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OVERLOOKING FOR the moment the plight of a lesser populace, being a maharajah must have been grand—especially if one were a car enthusiast. Over the years, I’ve collected lore on Cars of the Raj, seen several and even driven one. A report follows.
Maharajah, by the way, is a perfect example of the Sanskrit heritage of all Indo-Aryan languages, including English. The word महाराज evolved to the Latin magna and regem and our English “major ruler,” “great king.”
A most famed maharajah car began in less than regal circumstances. Robert Nicholl “Scotty” Matthewson was a wealthy and evidently eccentric Scots engineer living in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata, and why do you suppose they changed all those names?).
In 1909, Matthewson commissioned England’s J.W. Brooke and Company to provide him with a Swan Car. Brooke in turn depended upon Savage of Kings Lynn, a purveyor of British steam-powered fairground rides, for its fabrication.
The swan’s head and body enclose the car’s radiator and hood. Its amber eyes glow in the dark, its eight-note Gabriel exhaust horn has a keyboard so chords and bugle calls can be played. Its beak sprays hot water to clear the path ahead of pedestrians.
I love this last touch.
In a less classy feature, a rear dump valve drops splats of whitewash following the Swan Car.
Matthewson apparently had fun with the Swan Car in Calcutta’s fashionable Maidan Park. When it was ruled off the streets (too much whitewash?), it went to the Maharajah of Nabha, who, by 1919, owned two of the species.
The Cygnet may well be the world’s oldest Indian-made automobile, built in the Maharajah of Nabha’s own garages. The Maharajah, by the way, was also the founder of the Vintage Automobile Association of India. Also as an aside, his city Nabha, in northern India’s Punjab state, is said to contain “a veritable maze of narrow winding alleys which astonish you by emerging at the most unexpected places.”
It sounds to me like Rome.
The 1921 Farman A6B Super Sport Torpedo had a trio of Maharajah owners—and even a humble journalist driver—your author.
The Farman’s first owner, the Maharajah of Idar, was an aviation enthusiast. Hence it made complete sense for him to choose a car with the rich heritage of the Brothers Henri and Maurice Farman.
In my brief drive of the Farman, I appreciated the complexities of firing up its 6.3-liter single-overhead-camshaft alloy inline-six, its dual ignition system featuring both magneto and battery. The car has quite responsive steering, a four-speed non-synchro gearbox and, advanced for the period, four-wheel brakes. It was a thrill to share a driving experience, however brief, with the likes of the Maharajah of Idar.
My last tale is necessarily fragmentary, as I’m confounded to found my original source. It’s said a high-born personage of India ordered a Rolls-Royce chassis precisely to his specifications, later to be given equally definitive coachwork. So fastidious was this Nizam, Nawab or whatever that he periodically telephoned the Rolls-Royce works in Derby, England, from his home in India.
Work on his car would then pause momentarily, craftsmen would push the incomplete motor car to the nearest telephone—and His Highness would be entertained with the purr of its engine or toot of its hooter.
Yes, it would have been grand being a rajah. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013
Last year at the Pebble Beach Tour d’ Elegance and later at the Concours d’Elegance, we were treated to the presence and in some cases the motion of “Cars of the Majarajahs,” including your Swan Cars. My favorite: the 1934 Rolls-Royce Phantom II All Weather Cabriolet known as the ” Star of India.” I spoke briefly with its owner, Yuvraj Saheb Mandhatasinh Jedaja, Majarajah of Rajkot and found him patient, gracious and knowledgeable.