The exquisite cars of pre-World War II vintage of the Rajpipla royal family

Rajpipla crestA first-class princely state, the largest in the Rewa Kantha Agency of the Bombay Presidency, at the time of merger with the Union of India in 1948, Rajpipla was ruled by the Gohil Rajput dynasty for 600 years. Around 1340, Kumar Shri Samarsinhji Mokhdaji, second son of Thakur Mokhdaji Ranoji Gohil (reign 1309-1347) of Ghogha, in present-day Gohilwar in south Saurashtra, was adopted by his maternal grandfather Rao Chokrana, a Parmar Rajput prince of Ujjain (Malwa), who was ruling in Rajpipla at the time. Chokrana Parmar’s daughter was the younger queen of Mokhdaji Gohil. When Chokrana died without a male heir, Samarsinhji succeded to the gadi of Rajpipla at Junaraj (Old Rajpipla) Fort deep in the forests of the Satpura hills, and assumed the name Arjunsinhji. The rule of the principality of Rajpipla thereby passed on to the Gohil Rajput clan. Mokhdaji’s first son Dungarsinhji by his elder queen succeeded him to the gadi of Ghogha (later Bhavnagar) with its capital at Pirambet island in the Gulf of Cambay.

The 13-gun salute Rajpipla State was situated largely between the rivers Narmada and Tapti. Spanning an area of about 4,000 square kilometres, of which 1550 square kilometres were forests, the rest being fertile agricultural plains and river valleys, Rajpipla grew to be one of the most prosperous princely states in Gujarat, second only to Baroda. It was also known for its cornelian and agate mines, and the famous Cup of Ptolemy is reputed to have come from the mines at Limbodra in Rajpipla State. Its capital town of Rajpipla (Nandod or New Rajpipla) is now headquarters of Narmada district.

The origin of the Gohil Rajput dynasty of Rajpipla goes back to the sixth century A.D. when Muhideosur Gohadit or Guhil, born in 542 A.D. after the sack of Vallabhi and the only male survivor of the clan, went on to become chief of an area near modern Idar in Gujarat in the year 556, and held sway till his death in 603 A.D. His descendant Kalbhoj or Bappa Rawal seized Chittor and became ruler of Mewar in 734 A.D. A little more than two-and-a-half-centuries later in 973 A.D., Salivahan, the Gohil ruler of Mewar, and 11th in descent to Bappa Rawal, moved away with part of the clan from Chittor to Juna Khergarh (present-day Bhalotra near Jodhpur) on the River Luni in Marwar, leaving behind his son Shaktikumar with the remaining members of his kin. Thus for two-and-a-quarter centuries, both Mewar and Marwar were ruled by the Gohil Rajput clan.

Later, after Ala-ud-din Khilji ravaged Chittor in 1303, the Gohils of Mewar regrouped and assumed the name Sisodia. The capital was shifted from Chittor to Udaipur in 1559.

Meanwhile, the Gohils who had migrated under Salivahan continued to rule over Marwar until the formation of the Delhi Sultanate in the early part of the thirteenth century when the Rathore clan, pushed out of Kannauj, migrated to Marwar. In turn, the Gohil clan was displaced. They marched back to Saurashtra where they became governors of the Chalukyas, and then carved out their own principalities. The most famous of their chiefs during this period were Sejakji, Ranoji and Mokhdaji, and the princely states that they and their descendants carved out were Bhavnagar, Rajpipla, Palitana, Lathi and Vala.

The Gohil rulers of Rajpipla had to face several invasions from the sultans of Ahmedabad, the Mughal emperors and later the Gaekwars of Baroda, even losing their principality for brief periods, each time coming back to power by joining forces with the hill tribes (mostly Bhils) and carrying out guerrilla attacks. In 1730, with the weakening of the Mughal Empire, the 26th Gohil ruler of Rajpipla, Maharana Verisalji I stopped paying tribute to the Mughals, and his son Maharana Jeetsinhji wrested back the territories in the plains and shifted the capital to Nandod or New Rajpipla town, on the banks of River Karjan, a tributary of the Narmada. During the 1857 Mutiny, Rajpipla under Maharana Verisalji II rebelled, and for many months relieved itself of the sway of the British. During the reign of his son Maharana Gambhirsinhji (reign 1860-97), the road from Rajpipla to Ankleshwar was built, and Rajpipla State had its own postal system.

Maharana Sir Chhatrasinhji driving his Wolseley 6hp 1903-04 in Rajpipla, with Governor of Bombay Lord Lamington seated beside.

Maharana Sir Chhatrasinhji driving his Wolseley 6hp 1903-04 in Rajpipla, with Governor of Bombay Lord Lamington seated beside.

Maharana Chhatrasinhji (reign 1897-1915), the 35th Gohil ruler of Rajpipla, laid the 60 kilometres Ankleshwar-Rajpipla railway line and carried out massive famine relief during the period 1899-1902. He was one of the pioneers of motoring in India. The Automotor Journal of October 28, 1905 carried a photograph of him driving his Wolseley 6 hp car of 1903-04 in Rajpipla that year, with Governor of Bombay Presidency Charles Cochrane Baillie, Lord Lamington, seated by his side. Maharana Chhatrasinhji imported the first Armstrong Siddeley car into India. Bill Smith wrote in his book ‘The Wolseley-Siddeley Saga 1905-1909: Armstrong Siddeley Motors’ on Page 31, “A 15 hp Single Landaulette Armstrong Siddeley car number V1744 was delivered on 21.09.1906 to His Highness Maharana Chhatrasinhji, Raja of Rajpipla”.

Automotor Journal, in its issue dated February 10, 1906, noted that Maharana Chhatrasinhji’s Clement-Bayard 16 hp car took part in the Bombay-Mahabaleshwar Trials and lost zero points in Class B, that is, cars costing between £253 and £450. The Clement Bayard factory was taken over in 1914 by the advancing German army. In 1922 it was sold to Citroen.

A typewritten paper in the Rajpipla State records dated 10th April 1912 from the Dewan of Rajpipla refers to Mr. K. Messia who was in the service of Maharana Chhatrasinhji as motor engineer and chauffeur for six months. He received a salary of Rs.300 per mensem (month), besides free board and lodging. The report goes on to say that Mr. Messia had five cars under his charge and thoroughly overhauled and repaired a Clement Bayard car in a satisfactory manner.

The next ruler Maharaja Vijaysinhji (reign 1915-1948) carried out massive reforms and infrastructure works spanning agriculture, health, education, administration, police and judicial system. He ordered the laying of good motorable roads, and added the Jhagadia-Netrang section to the Rajpipla Railways. He also set up a 31 kilometres steam railroad and tramway connecting the towns along the River Narmada with villages in the interior, and a power house supplying electricity and water to Rajpipla town. His town planning as far back as 1927 was far-sighted.

A keen horseman, Maharaja Vijaysinhji maintained one of the finest stables of race horses in India and England,

Maharaja Sir Vijaysinhji with his Epsom Derby 1934 winning horse Windsor Lad.

Maharaja Sir Vijaysinhji with his Epsom Derby 1934 winning horse Windsor Lad.

marked by quality and not quantity. His thoroughbreds won several prestigious races, including the first Indian Derby in 1919 (Tipster), the Irish Derby in 1926 and Belgian Grand Prix in 1927 (Embargo), and the blue riband of the turf, the Epsom Derby of England in 1934 (Windsor Lad). Maharaja Vijaysinhji is still the only Indian owner to have bagged the English Derby, considered the greatest horse race in the world, cheered on by an estimated quarter to half a million people which included King George V and Queen Mary of Britain and other members of the royal family. Maharaja Vijaysinhji thereby completed a brilliant hat-trick of Derby wins: the first-ever Indian Derby, the Irish Derby and the coveted Epsom Derby of England, making him arguably the greatest-ever Indian racehorse owner.

Sports like cricket, football and hockey were made compulsory for students by Maharaja Vijaysinhji, who equipped Rajpipla with a polo ground and gymkhana club. A unique feature of the Rajpipla royal family was its polo team comprising Maharaja Vijaysinhji and his three sons Yuvraj Rajendra Singhji, Maharajkumar Pramod Singhji and Maharajkumar Indrajeet Singhji.

Maharaja Vijaysinhji laid out an airstrip in Rajpipla where aircraft landed in the 1930s and 1940s. During World War II, he donated three Spitfire fighter planes, named ‘Rajpipla’, ‘Windsor Lad’ and ‘Embargo’, and a Hawker Hurricane aircraft ‘Rajpipla II’. He also had plans to build a dam across River Narmada to facilitate irrigation and generate electricity, precursor to the present-day gigantic Sardar Sarovar project, and was in the process of raising investment for it when merger took place.

The magnificent Vadia Palace or Indrajit-Padmini Mahal, known as 'The Taj of Gujarat' in its heyday.

The magnificent Vadia Palace or Indrajit-Padmini Mahal, known as ‘The Taj of Gujarat’ in its heyday.

As Yuvraj, young Vijaysinhji moved into Vijay Palace in 1911, a home built for him by his father Maharana Chhatrasinhji. Later, Maharaja Vijaysinhji bought a splendid seaside property called ‘Palm Beach’ at Nepeansea Road, Bombay. The Maharaja spent much of the summer months at ‘The Manor’, his 27-roomed Victorian mansion at Old Windsor, Berkshire, England, having acquired the sprawling estate on the banks of the River Thames in 1922. Back in India he built the magnificent Vadia Palace between the years 1934 and 1942.

The first three Roll-Royce cars owned by Maharaja Vijaysinhji. Silver Ghost 1921, carrying Maharaja Vijaysinhji and Governor of Bombay Sir Frederick Sykes, is followed by 20hp or Baby Rolls 1922, and Silver Ghost 1913, at Rajpipla in November 1929.

The first three Roll-Royce cars owned by Maharaja Vijaysinhji. Silver Ghost 1921, carrying Maharaja Vijaysinhji and Governor of Bombay Sir Frederick Sykes, is followed by 20hp or Baby Rolls 1922, and Silver Ghost 1913, at Rajpipla in November 1929.

With a passion for cars like his father, Maharaja Vijaysinhji bought several of the leading makes. The Delhi Durbar of 1911 and the famous Alpine test of 1913 – passed effortlessly by the Silver Ghost – fuelled interest in Rolls-Royce cars in India. Having succeeded to the gadi of Rajpipla in 1915, the young ruler was on the lookout for a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost 1913. He found one in Calcutta, then owned by Charles W. Tosh who had taken delivery of the car in April 1914 in London where it carried the UK registration R-1956. This Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost 40/50 hp 1913, chassis no. 16 CA, carried torpedo phaeton tourer coachwork by Barker, as depicted on page 37 of the Barker sales catalogue. In the hands of the new royal owner, a RAJPIPLA No. 3 red number-plate was put on this iconic automobile. Thus began Maharaja Vijaysinhji’s fascination for Rolls-Royce cars, owning twelve of them over the next three-and-a-half decades.

Rajpipla cars lined up in front of Chhatravilas Palace in February 1926.

Rajpipla cars lined up in front of Chhatravilas Palace in February 1926.

Next came another Silver Ghost 40/50 hp, a 1921 tourer on chassis no. 32 UG, with breath-taking coachwork by Hooper (body no. 5498) as specified by the Maharaja. It was the pride of the State garage for many years, and carried the registration RAJPIPLA No.1.

In 1922, Maharaja Vijaysinhji bought the first production 20 hp Rolls-Royce, also known as Baby Rolls, bearing chassis no. 40 G1 and engine no. 101. This is where the Maharaja’s association with the coachbuilders Windovers began. He ordered six further Rolls-Royce cars with their coachwork in the next 15 years. Windovers were instructed to fit his 1922 Baby Rolls with a three-quarter landaulette body, painted claret with black wings. It carried the registration Rajpipla No.25.

Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost 1921, chassis no. 32 UG, at the riverside resort Hanumanteshwar in Rajpipla State. Seen in the foreground is Governor of Bombay Sir Leslie Wilson. Partially visible behind him is Maharaja Vijaysinhji.

Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost 1921, chassis no. 32 UG, at the riverside resort Hanumanteshwar in Rajpipla State. Seen in the foreground is Governor of Bombay Sir Leslie Wilson. Partially visible behind him is Maharaja Vijaysinhji.

The Maharaja bought a Hispano-Suiza H6B 1924, Chassis no. 10808. In the late 1920s, he owned a perky little Riley sports car in which he would zip in and out of his Windsor estate. Earlier, the Rajpipla fleet included a Daimler tourer. Photographs taken during Lord Willingdon’s visit to Rajpipla in February 1917 show some fascinating cars of pre-World War I vintage.

Inevitably, the Rolls-Royce stable-mate, a 3-litre Bentley with chassis no. LT 1585 and Connaught coupe coachwork arrived in 1927. The same year, Petersham Garage of Queen’s Gate Place, London SW 7 arranged for a cabriolet de ville body to be built by the Elkington Carriage Company on Rolls-Royce Phantom I chassis no. 55 EF. It was painted royal blue and black, and trimmed in gold-figured damask, the steering wheel ordered in ivory white, quite a common feature with cars supplied to Indian buyers. The car was delivered to the Maharaja at the Savoy Hotel in London, bore the registration no. YF-8389, and used in the UK.

Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost 1921. Seated on the rear left is Maharaja Vijaysinhji. Beside him is Governor of Bombay Sir Frederick Sykes, at Rajpipla in November 1929.

Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost 1921. Seated on the rear left is Maharaja Vijaysinhji. Beside him is Governor of Bombay Sir Frederick Sykes, at Rajpipla in November 1929.

The Phantom I 55 EF was sold in May 1929 via Windovers, who replaced it with a January 1929 Phantom I carrying their Brougham limousine coachwork, design no. 5583 on chassis no. 27 WR. This car has an interesting history. It was shipped to India, and then back to the UK about a quarter-century later in the 1950s, used for another two decades and dry-stored in a garage since 1975. The top of the Brougham body was cut and converted into a tourer, and the Phantom I engine was replaced by a 4 litre Rolls-Royce engine. It surfaced in 2012 when it was listed for sale on e-Bay.

The first Rolls-Royce Phantom II bought by the Maharaja was in 1930, bearing chassis no. 154 XJ. It carried Windovers enclosed limousine coachwork, commission no. J7940, design no. 5690.

It recently came to light that Maharaja Vijaysinhji also owned Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost 1924, chassis no. 103 EU, engine no. U 195, with Maythorn tourer coachwork. It was originally owned by J.A.Venn in Cambridge, from whom the Maharaja bought it in February 1933.

Maharaja Vijaysinhji and his son Prince Indrasinh or Billy driving out of Vijay Palace in the early 1930s.

Maharaja Vijaysinhji and his son Prince Indrasinh or Billy driving out of Vijay Palace in the early 1930s.

A Rajpipla Rolls-Royce that is still very much in evidence in India is the Phantom II 1934, chassis no. 181 RY, engine no. TT 65, Windovers sedanca de ville design no. 6168. It is mentioned in the book “The History of Windovers” (though the caption says chassis no. 181R4). The 6th Earl of Portarlington, Lionel Arthur Henry Seymour Dawson-Damer (1883-1959) was a director of Windovers and originally used it as a demonstration car. Maharaja Vijaysinhji shipped this car to India. It was driven mainly between Rajpipla, Bombay, Poona and surrounding areas for two decades. Thereafter it went to Kolhapur, and was with M. Apte in Bombay for some time. It is now in the Mewar royal cars collection at Udaipur and was featured in the 13th James Bond movie ‘Octopussy’ in 1982. In the same year it featured in episode 4 of the television series ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ which was also largely filmed in Udaipur, showing the car registered ‘Mirat 1’. I had the great pleasure of looking closely in early 2014 at this wonderful car, formerly owned by my grandfather. Mechanical restoration has been carried out in recent years. The interiors are to be refurbished soon to a standard befitting a Rolls-Royce. The exterior is in prime condition, still carrying the original coat of paint.

It was in 1934 that Maharaja Vijaysinhji won the coveted Epsom Derby, and that is what, I presume, led him to buy two Rolls-Royce cars that year. The second one was a 20/25 hp, chassis no. GMD 73 Windovers tourer coachwork design no. 61920. This car was specified to have louvres to the bonnet and continuing to the dash (bulkhead) sloping at 11 degrees. It was last known to be in Ludhiana.

A Rolls-Royce that Maharaja Vijaysinhji retained only for a short while was a Phantom II 1935, chassis no. 171 TA, Windovers saloon with division coachwork design no. 6277. This car soon passed to Lady Scarsdale in November of that year, and then began a chequered record. The car was known to be with a Mr. Dovey in Uitenhage, South Africa, who brought it there from Nchanga (Chingola), Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia. It was purchased by Michael Morelli in April 1975 in terrible condition. He decided to junk the body and obtain, or build, an open tourer replica with a side-mounted spare wheel, but then thankfully retained the saloon. The present owner is Charles Goodman, auto restorer in South Africa, who bought the car in the year 2000. I am in touch with him. He likes the cream and maroon car very much and plans to restore it to mint condition soon.

Another interesting story began to unfold soon, In November 1935, Maharaja Vijaysinhji ordered a Rolls-Royce 20/25 hp chassis no. GBK 42, engine no. J 28 R, from the Rolls-Royce works. It was sent to Windovers to be fitted with sedanca de ville coachwork to design no. 6341 by Vanden Plas. The Windovers order noted the bodywork to have seating for 6/7 persons, facilitated by sideway type occasional seats, a one-piece opening windscreen, and the luggage accommodation merged into the coachwork. The interiors were asked to be trimmed with rope pulls, Pullman arm-rests to front and rear compartments, pockets to the front doors, and front sun visor. Fittings were to be untarnishable, the glass being Triplex all over. It was also requested that private locks be fitted to the nearside door handles, and traffic indicators be set into the centre pillars.

This Rolls-Royce 20/25 hp 1936 was completed to its ordered specifications, but when the finished car was delivered to the Windovers showroom at Conduit Street, London in mid-May, the order was cancelled and the car reverted to stock. If I understand my grandfather’s mind well, this is what apparently happened. Maharaja Vijaysinhji had already ordered from Windovers on 18th October 1935 the fabulous V-12 Phantom III, just after Rolls-Royce had been announced its launch. My grandfather already had a 1934 20/25 hp tourer in India, hence decided not to take delivery of the GBK 42, and instead looked forward to the Phantom III.

The 20/25 hp, bearing registration no. CFX 325, was then bought by R.J Mackenzie of Elgin, Scotland, eleven days later. It was further restored by the Holton family in Northamptonshire. The car’s history is charted through the Rolls-Royce records, becoming the property of Robert McGlone of Hendon in 1945, on to Herbert Baber of Bringsty, Worcestershire in 1958, changing hands just twice more before acquisition by a collector in 1980.

A ground-up restoration was undertaken and the car was repainted in cream and brown livery which complements its coach-lines wonderfully, and re-upholstered by Chisholm (Trimming) Limited, giving it a black leather and fawn cloth interior. In addition to the original detailed specifications, the well-appointed rear compartment then featured smokers’-companions, and sliding mirror panels in the quarter lights. The car by auctioned at Christie’s in the year 2000.

Rolls-Royce Phantom III 1937, chassis no. 3BU 198.

Rolls-Royce Phantom III 1937, chassis no. 3BU 198.

And so we come to the Rolls-Royce Phantom III for which Maharaja Vijaysinhji cancelled the order for the 20/25 hp GBK 42. The 3BU 198 Phantom III chassis came off test on 25th February 1937, fitted with engine no. X18E, and with steering first at the high C rake but changed during construction to the middle E rake. It went to Windovers Limited on 1st March 1937, where they built a sedanca de ville, to design no. 4986 and body number 6456. The car had false landau irons, and two spare wheels, one to each side. Unusually for a car for use in the UK, it was fitted with Marchal headlamps. A radio and ‘Philco Rola’ loud speakers were installed in keeping with advancement in technology. It was painted Embassy Black, completed on 29th April 1937 and delivered to the Maharaja at his Old Windsor estate on 3rd May with UK registration DXP 989. It looks remarkably similar to his Phantom II 1934 181 RY but, of course, with different engines and other features.

In 1956 the car passed on to John Blackwood of the large British engineering company Blackwood Hodge; in 1961 it went to C. Campleman, still with its original hydraulic tappets, and in 1962 was acquired by A.J.H. King in Kent with under 60,000 miles on the meter. The car then passed into the hands of a member of the Swedish royal family and apparently still retains one of the royal family’s car badges, as well as a window sticker. It then came into the ownership of a celebrated collector and enthusiast, Hans Thulin. In the late 1980s it went to Germany where the collector carried out a great deal of detailed restoration work to the highest standards. The car is now believed to be in remarkable condition, with excellent chromed brightwork including an original ‘spirit of ecstasy’ mascot. The luxurious interior has also been expertly restored in light brown leather with superb highly-polished wood cappings, including a cocktail cabinet fitted to the central division. It was last auctioned at Coys, London in December 2013.

It was a fascinating vintage motoring journey for the Rajpipla royal family from the early years of the 20th century to the beginning of the Second World War in 1939. Some of the finest automobiles ever built adorned the garages of the family in India and the UK. Independence and merger came soon after the War. Newer cars were added to the collection but an era had passed, never to return. Even so, as they say, the wheel does come a full circle. Now with liberalization, fresh thinking in government, heritage springing up on the agenda of many, there are numerous exciting possibilities ahead…..

(Prince Indra Vikram Singh, fondly known as Teddy to family and friends, is grandson of Maharaja Vijaysinhji, the last ruler of Rajpipla State. Some of the information provided by the Rolls-Royce experts Mr. John Fasal and Mr. Steve Stuckey, automobile researcher Mr. Prem Kumar, Christie’s, Coys Europe and eBay, and used in this article, is gratefully acknowledged).

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2 thoughts on “The exquisite cars of pre-World War II vintage of the Rajpipla royal family

  1. Fantastic information. It is rare to find such details so meticulously compiled and written in an interesting style. Look forward to more such blogs, Hkm. Regards

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