The aura of exclusivity and status surrounding these magnificent machines soon led them to be sought-after around the world. Opulent palaces across the Indian sub-continent opened their gates to new gems: Cadillacs, Isotta Fraschinis, Hispano Suizas... and, of course Rolls-Royces.
The marque held a peculiar fascination among the maharajas, some of whom placed mass orders. The Maharaja of Mysore was in the habit of buying his Rolls-Royces in batches of seven, leading employees at the firm to coin the term “doing a Mysore” for any bulk sale.
A new type of “colonial” vehicle was developed to meet the rigours of the terrain. Tough resistance tests across the subcontinent would test the performance of the cars to the maximum. The hundreds of cars that comprised the colourful Indian fleets helped provide a sense of occasion, and there was much demand for ceremonial cars for events in which the sovereign could present himself before his subjects in all his finery. One maharaja –perhaps more accustomed to parades of elephants– complained to the British firm that his smart new Rolls-Royce was too quiet, failing to announce his presence properly at popular celebrations. However the silent engine was certainly no drawback when the Rolls were taken out into the jungle on tiger hunts, with the maharajas with their rifles perched on high seats in vehicles especially fitted out with spotlights and machine-guns. And after a successful hunt the beast would be transported back in style to the luxurious camp on the running board.
Artisan coachbuilders were commissioned to make fabulous creations. Bodywork in bas-relief embellished with gold and jewels, ivory steering wheels, dashboards in precious wood, crocodile-skin upholstery, beaver-skin carpets, diamond, silver and glass ornaments, serpents… no expense was spared to create the perfect car. Their imagination often ran wild: examples included a swan-car that spat fire through its long neck “frightening off natives and elephants”, a gold and yellow Rolls-Royce with a throne inside, another painted pink to match the owner’s slippers and another specially fitted out to carry the royal cricket team.
A bizarre practice developed among some maharajas of threatening to turn their Rolls-Royces into common dustcarts to express their discontent at delays in receiving spare parts or technical assistance. The custom first began in an office in London when the Maharaja of Alwar felt slighted at receiving treatment that did not accord with his status. On his return to India with a batch of seven cars, he put them to work on the street, hauling rubbish and filth.
Rolls-Royce were always swift to react, doing their utmost to meet the demands of such exigent customers.
The declaration of independence in 1947 put an end to British rule and the power of the maharajas. Their palaces were turned into hotels and some of their Rolls, including the “Swan Car” and the “Star of the India” left the country and are now on show in museums and private collections.
It is only fair to point out that the maharajas were also great patrons of the arts, and they were far from being the firm’s only customers with a taste for the extravagant. Rudyard Kipling, the British writer who lived in India, attested to the splendour of their royal courts, writing that “God created the Maharajas so that mankind could have the spectacle of jewels and marble palaces”.