the-south-asian.com August 2003
- LIVING WITH WHEELS
Tarun Thakral lives for his passion for antique cars, auto memorabilia and old railway saloons. Soon he will live in one of them. A chance spotting of an old ramshackle Chevrolet in the dumpyard of one Balkishan in Shekhawati region changed the focus of his hobby. This 1930 Chevrolet lay forlorn and unused in gross disrepair. " It was love at first sight," says Tarun
Tarun Thakral, the General Manager of Delhi's Le Meridien, is also a collector of antique cars and memorabilia and today sits on what could be a mini fortune of ancient artifacts and pieces of history. A proud owner of a fleet of cars that were the pride of their owners in the early 1930s, he worked assiduously over the years to build up his collection turned passion.
Not that he ever felt it was tough. " I always like doing things in fun way, hence life never seems tough," he says. Those who know him would agree.
His love for old things didn’t really take off till he returned from Paris where he went for his MBA from International Hospitality Management Institute. " It was in 1990 that I went to Paris and this turned out to be the turning point in my life." He became more aware of his heritage and history and it inspired him to look for the living history that existed in India, specially old artifacts.
" Returning from Paris, I started buying old gramophone players, records, lamps and other antiques." He always looked for them not in antique shops or auctions but in the dusty lanes of old villages and small towns in Rajasthan and other parts of the country. Fond of the outdoors and travelling, he never spent a weekend at home. " Every Saturday I would rush off to the small towns in Rajasthan where history lives not in museums but cheek by jowl with contemporary life."
From collecting lamps and old hookahs and pipes, a chance spotting of an old ramshackle Chevrolet in the dumpyard of one Balkishan in Shekhawati region changed the focus of his hobby. This 1930 Chevrolet lay forlorn and unused in gross disrepair. " It was love at first sight," says Tarun, " I enquired about it from the owner and he smilingly gave it away for what I may call peanuts, considering its value today."
Getting it back to its form was a daunting task. A friend recommended Tutu Dhawan, the car restorer and soon enough ‘operation restoration’ was on. It also started off a long association in which a number of cars were bought and restored to their old sparkling beauty. With the help from restorers Dhawan and Ranjeet Malik, these old cars purred to life and started attracting the attention of friends and aficionados of heritage cars. " Well, I did use my position in the hotel and parked all of my vintage cars in the basement parking," he grins sheepishly and adds with a laugh that they did not remain there for long.
As the cars started growing in numbers he had to find a place to move them. As a 1936 Ford, 1937 DKW, 1946 German Buick and Nash, a 1947 Chevrolet and a 1949 Pontiac were carried into the parking lot, Tarun planned to shift them to other quarters. All these cars came in pitiable condition. Most of them were lying unused in the garages of former royalty and old families of Rajasthan gentry. Sad and broken, the cars came to life as the restoration guys worked on them quietly and with love.
" All of them were a good bargain at that time," he says. However, he regrets that at least once his bargaining made him shoot himself in the foot. He came across a 1937 Ford, which was a rarity in a small town near Jodhpur. The owner of the garage where it lay unused, demanded Rs. 25,000 and Tarun put his foot down on 20,000 only to return 3 months later with 25,000 and find that following a storm, the roof of the garage had caved in and the Ford was beyond redemption!
An old farmhouse land that he had bought sometime back came in handy at that time. All the cars were shifted to this land in Gurgaon and a wall built around it to keep nosey urchins away. Every weekend and also during many evenings after work, he would drive down to his farm and watch how the cars returned to their original form as the team of mechanics tinkered with them. Soon the ‘Green Shed’ as the farm was called, became a popular place for friends to drop in and share his passion.
" I discovered that there was hardly any place where I could stay in the farm. So I parked a caravan there and put up in it." Ashwani Lohani, a close friend and the ITDC chief at that time, made a suggestion which was to change life dramatically for him. " Ashwani told me that the railways auction old coaches and some of them are of heritage and antiquity interest too. Instead of living in a caravan, try and get one of those coaches which will be in keeping with the character of your farm and also your interest," Ashwini advised.
Thus came the 1930 built metre gauge salon of the Bombay Baroda Central Railway. Lying for years at the Ajmer carriage workshop it was set to be sold for scrap. Pouncing on the opportunity, he bought it for Rs. 5 lakhs which was 20 percent higher since he bought the whole coach and not its iron, wood and other pieces separately. Transporting the coach was a Herculean task and two giant cranes had to be hired to bring it into Tarun’s farm.
" The cranes wrecked my lawns but now that the saloon is parked on regular rails inside the farm, it’s a dream come true!", gushes Tarun. As workers go about restoring and rebuilding it, Tarun looks forward to making it his weekend retreat. A bathroom, kitchenette, living room and a guest bedroom – the saloon will have it all once its is ready by this year end.
" My interests have not impinged on my married life. On the contrary, my wife is equally enthusiastic about it all," says Tarun. Mandeep, his wife, agrees. They married last year in Las Vegas, which is also his favourite destination outside India. They met in July and in October they were exchanging vows at a chapel in Las Vegas, famous for its two-minute weddings.
" You say I do and they hand you a marriage certificate in minutes!" he laughs. A consultant to health care firms, Mandeep, chuckles at his suggestion of cooking for friends in the railway saloon. " He never steps into the kitchen except to eat!" she says but Tarun moves in to demonstrate his prowess at making aloo parathas.
A true blue Scorpio, he shares his birthdate with Indira Gandhi, Sushmita Sen and Zeenat Aman! Equally ambitious, he plans a museum for transport vehicles in the future. Given his zest for collecting cars---and now trains---no one should be surprised to see a Tiger Moth or a Dakota plane parked in his farmhouse in the near future.
And that is no flight of fancy as far as Tarun is concerned!
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