay, Yahya take it!” Yahya looked at his superior and said, “Sir, I haven’t got a thousand. I will send it to you.” Manekshaw was never paid the thousand rupees but says, “Yahya made up for it by giving me the whole of East Pakistan!”
Sule Bahadur was back with the Rapier, which meant it was time to end this interview and get on with the photography. I was amazed at the condition of the car. Original paint, original upholstery, not a bit of rust and the engine sounded crisp and healthy. The 1958 Sunbeam was remarkably well-kept for its age. Just like the 90-year-old Field Marshal himself.