A Morning With An Astounding Indian Car Collector
Photography by Kartik Kulkami
Last year, I was left almost speechless and fumbling for words as I met and spoke with an Indian car collector with an elaborate and magnificent collection—and words alone are inadequate.
Dr. Ravi Prakash, a former Cardiac surgeon, is a three time National Rallying & Racing Champion between 1981-1984, Managing Director of Rushe Safetek, a company that offers safety and security systems for the armed forces, a collector and restorer of more than 200 vintage cars and 100 bikes, secretary of the Karnataka Vintage and Classic Car Club and a father of two petrolhead daughters.
In my experience, men of his stature don’t usually entertain interviews, but Dr. Prakash did. I honestly thought I’d steal just a couple of hours of his time, as I was not aware of the extensive collection he owned. To my delightful surprise, Dr. Prakash and his team of mechanics played host for almost 6 hours, showing an incredibly selfless demeanour and noble humility.
First, Dr. Ravi asked his mechanic, Jokim D’Souza, to give me a tour around the garage while he attended to his daily morning obligations. I felt like I was on a treasure hunt, and only after I went around his collection that I began to understand and truly appreciate pre-war cars.
D’Souza is not only a knowledgeable mechanic but is also a delightful person. His bright enthusiasm and passion for classic cars foiled my attempts at trying to understand him and read his mind. He would climb onto the steam truck, for instance, and ask for my camera so that he could explain how the powertrain actually worked. He has vast experience in restoring old cars and his eyes glistened while he explained the simplicity of a Fiat engine compared to other European cars. He also enthusiastically described the beautiful engine sounds that emanate from a particular car when it is running and in good condition. We spoke at length about various topics, each of us learning a thing or two about each other.
When it finally came time to interview the Dr, I must say I was a bit anxious. However, he offered some coffee and made me feel right at home. He fueled my interest in a Malayalam film called Bangalore Days that features two of his cars. Further as a memento, he gave me a white handkerchief with some of his precious cars printed on it. Dr. Ravi’s sense of humour helped ease my nervousness further when he jovially recalled his daughters’ naive question about the handkerchief: “Would people who receive this memento blow their noses in it…or treasure it?”
His humble personality left an impression on me and it was as though I was meeting an old friend after a long time.
I was disappointed to not spot your Jaguar E-Type at the vintage car rally yesterday.
Dr. Ravi: My daughters are so attached to the Healey and the XK140. I told them that they should’ve driven the cars that were shot in Bangalore Days. The movie stars the Sunbeam Alpine and the Austin Healey from my collection, and I went to the theatre only to watch the cars. I don’t even understand Malayalam except for a few slangs that I picked from my Malayalam friends back in the medical days. The movie is so good that my wife, Sabena, and Rupali went back to watch it for a second time. Anjali Menon, the director, has done a marvellous job.
Do you fancy Muscle cars?
Dr. Ravi: Not really. I was only into British and European cars. Only in the early 2000s did I start picking up the other cars. If I had the money in the 90s, I would have collected some fabulous cars! But anyway, I don’t regret my decisions.
Now that you mentioned it, which cars are still on your shopping list? Which ones would you yearn to have?
Dr. Ravi: I own around nine Rolls Royce models but I don’t have a Silver Ghost. I want to pick up a nice Silver Ghost and a W.O. Bentley to add to my collection.
I just overheard you talk about your museum. Could you share more details?
Dr. Ravi: The museum is going to be around a 300,000 sq.ft classical building in Bangalore, which would house around 450 cars and 150 motorcycles. This museum is going to be the largest in the country. It will contain cars showcasing the entire evolution of the automotive industry. Work should begin in about 2-3 months, and should be completed by 2016. 75% of the cars in the museum will be from my collection. I also have around 17,000 odd car books, journals, magazines, and automobilia that will be showcased there. All my cars actually belong to a trust. So part of the money that will be earned through this museum will go into the maintenance of museum itself, and the rest of the money will be spent on treatment of road traffic accident victims.
I’m also looking into this mega project, a wishful thought, which also involves parking a helicopter at the museum to serve as an air ambulance for the city—the first of its kind.
The first time I heard about you was in the news when your took part in the Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance in 2012. A phenomenal feat. What was the experience like?
Dr. Ravi: It was one of my lifetime ambitions to be present at Pebble Beach. Honestly, I didn’t envision being a part of such a classic event. Their Maharaja class gave us an advantage. My 1930 Delage D8 was formerly owned by the Maharaja Holkar of Indore. The best part was that my 1907 Locomobile was selected on its own, which is a piece of history that I will reminisce for all my life. Incidentally, in the history of Pebble Beach, I was the first entrant from India who had two cars selected for the event. Not just that, my daughter Shefali Prakash navigated and lead the whole parade in Pebble Beach in the 1907 Locomobile, while Rupali Prakash drove it. It was a huge honour for the entire family.
At Pebble Beach, was there a car that you pried on and wished you had that in your collection?
Dr. Ravi: You know, sometimes my mind just wanders around. I don’t have a Ferrari, Aston Martin, or any of the latest supercars. Although I’m basically a Mercedes fan, these are some of the cars I would like to buy. Sometimes I feel like I should retire, but this obsession for cars will never let me retire. So somewhere down the line, I will pick up a Ferrari.
It’s an advantage that your family embraces your passion as if it’s their own.
Dr. Ravi:I would rather call it a blessing in disguise. I have seen many of my friends’ collections limited to only one generation. I thank god that both my daughters and wife have this passion. My wife used to drive a lot in the vintage rallies, and that sort of triggered the kids to have this passion too.
What car does your wife, Sabena Prakash usually like to drive?
Dr. Ravi: She drives around the E-Type quite a bit. She also drove the 1933 Mercedes 320. Her first driver was the 1937 Sunbeam Talbot 2 Litre. She has driven that car to at least a dozen events.
You mentioned the Sunbeam Talbot 2 Litre. There’s some sort of legacy that’s attached to it, isn’t it?
Dr. Ravi: Yeah! I had been to Sholavaram for the races. As I was driving back, this car passed by and I said to myself “That’s a very nice car”. My friend mentioned that the car was advertised in the papers recently and we managed to procure the details of the owner, General Mahadevan.
I called him up and spent time with him the next day and we spoke about cars in general over a couple of beers. He quoted around INR 40,000, and back in 1979, that was a huge sum. When I called him back to thank him for the afternoon, his wife said he was admitted to the hospital as he slipped while walking back upstairs. A couple of months later, I received a telegram mentioning his passing. I visited the family to pay my condolences. Four months later, his wife calls me and asks me to collect the Talbot.
That was one of the hardest days for me, because I had to arrange that kind of money when I only was a student back then. So after borrowing thousands from a dozen friends, I went to Chennai. She gave me the car keys and a letter—and tells me that, “…the car has been willed to you”. As much as I insisted that I would like to pay the full amount for the car as I’ve been able to arrange for the money, she told me that it’s not just her husband, but her own wish, too, to give me the car. She even went out to say that, “…if we had a daughter, we would likely give her hand in marriage to you also”.
It truly was one of the most touching moments of my life. That was my first car, and from there on my journey began.
You mentioned of visiting Chennai for the races, and I remember reading about you being a National Rallying & Racing Champion. What’s that story all about?
Dr. Ravi: I was into racing and rallying, driving stock Ambassadors, Group I Ambassadors and then stock Fiats. I raced in Sholavaram, Chennai and Byrackpur, Kolkata and I won both the races. Byrackpur was the Ambassador hub as it was manufactured there, and many veterans like Ravi Kumar, Rishi Kumar, Niaz Ali were in competition back then. I beat them all in the Sprint and the GP events, and headed the National Championship. The FMSCI awarded me with the presidential award for three consecutive years from 1981-1984.
What was the racing scenario back then in the 80s in India?
Dr. Ravi: I had a good season for those three years. I had MRF, Sachs shock absorbers, and many others who started sponsoring me. In the 80s there were big guys who used to bring in fast cars- Maharaja of Gondal had a Formula 5000, Vijay Mallya had a F3, I think. Coimbatore boys used to have highly modified Group II cars. There were some notable ones from Mysore. The boys from Mumbai modified Heralds with overhead cams and what not. We were basically into stock and modified Ambassadors and Fiats. I finally hung up my racing gloves in 1984.
K2: Did you inherit this obsession for cars from your parents? Was your father an equally passionate car guy?
Doc: My Dad certainly enjoys good and comfortable cars. But I wouldn’t say that he was passionate about them. Although, we would modify our Ambassadors quite a lot. We would get bucket seats from Koyas in Coimbatore, and a Diesel Engine fitted with Coimbatore Auto Garage. This is during the 70’s. I used to modify quite a bit of the car myself by adding spacers, mag wheels, altering dash boards and whole lot of things after my medical school. So yeah he enjoyed quite a bit of modifications I/we used to do together.
From being a doctor, to a racing champion, to a car collector. Such contrasting professions, but do you find a similarity between them?
Dr. Ravi: Yes, there are a lot of similarities. The functions of both the heart of a human body and the carburettor of a car are the same. I used to fiddle around with my bike a lot before I got under the hood of cars. I was nicknamed “Honda Kid”, as I used to have a 125-cc Honda twin when I was 16. I have pulled out my bike’s engine and gearbox, disassembled, and reassembled it many times—so its a type of a surgery itself.
You just need to have that inclination. I don’t see them as two different professions. If you have your mind set on a goal, there is nothing stopping you.