The lady in my life says, ‘Only one model allowed in the living room.’ The others are all upstairs and packed away in storage,” says Adil Jal Darukhanawala, as we stop by a 1:6 scale model of the first commercially available car, made by Karl Benz, in the 1880s. It sits on the showcase, right as you enter his Pune home. It’s a model that will never go into display rotation, like the rest of his collection. Why? “Because it shows the transition from a horse-drawn carriage. It’s the forerunner to everything in mechanical mobility,” he says. He bought it in Singapore, in 2002 or 2003, for an amount that would have fetched him a 100 cc motorbike back then.
The bulk of Darukhanawala’s scale model collection is in storage in his old house. The rest of it is in his current home, stored in specially built showcases lining his study and a room adjoining the TV room. It’s no coincidence that the latter room also houses the shrine where he prays, holding pictures of assorted gods and a Sufi saint who has been a guiding force in his life. “I’m in my zone in these two rooms,” says Darukhanawala, who is one of the pioneers of automobile journalism in India. “It’s where I sit to write at night, or research my stories.”
Darukhanawala considers himself a bike lover first and a car lover later. Before he went to study mechanical engineering in the mid-1970s, he had a 500-700 piece Matchbox car collection, which he bequeathed to his younger brothers. “Only because my mother said I was too old to play with toys,” he says. When he came back three years later, the cars were broken and the collection scattered. It’s a loss he has never gotten over.
“These are exact scaled-down models of the original car. A pack of four Lesney-built Matchbox models, made in 1938-39, recently sold at an auction for GBP 32,000. So, don’t say I’m dabbling in toys,” he says smoothly. Oft-repeated the line may be, but the irritation fuelling it is not dim. “My family finally understood the passion behind my collection when we were in the US in the late 1980s. The whole family decided to go shopping, and we went to K-Mart. In the atrium, there was a swap-meet of scale model collectors and enthusiasts, and I told my family to meet me there when they were done shopping. They came back, and I was still engrossed. Over there, they saw a person selling several models of the same car — some were priced at $10 while others sold for $90. They asked him about the price variation, and he explained that the most expensive one even had the same coloured upholstery and leather as the original, making it a near-perfect miniature replica of the real car. That’s when my family understood how serious this was, and that there were other nuts like me.”
When he finished his engineering course, Darukhanawala joined Telco (as Tata Motors was known then) as an apprentice. “My take-home salary was Rs 135 a month in the first year, Rs 180 in the second and Rs 300 in the third,” he remembers clearly. Most of it was funnelled into collecting model cars. “I and my younger brother would write to as many people as we knew who lived abroad, put money in an envelope and send it to them to get us the cars. Then, we’d wait for five or six months for someone to come from abroad, mostly Europe, and carry them for us. It would cost us between Rs 10 and 25 for a top-notch Corgi or Matchbox then. In those days, car manufacturers, especially the Big Three US automakers, would release a scale model whenever they launched a new or a refreshed car. When I started travelling abroad, I would snap them up as soon as I saw them. This goes on to this day. But, heartbreak does happen when the credit card bill comes at the end of the month.”
In the 1990s, when the Indian economy opened up and cable television and the internet helped connect people better, enthusiasts were able to find each other, and an ecosystem evolved. Darukhanawala now has a collection of around 6000 models.
“I still know which ones I don’t have,” says Darukhanawala, who, by the way, relies on his phone to remember his wife’s birthday. “I travel abroad at least twice a month, and end up buying 30-40 cars. I don’t smoke or drink as I can’t afford to splurge on these given the need to fuel my obsession. So, this is my only passion. The question now is, do I stop investing in model cars and real classics and instead buy a piece of land to build a collection house?”
As we speak, a consignment of scale models has arrived from Macau and Germany. He’s paying Rs 5000 in customs duty for them and deciding which go into storage and which into display. A seat is missing in one of the cars, and he’s writing to the dealer to ask for a replacement, or to have the seat sent to him. Every summer, he and his two sons sit down to park new cars in his specially created dust-free showcases and to wrap up the old ones.
“It’s an emotionally draining exercise, especially if I find that some part is broken.” The old cars are cleaned using special brushes, cloth and an apparatus that looks like a mini car wash. It’s a box fitted with tiny brushes — a 1:18 scale model rolls in from one end and rolls out clean from the other. They are then bubble wrapped. The 1:43 scale models go into their individual jewel cases. “The whole process takes three to four weeks, and the boys get bored after a few hours and leave to watch a match or do something else,” he says. “We’ve only done this four to five times in ten years.”
As a collector, he is more interested in diversity than quantity. “Some people buy two of the same model — one as an investment and one for themselves. I am more interested in, say, the same model but with differing body styles — the perfect example being the different body styles sported by the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost.”
The placement of models in his study follows a pattern. Some shelves are filled with automobiles made in India. There’s a section for the winners of the Le Mans endurance race. “Nine are missing in this one,” he says. Then there are rows of Formula One World Championship winners, and another case for classic cars.
Darukhanawala confesses, barely hiding his pride, that he may be responsible for nurturing the craze for automobilia collection. He egged on a friend, Avinash Aggarwal, into importing scale models, and now he runs Model Art. His magazine, Car & Bike International, which was published from 1998 to 2005, had a section on model cars. “We also gave model cars as inducement to subscribers to Overdrive magazine,” he says. “So, they bit into the hobby.”
A small community of enthusiasts is now connected over Facebook and WhatsApp. They’ll pick a day to drive down to stores in Mumbai that stock scale models and offer advice to newbies on which cars to buy and how to temper their passion. “Fanatical collectors can go bankrupt if they aren’t careful or disciplined,” says Darukhanawala. “You should know your outer limit and love cars first. You can start by collecting three or four Hot Wheels cars a month. This is not just an urban phenomenon, mind you. There is an enthusiast in Jalgaon with 3000 cars; another in Ajmer has a sizeable collection too. We have our own universe.” And, it does not contain toys.