‘The quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten.’ Sir Henry Royce on the value proposition of the Rolls-Royce automobile.
A very good friend of mine texted (is that even a word?) me the other day, all the way from Toronto, to tell me about a new car he is about to become the proud owner of. I could sense by the tone of his message that he was quite chuffed about the prospect. Although one could not actually see him, one had little doubt that he was preening. Given that he is a self-confessed ‘absolute automotive car nut,’ that he has never missed a ‘serious auto show’ in London, Europe and the United States, his bubbling anticipation came as no surprise. To round off this little true tale, my friend was about to trade in his Audi S6 in exchange for an Alfa Romeo, model name Quadrifoglio (four-leaf clover). If that sounds distinctly Italian, that’s because the famous Alfa Romeo brand is made in Italy. Any Ayrton Senna or Lewis Hamilton can tell you that. It should come as no surprise that the Alfa Romeo has been a popular choice with Hollywood movies. Depending on the vintage, the brand has appeared, amongst others, famously in The Graduate, The Godfather and a brief cameo with James Bond in Octopussy. James Bond’s car brand of choice, of course, was the British made Aston Martin. Naturally, old fruit. My pal from Toronto described his new acquisition as ‘a real beauty with the sweetest V6 turbo-charged and fuel-injected engine you’ll ever see.’ Well I mean, he was head over heels. What can you say after that?
I felt absolutely delighted for this car buff. Anything that makes him happy is kosher with me, was the way I saw it. If cars are what he gets his jollies from, who am I to cavil? The only problem was I knew very little about cars. Although I don’t hold with libertine, genius footballer of yesteryear, the mercurial and sadly late George Best who famously said, ‘I spent a lot of money on booze, women and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.’ By implication and a process of elimination, that would suggest money spent on booze, women and fast cars is money well spent! Manchester United’s pride and joy, the brilliant midfielder’s stunning good looks and heady lifestyle earned him the sobriquet, ‘El Beatle.’ The Beatles even composed a hit song, ‘Baby you can drive my car, yes I’m gonna be a star.’ There was the inevitability of a Greek tragedy in George Best’s untimely demise.
Speaking for myself, I see the motor car as a utilitarian vehicle that should safely transport you from point A to point B. Particularly in the Indian context, any car that can achieve this modest goal negotiating impossible traffic conditions, while providing you with decent mileage for your unconscionable spend on a litre of petrol. Nearly one hundred rupees, last time I checked. And rising. Something to do with whatever is happening in the Middle East, unless I am much mistaken. Failing which, blame it on Covid. That said, my own ambition has always been to own a car that is fuel-efficient at a steady 40 kmph and unlikely to break down without warning. Which was often the case in the 60s and 70s in India, and never mind which town or city you happened to be happily tooling along in. My father always maintained that anybody driving slower than him is an idiot and anyone going faster than him is a maniac. I have seen him wave on bullock carts to overtake him! In your sturdy Ambassador, Standard Herald or Fiat as you chuntered along in stately fashion, your car can and did, without so much as a by-your-leave, down tools and screech to a grinding halt. At which point, two or three grimy faced urchins miraculously turned up and promised to set your car straight for a nominal consideration. There are conspiracy theories behind the altruistic machinations of these roadside ‘mechanics,’ but that is another story.
In more recent times in India, we have moved away from those antediluvian days. Today, if your Skoda, Ford or Hyundai should give up the ghost at the dead of night in the middle of the highway, no spotty-faced kids will rush up to help with spanner and sundry tools. Even if they did, you would do well to shoo them away. Unless you wish to bung a spanner in the works! No, no. Nowadays, you call the helpline of your car brand’s dealer franchise and their service chappies will rush to your aid. In about four hours. I am being uncharitable here. Sometimes they make it in less that two hours. Fair’s fair. They know their onions and usually solve your problem. In a worst-case scenario, they will tow away your car to their well-appointed garage to attend to its ailment. Depending on the terms of your service contract they may even provide you with a badli vehicle till your car is ready. You will also be served with an invoice that will give you severe indigestion and peptic ulcers needing urgent medical attention, but then, you can’t expect everything. You want your fluffy omelette? You had better be prepared to break some eggs. Serves you right for driving at that time of night.
Anyhow, to get back to our original subject of cars and the pride of ownership, let me narrate my own experience when I went to look at some swank dealer showrooms to get a feel for contemporary models. I did, of course, speak to some of my friends who are quite au fait with the automobile world, to seek their opinion. The trouble with that is that if you ask ten people about their preferred choice of car model, you will get ten different views. ‘If your budget is modest, get a mid-range Maruti. Excellent value for money and wide service network.’ ‘Why go for a Skoda when you can get a Volkswagen. Same company, same car, only more expensive. But you can flaunt the VW brand!’ Enough to confuse even the most knowledgeable, leave alone a novice like me.
Sure enough, I walked into this luxury showroom of a well-known car brand and all their models (to suit every pocket) were brilliantly displayed, shining in multi-coloured resplendence. Before I could say Alfa Romeo, a young lad proffered a tray of orange juice which I hesitantly accepted, making it clear that this committed me to nothing. Soon enough, a bright young sales person, dressed smartly in house colours and sporting the dealer franchise’s logo, sidled up and spoke in a confident tone.
‘Looking for a car, Sir?’ was his opening gambit. I could not say I was just browsing as it was not a book shop, but I still came up with a good riposte.
‘No, I am actually in the market for a high-end mobile phone but now that I am here, I may as well look for a car.’ I thought I’d cut him dead, but he was made of sterner stuff. They train them well, these car dealerships. Whether he caught my ironic shaft or not I can’t say, but he bashed on regardless.
‘Ha ha, Sir. Nice one. Now this particular model you happen to be looking at is an absolute peach.’
‘If you say so,’ I replied guardedly. ‘Anything else you wish to tell me, other than that it’s a peach or a plum, or whichever fruit takes your fancy?’
‘I can see you are in good form, Sir. Everything from the middle of the bat, if you’ll forgive my cricketing analogy. This is a mid-range car, Sir. The petrol engine is 999 cc. It is available with the manual and automatic transmission. Depending upon the variant and fuel type this model has a mileage of 16.47 to 18.24 kmpl. It is a comfortable 5-seater and has a length of 3971mm, width of 1682mm, a wheelbase of 2470mm with matching state-of-the-art radial tyres. Air conditioning is efficient and is not a drag on petrol consumption. Wi-fi and GPS enabled, excellent sound system for radio and music, hands free mobile phone facility, you will lack for nothing. All this for just Rs.7.50 lakhs, all inclusive.’ You could see from his spiel, he had mugged up the sales manual by heart.
‘Gosh, just seven and half lakhs, eh? At this price you’re practically giving it away. Looks like Diwali has arrived early for me. As for all the technical gobbledegook, you could easily have saved your breath. I followed not a single word. Went clean over my head. Nevertheless, there was something sincere about your sales pitch. I will consider your proposition seriously.’
‘That’s great to know, Sir. When can I call you to follow-up? If you can confirm by tomorrow, we can even throw in a free Bose surround sound system for this car. Plus a 5% cash back.’
‘And if I confirm right this minute, will I get a 25% cash back? Don’t answer that. Just pulling your leg. Look, I’ll have to bring the good lady wife to give it the once over. She too drives you know. I’ll bring her along, and if she gives us the thumbs up, we are in business. So please, no follow-up calls.’
I left the showroom, leaving the sales chap looking hopefully, and somewhat dubiously, after my retreating back. As for me, I was already on my way to a rival car showroom not two kilometres away.