A Kind of Heritage: Vintage & Other Antique Cars

Features Issue 40 Aug, 2010
Text by Dinesh Rai / Photo: ECS Media

In 1997, the “Peking to Paris Vintage Car Rally” arrived in Kath-mandu, providing Kathmanduites a grand spectacle at the BICC grounds in New Baneshwar. Superbly designed cars one had only seen in Hollywood movies or TV, were lined up in all their glory for our eyes to feast on. They were truly beautiful. Ford, Rolls Royce, Chevrolet, Mercedes Benz and a host of other cars dating back to the 1930’s and ‘40s—looked impeccable even in the ’90s and were in perfect condition. How else would they survive a journey from China to France? Along with these visitors, our own car collectors had taken the opportunity to display their prized possessions. There was a 1931 Ford Model A, 1957 Mercedes Benz, a 1929 Buick, several Austins and many more.

Local enthusiasts had organized their own vintage car rally in Kathmandu in 1996. Since then, there is a Historical & Classic Auto Sports Association (HCASA) in Kathmandu established in 2000. With an office near Nag Pokhari, Naxal, the association has been making an effort to protect vintage and classic cars that are the pride and joy of Nepali collectors. Kendra B. Shah who owns a Ford Model A is the President.  He also possesses one of those monstrous vehicles, a 1957 Chrysler Windsor that has tail fins that truly represent the ‘50s era. Damodar SJB Rana, first Vice President,  Madan S. Shah, General Secretary and Shiva P. Shah, co-ordinator were the three gentlemen who greeted us at the office in Naxal. Their enthusiasm was infectious, but there is much to lament about the stand taken by the Nepali government on vehicles older than twenty years. Obviously, the thought that this stipulation might include vintage cars never occurred to the officials who levied exorbitant taxes on cars that have been around longer than twenty years.

The 3rd NADA AUTOSHOW held at the BICC grounds from 18th February to 22nd February, 2004 included a Classic & Vintage Car Rally featuring seven vintage cars. “We are trying to get the government to recognize and protect these beautiful cars as a heritage of Nepal. People are getting rid of their vintage cars, some even as scrap because of the high taxes,” says Shiva Shah adding, “These cars are not for day to day use and besides, there are no roads for such cars. They are mostly out only during rallies. They are the pride of Nepal and we should not lose them.”

Damodar Rana fondly remembers the vintage car rally they organized during the celebration of the 25th Anniversary of King Birendra’s accession to the throne. The rally started from Durbar Marg and winded off at the BICC, New Baneshwar, where the cars were lined up for people to admire. He remembers about 25 such cars assembled there. “Don’t know if they are still intact,” he says sadly, implying that many vintage collectors are finding the government regulations discouraging. He comments, “The government should waive or at least reduce the taxes on vintage cars. In other countries people who own such cars enjoy special privileges so that they can maintain their cars. They have a yearly race. There is a big rally coming up in 2007.  It gives the owners a chance to display their prized possessions. But we have regulations that discourage people. They’re historical cars and we should preserve them.” These enthusiasts point at a picture on the wall of their office that shows a large number of porters carrying a car strapped to two poles. “That’s how they brought them over the mountains into the valley in the old days,” they tell us.

This car has got to be the cream of the lot. A hard top irresistible. Tashi W. Lama deserves more than a pat in the back for keeping it in such good condition. It took us a few days to catch up with elusive Tashi, but when we did, he was right there at his workshop with the Model B. Lady Luck did favor us that day, as he had only just brought the car back from a display at the Hyatt Regency. “This car belonged to Prachanda Shumsher Rana, if I am not mistaken,” Tashi informs us, “And the kind of rules the government makes, they want us to throw away such cars. How can I throw it away? These are historical cars. They are of great value. Only the tyres (there are six new ones) cost me more than a lakh,” he adds indignantly. He goes on to tell us how the car was carried over the surrounding hills by porters. When he bought the car, it was in many pieces and he had to have it restored at the Lazimpat workshop, which was the first automobile workshop in Nepal.

Tashi imported wheels from Germany and that includes two spares. From the U.S. he imported horns, lights and water cap, etc. “There’s a big demand for this car abroad, but I am not selling. There are not many of these left,” he informs. He has been driving around in this 74 year old vehicle, and it seems to be in perfect condition. “I can drive to Pokhara if I want, but the road is not good,” he adds.

Talk about vintage cars, and one name keeps coming up. “This jeep was first seen with Tulsi Giri in the early ‘70s, and at that time it was white” says Swayambhu Raj Shakya, the present owner, who had it painted a beautiful dark grey. It had been sold to a German national named Hanz who worked for GTZ. Hanz had it re-registered in1984. “I bought it twenty years ago,” says Shakya, but the car looks surprisingly new. Being a mechanic himself with a garage named after him, he improved the car and it seems to be in great condition. “I think I can drive this jeep to Pokhara without a problem,” he adds. It was built for the World War and Shakya tells us they had two models; one with a four-wheel drive and the other without. He explains, “This does not have a four-wheel drive, and used to be driven around by women, because it is easy to handle.”

Shakya has been running motor workshops since 1970 and has moved three times, finally settling fittingly, behind Swayambhu. Coming from a family of goldsmiths, he quit this line of work for two years until he was encouraged by Narsingh Bahadur Shrestha of Everest Construction/Himalayan Bank to start again. Getting spare parts for this vehicle seems easy enough. “You can get all the spares in Siliguri and Kolkatta,” says Shakya. He has driven to Pokhara twice and to Narayanghat many times. The jeep sounds and looks new, although it has been around for 60 years.

Some cars have a romantic history. This Mercedes Benz was a wedding present to a diplomat in America from his father-in-law in 1958, the year of its creation. He drove it around Europe before he got a job as an economic officer at the American Embassy in Nepal. The story goes that, for some reason, the American Ambassador residing here, would not allow him to bring in the car unless he sold it to a Nepali citizen. So, in 1961, he sold it to Tulsi Giri.

When Charles Gay, the present owner came upon the car, it had been sitting in a garage for ten years. The rats had made it their home. “It was a mouso house” as Charles likes to put it. So, he had it restored at great cost. Spare parts had to be imported from the U.S.–a bumper from California, leather for the upholstery from Beverly Hills, some hub caps, and he even took the back bumper all the way to the U.S. to have it chromed. Charles says proudly, “They made only 500 of these cars, and they were in production for only four years.”

This 1936 Standard is a historical car once owned by late King Tribhuvan. It was later gifted to Krishna Gopal Baidya, the royal dentist at the time. The car was brought to Nepal during the time of Chandra Shumshere Rana and it arrived at Amlekhgunj by train. It was carried over the Chandragiri hills by 64 porters. The total shipment cost from England to Nepal at that time came to NRs. 7000/-.  The porters in those days received between 5 to 7 paise per day and it took them between 7 to 12 days to carry the car over the hills and bring it to Kathmandu. Changing hands, the car came into the possession of Capt. Madhav Lal Singh of Godavari. It was in use until 1999 after which it was confined to a garage where it slowly deteriorated. When Dinesh Shrestha saw it in a dilapidated condition he felt a need to preserve it. He thought, “Let the future generation see this lovely car. A car that once belonged to King Tribhuvan should be preserved.” He then took it to “Shaila Dai”, Chhetra Raj Singha who restored it to its present condition. He declares, “If there is ever a proper museum where this car can be displayed, I will present it.”


Talk about romance— Prince Basundhara asked, “Which one do you want?” And Barbara Adams said, “That one there,” pointing at the beautiful Sunbeam Alpine convertible. And she got it. It was 1965, the year of its production, and the couple was at a showroom in London. They were traveling during the winter as they often did, and staying at the Nepalese Embassy. The car was then shipped to Bombay and Basundhara’s secretary Bahadur Man Nakarmi drove it overland to Kathmandu. These days Barbara rides her Sunbeam only on weekends. There was a time in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when we would watch her drive past in her convertible with her hair flowing behind her. She was often seen at Kanti Path or driving to Soaltee Oberoi.

Like most people who own cars older than twenty years, Barbara feels they should be encouraged to preserve these cars. Instead, the government has raised taxes every year. “In U.K., they even have a Sunbeam Alpine Fan Club,” Barbara informs us.

This car was carried from Bhimphedi via Kulekhani, Chitlang over the Chandragiri hills and down to Thankot along the old walking trail to Kathmandu. Imported by a Rana family, the 1931 Ford Model A is a beauty worth preserving. It was bought by an American diplomat in the 1960’s who found it in a run down condition. He had Chhetra Raj Singha ‘Shaila Dai’ restore it to its former glory in the latter’s garage at Tindhara. In 1973, the vehicle was bought by car collector Kendra B. Shah, who says with a delighted smile, “This car has seen many shows and wherever it goes, people flock to admire it. The person who bought it could not have paid more than NRs. 2000/- at the time.” His mood changes as he adds, “Today the movement of this car is restricted to its garage, since the annual tax on it is almost NRs. 40,000/-.”

Shah talks fondly of Chhetra Raj who he claims has restored many vintage cars, some of which are still running in the U.S. and other countries. He informs us that Chhetra is still restoring old cars and the one he is presently working on is a 1929 Plymouth. Shah loves to collect cars and has been doing so for thirty years. He also has a Mercedes Benz besides a 1957 Chrysler ‘Windsor’ with large tail fins for which he is importing tyres and batteries from the U.S. He is hopeful that the Association (HCASA) will be able to negotiate with the government for a new license plate for vintage cars with some relief on the yearly taxation. Shah laments, “Unless the government comes up with a plan for vintage cars in Nepal, they may all land up in the junkyard as scrap metal.”


Here was a vehicle the likes of which, I had never seen before. Made for military use, the 1952 Austin Champ has a Rolls-Royce engine, and up to waist level is waterproof. Prakash Man Singh’s family has two of them; one with a hard top and the other with a hood. They were manufactured by Austin in three different forms from 1952 to 1955. Some of them like the one with the Austin A90 engine are reportedly very rare. They use a 24 volt battery. Prakash Man tells us, “They can climb very steep inclines as they were designed for war.” This vehicle has a different history than the other antique cars. It was brought overland in the mid-sixties by an Englishman for a tour of Nepal. He then sold it to Hansa Man Singh and it has been inherited by Prakash Man and family. The Austin has gone through some modifications. “It had provisions to carry machine guns at the side, but has been modified to carry shovels instead. It has ten gears with three levers; a very powerful vehicle,” informs Prakash Man. It has been displayed twice at the BICC, one time for the NADA 2004. The family has been using it for picnics and especially to go places during Dashain. It has been to Nagarkot several times and on an average, they use it four-five times a year. n

If he could repair faces, the way he restores old cars, he would be a celebrity today. But Chhetra Raj Singha fondly known as ‘Shaila Dai’ to all antique car owners, brings back to life, dead vintage cars. Dead, because half of them come to him in pieces, rusted and worn out after years of neglect. At 65, he seems disheartened as most of the young mechanics he trains, leave after learning from him. “If I have helpers, I can restore four or five cars in a year,” he tells me, standing in front of a ghost of a car, at his garage in Gongabhu.

Chhetra Raj started restoring vintage cars from 1970, when he had a workshop in Tin Dhara, off Durbar Marg. It was called ‘Bhairav Engineering Workshop’. His first workshop was near Ghanta Ghar. It all began with his father, Jit Bahadur Singha, who worked for the royal family, repairing cars. Shaila Dai has restored a total of 20 to 22 old cars and an employee of World Health Organization, a man named Freedman, was one of his regular clients in the old days. Many people have their cars restored and take them abroad where they can fetch a very good price.

Shaila Dai also has the same grievance with the government as the vintage car owners. As a result of the unreasonable tax on old cars, he has also sold some as scrap metal. He recalls how a collector asked him to restore one antique car but never came back to collect. “I waited for years, but he never came. He owed me a lot of money for spares and repairs, so I sold it as scrap and got back at least NRs. 50,000/- It weighed a ton,” he says.

He remembers the first old car he restored. It was a really run down Ford 1932 V8. The owner, non other than Freedman, is now living in Atlanta, Georgia. “He still sends money as a gift for Christmas once in a while. He still keeps in touch,” says Shaila Dai. The car was originally used during Juddha Shumsher Rana’s time and was mostly ridden by his bodyguards.

Chhetra Raj worked at the U.S. Embassy in the 1970’s and ‘80s. Every vintage car owner mentions ‘Shaila Dai’. In other words, when it comes to getting your antique cars restored, he is ‘THE MAN’. They all seem to revere him. At the moment he is working on a 1932 Plymouth, which when you look at it now seems worthless. I cannot wait to see it after restoration. Then I too, will know what ‘Shaila Dai’ is all about. Until then I have to go by their word, “He’s THE MAN”. For Details:4354879