I have always connected to the world of cars with a passion and level of enthusiasm that was sometimes embarrassing. I recall occasions as a child when I felt that no one else was moved as deeply as I was when I saw a car that excited me. I recently participated as a judge for the 2020 21 Gun Salute Concours in Delhi, India. The brainchild of Madan Mohan, a very successful entrepreneur and passionate vintage-car collector, this was the ninth edition of the event, which combined a concours d’elegance with a multi-day tour. Madan and I became acquainted several years ago at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, where he was instrumental in organizing the “Cars of the Maharajahs” Class. It was the first time that many of these national treasures had been seen outside of India. Those cars were a glimpse into these wealthy and imaginative individuals and families. Madan had invited me to come to his event, but it was only this year, at the urging of chief judge Christian Kramer, that I managed to fit it into my calendar. I was quite happy that I was able to make it, as it was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.

Kind and grateful

Everyone I have known who has visited India is deeply impressed. The sights, sounds, smells and atmosphere are unique — in the actual, correct use of the word. Photographs and moving images cannot — and did not — prepare me for the sensory overload that I experienced. What I was most taken with was the open kindness of the people. Whether wealthy or indescribably poor, all I encountered were gracious, kind and above all else grateful. Grateful for sharing their country and for our visit. And that was amplified in India’s collector-car community. I’ve always been drawn to those I — admittedly judgmental — feel are truly passionate, engaged enthusiasts. These are the people who own cars because they love, want to use and fully experience them. Most of all, they share them with as many others as they can. The owners I met in India did not treat their cars as sculptures, to be quietly observed while parked in a dimly lit garage. That was strikingly apparent at the first interaction I had with many of them.

From chaos to order

The event kicked off with a gathering of cars at the India Gate, the nation’s central war memorial in the heart of New Delhi. The population of metropolitan Delhi is about 30 million. At any time, at least half that number appear to be in an almost unbroken stream of cars, buses, trucks, scooters, small scooter-based taxis — called tuk-tuks — and bicycles. Lane markings are largely suggestions, with all traffic finding its way through any openings — real or imagined. Horns sound almost constantly, but not in anger — simply as notice that a vehicle is near, coming by or making room. Imagine, then, nearly 80 classic cars, ranging from Brass Era through the 1960s, guided serenely and confidently out into the roiling maelstrom of the Delhi streets and motorways, on a half-hour drive out to a sprawling modern golf club in the nearby suburb of Gurgaon, where the concours was held. My fellow judges and I chose cars for the drive out to the show. I joined colleagues Mathias Doutreleau and Patrick Dimier of Switzerland in a lovely 1949 Bentley Mk VI James Young drophead coupe. The owner of the car, a charming man in his 40s, displayed total cool on the drive, unflustered and unflappable in traffic that would have driven the three of us completely around the bend. With occasional taps of the sonorous horn, the elegant, comfortable Bentley glided through the madness effortlessly. During none of the taxi rides I had taken in the city did I feel as relaxed and safe as I did during that drive. I asked how he was so much at ease behind the wheel of such a large, valuable car on such a chaotic road. The owner simply replied, “If you grow up with this, it’s what you’re used to.” I immediately thought of so many classic-car owners I knew in Southern California who would never consider taking their car on a drive across Los Angeles, or in the New York area who think that the signs above the bridges and tunnel entrances to Manhattan say “Here be Dragons.” Never mind those American enthusiasts who shrink from the idea of weeklong vintage rallies and tours. Even weekend trips away in their old car are thought imprudently adventurous. I spoke with entrants in Delhi about the impromptu 2,000-mile trips they take in their old cars with friends — never worrying about what they might encounter on the way. It was part and parcel of that fundamental gratitude that every Indian I encountered so freely expressed. That was even more evident in speaking with the restorers on hand. The scope and breadth of their labor cannot be overstated. The combination of restrictive export and import laws meant that great cars could not be sold out of the country, which was positive — but also meant that many replacement parts and restoration supplies and materials could not find their way into India. The result is a cadre of unbelievably talented and resourceful restorers, who take on the most ambitious projects. They expertly, sensitively and accurately restore to pristine condition vehicles we wouldn’t even buy for parts. When they cannot purchase components, they re-create them from scratch. These are not vague approximations of the original part, but a beautifully rendered artisan creation of which the original engineers and designers would heartily approve. We members of the international jury were tasked with assisting Madan and his team in helping to bring Western concours culture to India. In so many ways, chiefly in the artistry of some restorers, the devotion to experiential custodianship of the owners, and the gratitude of having historic cars as part of our lives, perhaps it is us in the West who have something to learn from our friends on the Indian subcontinent. ♦

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