The question is inevitable. Every time I have a conversation with someone new, and the subject of my vocation pops up, it leads to one of three questions — “What car should I buy?”, “What is the best car you have driven?” and “I want to buy a vintage car/start a collection, can you get me one?” I don’t mind the first two, they are simple. But the final question rings all sorts of alarm bells, because there is no straightforward answer. To illustrate the point, there I was, enjoying my friend’s dinner party, and one of the men I was speaking to popped off this question.
The question might not seem harmful, but having gone down this road numerous times, it has taught me that the asker (let’s call him Anil, for now) usually seems to have a lot of money and no real hobby to spend it on, and has thus decided to start a classic car collection. I asked Anil if he would like to first read about cars and their history. It is always good to know what you like, because it helps to have direction when going about any hobby. Otherwise, you can easily get lost, and unlike collecting porcelain dolls, that you can place on a shelf and dust occasionally, cars require constant care and work.
There is no hard and fast guide to collecting vintage cars. Those genuinely interested in cars, but having modest budgets, can look at one of the Indian Heritage cars, post-independence products that are fast disappearing. Pristine examples of cars like the Hindustan 10, early Fiat 1100, Indian assembled Studebakers and Chevrolets are hard to come by. They are however relatively cheaper, easier to find and parts can still be sourced for them. Ask around — usually, older mechanics know of their whereabouts, and can clue you in.
If you don’t have budgetary constraints, then the sky is literally the limit. Demand is very high in India, and supply is low, so prices are higher than those abroad. With most good cars already in a home, those that do come up for sale are usually in terrible shape, needing much more than simple TLC. Visit classic car events and get to know other enthusiasts — if a car is for sale, there is a good chance they will know about it. With no formal marketplace for vintage cars in this country, this would be your best bet to find a desirable car. A car like an early Rolls-Royce or Mercedes does come up for sale, but you will have more luck with mass-market cars, like pre-WWII Chevrolets, Fords and Austins. The other option would be to go the import route — you can now import a car made before 1st January 1950, but duties and taxes will negate any price advantage.
For those looking at things newer, look at cars all the way up to the 1980s, as these will soon classify as classic cars and are becoming rarer by the day. Also, they are still affordable — for now. Convertibles and coupes are more sought after, sedans not so much. American muscle cars, another popular collectible item, have also become hard to come by, and the few that survived the wrath of Mr Bachchan when he was young and angry are rarely traded; when they are, the prices can put modern German luxury sedans to shame.
Of course, once you buy a car, the probability that it will need work is high, and finding someone who knows their way around restoration is absolutely crucial. Small garages will promise the earth, but I have heard and seen enough disaster stories to know better. There are a number of qualified people in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Jaipur that are doing world class work, and paying a bit extra would be better in the long run.
As for Anil, I explained all this to him, but got the sense that he was looking for something to park on his porch and brag about. Without meaning to sound dismissive, I explained that classic cars need commitment from their owners, not only in terms of funds, but also time and patience. Spending years on restoration (and money equalling or exceeding the purchase price) is not uncommon, and frustrations are aplenty. He thought for a second, and then nodded in approval. “I am willing to go all out, bro!”, he replied. I didn’t know if he was actually committed or if it was the third Johnnie Walker talking, but I hoped to have answered his questions in a manner that would encourage him to get into the hobby for the right reasons — it would mean a few more cars saved from extinction and that, as far as I’m concerned, is the main thing.