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This royal is into car seva

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Arvind Singh, who says he is "mechanically inclined", owns about 30 vintage cars

The maharana of Udaipur, Arvind Singh Mewar, is clearly on a high. Sitting in his Geetanjali Enclave home in Delhi, the 76th scion of the House of Mewar has just flown in from California where his 1924 Rolls-Royce 20 HP Barker Tourer was the star attraction at the annual Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. Little wonder, then, that this classic beauty that he flew down especially for the event bagged the coveted Lucius Beebe trophy. "The competition was tough but the response was completely overwhelming. The Americans are very discerning about cars. In fact, I'd say they love their cars more than their wives, " he laughs, talking about the tough, rally-like conditions the car was put through. "People had lined up along the entire 70-mile stretch. From the way they cheered, and later when they walked up for a closer view of the car, it was evident they'd done a lot of research on it, " says the suave-and soft-spoken 67-year-old royal, better known as Shriji.
This is the first time the picturesque beach destination was offering a special section on Indian vintage cars, many of which belonged to the maharajas of yore. Of the 18 cars brought in by collectors from across the world, three, including Shriji's car, made the journey from India. Ask him what clinched the deal in his favour and he smiles, "I think it was because my RR GLK 21 is a single-owner car. It's been in the family for over six generations. "

While the RR GLK 21 may have got in the accolades, there about 30 vintage cars in his royal garage equally dear to him. "These cars have seen so much history. They're our living heritage, " he says and goes on to inform you how the family's first Rolls-Royce was picked up by his great-grandfather, Maharana Fateh Singh, in 1914. "That was the time when even though the ghoda buggy was a pretty ostentatious form of transport, the royal families were also making the transition to cars, which were even customised to suit their tastes. While most of these cars remain with us, some were sold (this was done out of sheer ignorance - something I deeply regret) or given away as gifts, " he says wistfully.

Shriji remembers being surrounded by cars ever since he was a little boy. "Being 'mechanically inclined', I was always fascinated by them. And when my father took me along on his shikaar (hunting) expeditions, my fascination was more with the cars than with the game, " he smiles.

While most of the cars remained in good condition, there was one that lay forgotten in a corner of his palace's Zenana Mahal (ladies quarters ). "Covered in dust, it was in such a dilapidated state that anyone would have thought it was past restoration, " says Shriji. The "magnetic pull" of the car soon had him in its grip and he decided to restore it. The first step was to bring in "a technical man" - Rolls-Royce restoration expert Graham Ashley-Carter who touched down in Udaipur in 1999 for a dekko.

The rest, of course, is history. Once the green signal was given, restoration work on the RR GLK 21 (yes, that's the one that fetched the honours at Pebble Beach) started in all earnest. With Ashley-Carter overseeing the whole project, most of the work was carried out by Shriji's "own team of experts".

In October 2005, the car was given a complete electrical overhaul. "It was a long, tedious process, " he says. The car still sports the original plate reading 'Coachwork by Barker'. Of course, all the instruments with their various markings are intact as are the wheel hubs.

Painted back to its original blue colour, the complete restoration of the RR GLK 21 "was, of course, a costly affair - somewhere between Rs 5 lakh and Rs 10 lakh - but it was all well worth it", says Shriji. According to him, nothing on this scale can be achieved unless you have passion and patience. "There has to be a sense of achievement and pride. But what also matters equally is patience. This car took almost ten years to be restored, " he says. Recently, the House of Mewar released a coffee table book titled, The Royal Udaipur RR GLK 21: Classic Drive from Derby to Udaipur to Pebble Beach and...Continues which is dedicated to the history and restoration of this car.

Since then, Shriji has restored several cars. "People call this passion of mine juvenile, but that's the way I am, " he says, and adds with a smile, "Maybe that's why my cars talk to me. And I talk to them too. They respond to the love and respect I give them. After all, many of these cars are much older than me. Ab yeh eccentricity hai to hai. "

The idea behind taking the car to Pebble Beach, says Shriji, was "to showcase our legacy and heritage to the people there". "These cars are our living heritage. That is why I don't mind spending staggering amounts on their restoration - after all, they bring back a lifestyle that was once synonymous with luxury and style. " This was one of the reasons why he decided to set up a car museum in Udaipur. "We charge a nominal entry fee of Rs 100 - much less than what people would spend on a day at the movies, so only those with a keen interest in cars walk in, " he says.

While car restorers like him are doing their bit, Shriji hopes the government too pitches in to save this slice of history and, for starters, waives the heavy duty levied on heritage items being brought in from abroad. "Look what happened to Tipu Sultan's sword that Vijay Mallya picked up at an auction. It's still lying abroad. If this tax duty is waived, more than half of our cars will come back, " he says.

The other 'must' that he wants the government to crack the whip on is registration papers for all vintage cars. "Don't all of us have our ID cards? Even dogs and horses have them, then why not our cars?"

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