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Bumpy Road for Trophy Cars

Mail Today | India Today Group | Getty Images

It's not easy being the owner of an exceedingly expensive car in India. Just ask Rishabh Jain, whose Lamborghini Murciélago LP640, in a shade of metallic gray called Grigio Telesto, spends an inordinate amount of time under a cover in the parking lot of his apartment building in the affluent Malabar Hill neighborhood here.

On a recent Sunday drive along the sea-hugging Marine Drive, one of the city's wider roads, Mr. Jain detailed the woes that afflict supercar owners in a tropical city known for traffic jams, erratic driving and crumbling infrastructure. "The most challenging thing is the roads, because they are bumpy as hell," said Mr. Jain, a slight 26-year-old who wore designer jeans, Aviator sunglasses and a polo-style shirt with upturned collar.

Mr. Jain has deflated his tires by six pounds to compensate, but every lump in the road still announced itself with a thud of the tightly coiled suspension. The low-profile tires are also prone to puncture on pitted roads, and in April, one of the hottest months, the car is undrivable for long stretches lest it overheat, said Mr. Jain, who says he owns a construction company.

As he drove, Mr. Jain accelerated briskly between intersections, occasionally touching 90 miles per hour — at one point leaving in his wake a Toyota Camry with a "police" placard on its windshield — before braking hard at red lights to yield to the sea of motorized humanity pouring onto Marine Drive. (In Mumbai, speed limits are rarely enforced, and police officers often accept bribes not to write tickets.)

Then there's the public. "Another problem is the crowd that surrounds these cars when we take them out," Mr. Jain said, adding that he often spends more time posing for photographs than driving. In India, the public tends to react to displays of wealth with envy rather than resentment.

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These and other nuisances aside, "the main problem in India is actually the duty," Mr. Jain said, referring to import taxes and other tariffs that can inflate the sticker price of an imported car nearly threefold. "People are very passionate about these cars," he said. "You have to be passionate to want to own one here."

That passion, along with a new willingness to spend among the growing affluent class in India, has lured high-end automakers to India. Wealth-X, a consulting firm that compiles data on "ultrahigh net worth" individuals, says India has the fifth-most billionaires of any country.

Abdul Majeed, an auto analyst at PricewaterhouseCoopers, predicts that growth in the high-end segment will be "fantastic" despite recent lackluster economic indicators. Initially, he said, automakers were hesitant to enter a market beset by high import duties and road taxes, and skeptical about India's rapid creation of wealth.

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"Ten years back, they were not too sure if the trend would continue," Mr. Majeed said. "Now they are convinced this is a long-haul market, and they want to make sure they are here."

Formal partnerships between automakers and local dealers, he said, have essentially snuffed out a gray market in which expensive cars often changed hands in off-the-books cash transactions.

Before it opened a dealership in Mumbai in 2005, Rolls-Royce noticed that its cars were being imported either directly by customers or through independent dealers, said Herfried Hasenoehrl, the company's head of business development for South Asia. Speaking in February at the opening in Hyderabad of Rolls's third Indian dealership, he said, "It became clear India is a very important market for us."

The company is also exploring dealerships in Chandigarh, Ahmedabad and Chennai, Mr. Hasenoehrl said, and is hoping to capitalize on its historical ties to India.

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The first Rolls-Royce dealership opened here in 1911, in what was then known as Bombay, according to a 2003 book "The Automobiles of the Maharajas" by Sharada Dwivedi and Manvendra Singh Barwani. The cars were embraced by royalty including the Maharajah of Kotah, whose 1925 Phantom Torpedo was outfitted with crocodile-skin seats and, for tiger hunts, more than a dozen lamps and spotlights.

Of more than 800 Rolls-Royces that arrived in that first wave, as few as 200 remain. Many went abroad before India banned classic car exports in 1979, according to the book, and now sell for huge sums in Europe and the United States.

Mr. Hasenoehrl declined to disclose sales figures, but said there were about 250 modern Rolls-Royces in India.

Yohan Poonawalla, a racehorse breeder, says he bought the first Rolls from the Mumbai dealership, a 2005 Phantom. "It was quite sad that after independence India clamped down on imports, and all foreign cars stopped coming in, so I was very happy when they relaunched," he said.

Mr. Poonawalla has also restored a 1937 Phantom III convertible originally owned by the Maharajah of Kotah.

On a dusty morning at the Mahalaxmi Race Course here, Mr. Poonawalla showed off his black and silver Phantom and a yellow 2006 Lamborghini Gallardo SE, which he'd brought 100 miles from Pune on flatbed trucks to display at his derby, the Poonawalla Breeders' Multi-Million. Mr. Poonawalla arrived in his day-to-day vehicle, a royal blue, chauffeur-driven 2010 Bentley Flying Spur Speed.

Finding drivers who can handle expensive, fragile cars is a challenge, Mr. Poonawalla said, adding, "There is no proper driving school or agencies where you can chose a pretrained driver." In a rigidly stratified society, where even middle-class people are chauffeured about town, a driver's status is linked to his employer's car. In that regard, Ali Mustak, one of Mr. Poonawalla's drivers, is at the pinnacle.

"Other drivers give me all the respect,'" said Mr. Mustak, who wore a crisp white shirt with epaulets embroidered with the initials of the Poonawalla Stud Farm.

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Mr. Poonawalla, 41, says that despite a penchant for diamond jewelry, he tries to be low-key about his wealth. Though tastes are changing, he said, "some still say you should just enjoy these things for yourself and not show it off."

Govind Dhar, founding editor of the Indian edition of The Robb Report, a magazine aimed at the very wealthy, said an earlier generation of Indian industrialists "came from very modest means after independence and had to work their way up amid a Gandhian philosophy of using only what you need and saving for the next generation." Now, he added, "the second generation has this immense wealth, and they might have lived or studied abroad and want to live in a more conspicuous way."

Mr. Jain is typical of the Indian supercar owner described by Mohan Mariwala, managing director of the Lamborghini dealership in Mumbai: "This is one segment which attracts a buying audience which is fiercely young. Most of them are below the age of 30."

The entry-level Lamborghini, the Gallardo, costs about $550,000 including all taxes, Mr. Mariwala said, compared with $200,000 in the United States. He said it would cost about $1.2 million (versus perhaps $425,000 in America) to get a fully equipped Aventador on the road here. Mr. Mariwala said that of the 30 or so Lamborghinis in the Mumbai area, he had sold 17 since his dealership opened a year ago.

That Mr. Jain's Murciélago has been driven only 1,500 miles reflects the few driving opportunities he has had. Mr. Jain says he and his friends usually take their cars out late at night on the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, the lightly trafficked three-mile suspension bridge that is a backdrop for many Indian car commercials.

Sometimes strings need to be pulled. When Sunny Thakur, the scion of a suburban family influential in politics and real estate — and, according to press reports, the underworld — realized that even with a hydraulic nose-lift system, his matte-black 2012 Aventador LP700-4 couldn't clear the local speed bumps. His solution, he said, was to lobby his uncle, an influential politician, to have them lowered.

Mr. Thakur, 33, is paralyzed from the waist down from a motorcycle accident and drives with a device that lets him use his right hand to manipulate the accelerator and apply the brakes, a skill he demonstrated by driving his second car, a 2012 BMW M5, aggressively through rush-hour traffic in search of one of Mumbai's few gas stations with high-octane fuel.

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(Mr. Thakur's M5 has an automated transmission, allowing him to steer with his left hand. The shift paddles in his Aventador require a bit more dexterity, he said.)

As the number of supercars increases, so do the opportunities to drive them. Owner groups have formed, including the CannonBall Club, which has 100 members spread across New Delhi, Bangalore and Chandigarh, and the 350-member Supercar Club in Mumbai, formed by an apparel magnate, Gautam Singhania. The Supercar Club has an annual rally, which drew about 100 supercars in January.

Perhaps the biggest boon for owners was the 2011 opening of the Buddh International Formula One track near New Delhi. Buddh holds periodic open-track days, and automakers like Lamborghini and Aston Martin have clinics for owners and prospective buyers. Mr. Singhania's club schedules track days there, too.

"The F1 track has been fantastic, because we all want to drive fast," he said. At the most recent event, "We had lots of supercar owners spinning their Ferraris and Lamborghinis out, which means they were finding the limits of their cars and doing it in a safe environment."

Not surprisingly, Lalit Choudary, director of Performance Cars in Mumbai, one of two Aston Martin dealerships in India, says the Rapide and Vanquish sports cars he sells are best equipped for India's roads, with their relatively high ground clearance and drivability at slower speeds.

Mr. Choudary said he had sold "between 40 and 50" Aston Martins in the two years of his dealership's existence and is optimistic despite the challenges.

"We've been dealt this infrastructure, but Indians are great at playing with the cards that they are dealt," he said. "People like me have chosen to be in this business, so we have to make it work."

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