Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Eyes on the Road (Caravan)

The sole Lamborghini in Ahmedabad
Source: Caravan

It was nearing 2am on a winter night last year in Ahmedabad. Aditya Agrawal was headed home af- ter a party, zipping down the Sarkhej–Gandhinagar highway in his Škoda Octavia. He spotted a yel- low Hummer zoom past in the opposite direction. Agrawal slowed down, memorised the SUV’s license-plate number, and watched it recede in his rear-view mirrors.

Agrawal, who is twenty-four years old, is a spotter of super-luxury cars, which, by definition, cost upwards of Rs 1 crore. By his unofficial tally, there are twenty-five such cars in Ahmedabad: nine Rolls Royces; four Bentleys; two Lamborghinis, two Ferraris, two Hummers and two stretch limousines; one Nissan GT-R, one Aston Martin, one Maserati and one Audi R8.

Agrawal makes it a point to also track down these cars’ owners—“It’s like police investigation,” he said—since his interest in their cars is fuelled by a desire to learn about their financial interests. As a businessman himself—Agrawal currently manufactures packaging materials for fertilisers and cement—he said he wants to build his business “around [the same] sources of revenue,” in the hope that this will enable him “also to buy luxury cars.”

In recent years, Ahmedabad has become a hub for luxury-car dealers, and so an ideal place for Agrawal’s hobby. Rolls Royce set up its fourth Indian showroom here last year, and the city also boasts dealerships of luxury brands such as BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar Land Rover and Porsche. The Indian custom-car maker DC Design also opened a showroom in Ahmedabad last year, where it plans to soon begin sales of the Avanti, the first Indian-designed sports car.

When a new car catches his attention, Agrawal first checks its license plate to make sure the car is registered in Ahmedabad, and then keeps an eye out for where it might be parked—often at posh hotels and country clubs. However, Agrawal said, in a quirk particular to the city, these incredibly expensive cars are just as often found parked by the side of the road while their owners indulge in paan, chai and street food, all available for under a hundred rupees.

Chirag Patel, a real-estate and construction tycoon, is one such owner. Once a week, after dropping his daughter off at her school-bus stop in her favourite supercar—a black, convertible Mercedes-Benz SLK—Patel drives to a tea stall on University Road to grab a sixteen-rupee bun maska (buttered bun). And, he said, every night for the last fifteen years he and his wife have driven to a specific stall to fetch paan prepared “kalkatti sada,” just the way he likes it. Whether he is going out for roadside Jashuben’s pizza (a Gujarati take on the Italian classic) or dinner at a fine restaurant, Patel said, “I don’t pick the car based on where I am going.” In addition to his Mercedes-Benz SLK, Patel owns a whole fleet of luxury and sports cars, including an Audi TT, a Porsche Cayenne and a BMW 7 Series.

Such cars are increasingly common at Bhukkad Gali (Hungry Lane), a road in central Ahmedabad famous for its nightly fast-food market. Swapnil Patel, who runs a falafel cart there, remembered an automotive encounter from a night in January last year. Amid the clanking of iron utensils, Swapnil heard the vroom of a supercar, and looked up to see a black Aston Martin drive past. A minute later, a customer appeared at his cart, exchanged greetings and ordered a snack. “I only realised that the customer was owner of the same Aston Martin when he walked back with his falafel to his car parked at a distance and reversed it to take it out,” Swapnil said.

Roadside vendors like Swapnil are essential sources in Agrawal’s quest for information. To identify the owner of the Hummer he had spotted on the highway, a few days after the encounter Agrawal visited a paan shop near a lane the car had turned into. The paanwalla, he said, “tipped [me off] that the car belonged to someone living in a house in that lane itself.” Agrawal deduced that there was only one homeowner in the area who could afford such a vehicle: Pankaj Patel, who heads a pharmaceutical company and is currently thirty-sixth on Forbes magazine’s list of India’s richest people.

A few months later, Agrawal was invited to brunch at Pankaj Patel’s residence. Eager to verify his guess, he checked out the cars parked near the house. The yellow Hummer was there, but standing next to it was an even more prized sight: a sleek blue sedan, with a distinctive front grill. “While tracking down the Hummer,” Agrawal said, “I landed upon a Rolls Royce.”

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