On a balmy Sunday morning in Cusrow Baug, a Parsi colony in Colaba, Mumbai, the first people to stir are the motorcyclists. Soon after sunrise, a row of vintage and classic machines line up under the archway of the colony, their riders raring to go, wearing T-shirts that sport the logo of the “Vintage Zoroastrian Bikers of Bombay” (VZBB for short) — the riding club to which they belong.
As the name suggests, to become a member of the VZBB one must own a vintage motorcycle, must be a follower of the Zoroastrian religion — one of the world’s oldest faiths — and must reside in Mumbai (formerly called Bombay). However, as Xereus Zend, one of the founding members of the group says, “It’s not a religious thing, about being a Zoroastrian. It’s more a cultural thing. It’s how you connect with your motorcycle. In Bombay you know that a Parsi-owned car or a Parsi-owned bike is something that’s well-maintained, something that’s loved, something that’s not man-handled.”
People who live in Mumbai, where around 70,000 of the approximately 100,000-strong Parsi community reside, will be all too familiar with what he means. After all, the VZBB is just one example of Parsis who honor and treasure their machines. In Mumbai one is never too far away from a pristine Parsi-owned car or motorcycle that has been painstakingly maintained over the years.
So much so that there was a time when while scouring the classifieds section of a newspaper for used automobiles, one would pay special attention to ads that bore the words “Parsi-owned.” A stamp of approval that indicated the machine, no matter what vintage, was in immaculate condition, and was worth the possibly higher price it commanded.
Karl Bhote, a 37-year-old Parsi classic car enthusiast on a mission to preserve India’s automotive heritage, puts the longevity of Parsi-owned cars and bikes down to the community’s “pragmatic” nature not to replace a product unless it was essential.
“It’s just a sense of responsibility, a sense of dignity towards the product that you have. You just treat it in a particular way,” he says. And a perfect example of this is the 1955 Fiat 1100 Millecento that he owns, popularly known in Indian classic car circles as the “Dalda 13.” The car once belonged to India’s first female photojournalist, Homai Vyarawalla, who drove it from 1955 to 2009, only giving it up when in her mid-90s she found its upkeep rather difficult. But simply acquiring a new machine when her existing car worked perfectly well was unthinkable.
It’s a sentiment echoed by 69-year-old Fram Dhondy, whose 1957 Fiat 1100 Elegant has clocked over 900,000 kilometers (559,000 miles) and is still used regularly.
“There was a lot of pressure on me about 25 years back to sell it. [People would ask] ‘Why are you using such an old car? There are modern cars available.’ I said ‘Okay, but I am not going to sell it.’ Even when I was small, and Dad used to drive us around, I realized it has never let us down anywhere. So, I said, ‘When you have such a reliable machine, why let it go?'”
Handed down the generations
Today, Fram’s son, Anosh, is the third generation Dhondy to drive that very machine, and like his grandfather and father before him, has no intention of ever selling the car. Both Fram and Anosh attribute the Parsi fondness for vintage and classic automobiles to the community’s inherent love for all things old, citing the fact that the refrigerator in the family home is 80-years old and still going strong.
However, others believe the Parsi fondness for automobiles began simply because of the community’s standing in society. Although small in number, the Parsis flourished under British rule in the port city of Bombay, now Mumbai. Which meant that Parsis like Rustom Cama and Jamshedji Tata became the first Indians to own cars in the country, while Suzanne Tata became the first Indian woman to acquire a driver’s license.
Bhote counters that money is a deciding factor when it comes to the Parsi love for automobiles. “The wealthy Parsis obviously had cars, but that’s not because they were Parsi, it’s because they were wealthy. So did the Gujarati merchants, Marwari merchants and everybody else.”
The Parsi passion for old machines
What sets the Parsi auto enthusiast apart, though, is that even well-heeled Parsis who could upgrade to newer machines, remained steadfast in their refusal to give up their old machines. That the old machines required more time, energy, and attention to maintain, didn’t deter them.
Where does this passion needed to nurture vintages and classics come from though? Kooverji Gamadia, a Parsi auto enthusiast who owns a rare 1948 Invicta Black Prince — one of only five surviving examples in the world — has a theory. “The Parsi traits are attributed to the teachings of the Zoroastrian religion. So, you see, perhaps some of these things could emanate from there.”
Veteran automotive journalist and historian, Adil Jal Darukhanawala, agrees, saying, “We just are mad about them, and I think there is a very indelible affinity to all things mechanical. We take more care of our cars and bikes than our wives [who] come a close second. Honestly speaking, [I] can’t put a finger on it.”
And while the specific reasons behind the Parsi love for classic cars and bikes might remain elusive, the proof of this idiosyncrasy is available in abundance. To experience it, one merely needs to find a good spot from where to watch classic machines drive past on a Sunday morning in Mumbai.
Edited by: Rob Mudge