Indian photographer documenting vintage cars as market for old motors revs up

Deepanjan Sarkar shares his passion with a niche but knowledgeable crowd

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A yellow Ambassador stands out against the background of a heritage bungalow. An MG T-type sports car in Clipper Blue is positioned against the old-school grille gates of the Calcutta High Court. A Chevrolet Styleline Deluxe waits patiently outside a church.

These are merely a few of the vintage motors that dominate the Instagram feed of auto enthusiast and car photographer Deepanjan Sarkar.

Sarkar, who lives in Kolkata, says he was “like any other car-crazy boy”; he collected scale model toy cars and drew elaborate motors in sketchbooks. Taking numerous road trips in a family friend’s cavernous Mark IV Ambassador in the 1990s further fuelled his passion.

Having studied animation filmmaking and worked as a User Experience (UX) designer, Sarkar also made a documentary in 2014, when India’s iconic car company Hindustan Motors shut down. Amby-tiousis is a tribute to the beloved Hindustan Ambassador.

The film won several awards, after which Sarkar became the official photographer of the Classic Drivers Club in Kolkata, capturing Sunday drives and other events organised by its well-heeled members.

Sarkar found his passion when he began photographing and writing about vintage cars and the personal stories of their owners for deRivaz & Ives, India’s first magazine dedicated to historic vehicles. Sarkar has shot all kinds of models, from Austin, Morris and Studebaker to Willys, Mercedes and Dodge.

Though Sarkar lives in Kolkata, he often travels to other cities and hunts down vintage models wherever he is. After a day in the office, he spends his time editing photos, drawing frames, planning his next shoot, and researching historic vehicles and the stories behind them.

It’s a passion he shares with a niche but knowledgeable crowd.

India’s vintage car collectors

According to the National Green Tribunal, any car manufactured between 1920 and 1939 is labelled a vintage car, while those between 1940 and 1979 are tagged as classic cars. The number of vintage vehicles in India is estimated to be about 5,000.

These motors are associated with a bygone era. Connoisseurs, notably India’s erstwhile royal families, have been collecting vintage models since the early 20th century.

Many maharajas were proud owners of Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, so much so that, despite being made abroad, these cars became associated with India’s flamboyant past. Statistics show that a quarter of Rolls-Royce production between 1912 and 1947 was for the Indian market.

Then came models such as Premier Padmini, which debuted in 1964; the bulbous Ambassador, the favourites of bureaucrats; and the handsome Contessa of the 1980s – homespun cars that became iconic in their eras.

For the true enthusiast, it is about the passion for restoring, maintaining and driving these wonderful vehicles
Amir Jetha, car collector and owner of Jetha Properties

Even today, the rich and famous collect vintage cars and the garages of former royals house these ageing beauties. In modern India, these cars are still considered status symbols as they are a nod to an illustrious past. Vintage cars are appreciating assets because of their craftsmanship and rich automotive history.

“Over the past decade or so, interest in vintage cars has grown from being a passion-driven acquisition to a sound financial investment,” says Amir Jetha, the Mumbai-based owner of Jetha Properties and award-winning owner of a 1935 Rolls-Royce Phantom.

“Vintage cars have outperformed most other asset classes in terms of returns. While the investment angle has significantly driven up interest in these cars, for the true enthusiast or collector it has always been about the preservation of automotive history and the passion for restoring, maintaining and driving these wonderful vehicles,” adds Jetha.

The market also has players such as Big Boy Toyz, a popular retail brand for pre-owned high-end cars such as BMW, Audi, Lamborghini and Range Rover. Many restoration workshops have come up across the country, such as the one in Mumbai run by brothers Kaizad and Nekzad Engineer. India also had its first online auction for vintage cars in 2018.

In Bangalore, car restorer Christopher Rodricks, who trained in Australia, specialises in doing up Rolls-Royces and Jaguars. Restoration is a long and complex process, he says, and requires a knowledge of bodywork, upholstery, wiring and mechanicals.

The most difficult issue for antique car owners is maintenance, especially if the cars are custom-built, plus heat and humidity affecting the condition of a vintage motor. Sourcing tyres, spare parts and accessories to keep the cars roadworthy also pose a challenge. Yet most owners take on these challenges with passion, aided by car clubs and experts who specialise in vintage cars.

A sage green 1972 Premier President was passed on to me by a school alumnus who is 54 years my senior, and I could not be prouder
Deepanjan Sarkar

Vintage car museums plus rallies and shows, such as the Statesman Vintage Car Rally in Delhi, keep the interest in these heritage pieces alive. At events such as the Cartier Concours d’Elegance, international judges have admired India’s automotive restoration skills. Costs for vintage cars are on the up as more collectors jump into the fray.

Sarkar says every vintage car has its own personality, something he seeks to draw out in his photographs. “The interest in old cars is increasing among millennials who want to restore their family cars as well as the two-wheelers driven by their grandfathers. Others are keen to acquire the same car or bike that a beloved family member once used to own,” he notes.

On his own dream list are the Cadillac Eldorado from the 1970s and a classic Mini.

As for the most special car he already possesses in his collection, it’s a “sage green 1972 Premier President that joined my garage in 2021,” Sarkar says. “The car was passed on to me by a school alumnus who is 54 years my senior, and I could not be prouder.”

Updated: December 15, 2023, 5:36 AM