Ever wondered what a fully flexed power boost could do to that old classic car you drive? Here’s the lowdown
Where did you get those cars? The bottom of a cereal box?” scoffs a character in The Fast and the Furious. And while the movie will hardly go down as a piece of cinematic genius, or acting for that matter, it neatly sums up your view of modified cars on Indian streets, those pieces of mangled metal on wheels that look as if a drunk with a blowtorch was let loose in some parking lot. In places like Delhi, even a sober remodelling job can mean rear spoilers the height of small buildings and speedbreaker kissing bumpers. If some cars have ‘ABS’ labels, these clunkers ought to be slapped with ‘ASB’ warnings—‘Attention Seeking Behaviour’.
In all this, however, there are some genuinely passionate motorists. For them, car modification is not about looks, it’s about performance. And when they turn the sensual purr of an engine into a mighty roar under the hood, especially the hood of a deceptively dowdy old model, you know you’re onto something.
Says Anant Pithawala of N1 Racing in Mumbai, “We have a lot of clients who drive cars that look completely ‘stock’ (factory produced) from outside, but with a serious amount of power under the hood. In fact, people are slowly realising that strap-on body kits and bumpers only add to the weight of the car… something which makes it slower rather than make it go faster.”
Welcome aboard. Okay, so these are not sports cars with exorbitant import-duty tags. Their shapes may rival bread boxes in aerodynamism, and for guidance they look up to the birds, not a GPS… hell, some of them don’t even have ACs. But, but, but. What they do have is something the newer cars simply don’t—iconic status and quarter mile timings that would turn other car owners sleepless with envy. According to Amanpreet Ahluwalia, a Delhi-based car modifier, these oldies can be made to run faster than you’d think.
FAMILIARITY SANS CONTEMPT
This story’s leading role is played by a car that began life as a 1972 Vauxhall Victor FE, and went on to become a symbol of opulence in India a decade later, when the Indian economy was just beginning to open up (those were the days you forgave your relatives for confusing Honda Accord with Concorde). Still one of the most comfortable cars on Indian highways, it is the HM Contessa. Drumroll please.
The supporting lead is being played by a car that’s significantly smaller, but undoubtedly has the most racing passion of the three. The passion it inherited from Fiat, a fervour that now finds expression in Ferrari. In the 1970s and early 1980s, it was the Indian racers’ choice, and though it hasn’t been in production anywhere for several years, it continues to colour South Mumbai’s streets yellow as a cab that would rather rattle along than give up the slightest meter-down opportunity. It’s the Premier Padmini. Horns please.
Then, there’s a third role, which may turn out to be the hero eventually. It is played by a symbol of Indian officialdom, the very shape of its front bringing up visions of the Ashokan lion crest. In India, it’s in the habit of flashing a red beacon atop to clear a path through the traffic (even here it’s about intent, not outcome). In the UK, though, it prefers to sport a taxi sign—to secure a place for itself in London’s curry-cool scene (as the Karma Cab). This car began production in 1957. Based on the Morris Oxford Series III, it’s the only star of our story that’s still in production. No marks for guessing this one, it’s the Ambassador. Bugles.
IN the 1960S America, muscle cars became the epitome of rebellion and freedom, and of course luxury. The Indian muscle car movement is almost entirely influenced by the revival of the American muscle car movement. As the US sees its Detroit Three sputter, a certain retro pride in indigenous old cars has surfaced, lately.
This, mind you, is not a nostalgia trip down the forgotten streets of Indian street racing. Nor is it an attempt to reverse the chronology of motoring (of all the buttons on these cars’ dashboards, none is marked ‘Benjamin’). If super sleek gloss and super silent engines are what turn the motorist in you on, you’re in the wrong place. But if you’re looking for some serious metallic muscle, stick around. Fasten your seat belt. These cars have built themselves up, and are going to make some noise about it. Unapologetically so.
It doesn’t cost the earth to convert these cars, provided you start with rear-wheel drives, but boy, can they roar. With N1 Racing reporting a sudden increase in the number of such power boosts done over the past two years alone, such cars are hitting more and more roads.
The Contessa is a good candidate for such a job, says Pithawala, which is why there are quite a few power mechanics looking to work on this car. Besides being a rear-wheel drive, it’s one of the few cars in India that actually looks like a drag car. And, its shape is closest to the famed Mustang. This is one reason that the Contessa is easily one of India’s most modified cars.
Ahluwalia, though, has taken the Mustang conversion concept as far as it can go. He has designed a black Contessa to look exactly the part, but with a majestic lion under the bonnet instead of a pussycat. Ahluwalia claims that with the help of twin carbs, racing inlet manifolds, and a dozen engine modifications you’d need a dictionary to get the hang of, he has turned out a 130 bhp car has taken the needle all the way to 200 kmph.
Harish Iyyer, a mechanical engineer living in Delhi, meanwhile, has been working hard on his rather dishy-looking Padmini. The aim is to reach higher top speeds, and test runs suggest he’ll get there soon. It’s a head turner of sorts, but by no means the only supercharged Padmini on the roads. There are many.
If you care to listen to the sound of that old-fashioned looking car revving its way forward to overtake you, you’d notice.
Typically, an engine swap is the first modification that the sweet old Premier Padmini must undergo, and the results are often startling. Just recently, at the Mumbai Speedruns a Padmini with a turbo-charged Contessa engine almost beat an Octavia RS in the quarter mile. In fact, it held the lead for three-fourths of the race.
No less famous among Premier fans are the two cars parked in the Dabhar family’s garage. There lies a beige 1964 Fiat that has served Behram Dabhar, general manager at Mahindra’s Vehicle Development and Research Centre, for a good part of his life in good condition. Equipped now with a custom freeflow exhaust and stage 1 piper cam, it’s another machine altogether. The Dabhar family wouldn’t mind if your gaze wanders out of this car’s window to the other pride of their garage, an unassuming 1996 left-hand-drive Premier Padmini—at least until someone floors the throttle and lets the carburetor kick in.
The big daddy of them all, the Ambassador, though seems to be the most eager contender for the title of Mr Muscle Car. While there’s one that can clock 18-second runs on drag strips, courtesy Pithawala of N1 Racing, there’s also a 1960s Ambassador from Chennai that’s staking its claim for the beastiest engine of them all.
The Chennai Ambassador has been done up by Vinod Mohan with—hold your breath—a 4.1 litre, 6 cylinder 1982 Ford Falcon engine imported from Australia. It out-combusts even the Audi Q7, the toughest of SUVs on the streets, by a good 1,100 cc of engine capacity.
The car had sentimental value for its owner, who’d been looking for someone to do an engine swap since the 1990s. That’s when he imported the engine. According to Mohan, it touches a top speed of 160 kmph, and can leave even the Skoda Superb behind, which is a lot to say for a car that in stock condition would take a gold brick and a year’s calf-muscle workouts to get even 90 kmph.
So far, so good: Indian roads now have cars that have iconic lines but unadulterated raw power under the bonnet, not to mention new technology that helps them come to a stop without the need of assistance from a wall. Some custom modifiers like Arush Vohra of Autopsyche, however, would rather not have these cars trumpeted too loudly. The modifications being done in India, he insists, are just too far behind in the horse count to qualify them as muscle cars in international reckoning. “True that people have swapped engines and all,” he says, “but they have gone up to only 150 bhp, not 300-400 bhp, because the chassis cannot take the stress.”
In other words, power cannot always be retrofitted. It’s a design thing, and has to start from the car’s very first conceptual sketch. Yet, it’s quite another joy watching those fancy new factory products blur away in your rear view mirror. As Iyyer says, “They may laugh at my Fiat from their Civics and Cities, but they’re another shade once I floor the throttle.”
Plus, not to forget, you can lean out of your window, rev your engine, and pop the cereal box question. Of course, you wouldn’t really care for a response. Equipped with that mighty roarer under the hood, you wouldn’t want to be waiting around for an answer.
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