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Did you know that the Hindustan Contessa was powered by an Isuzu sourced petrol motor and was one of the most luxury cars of its time? Ed drives the vintage machine and finds it very cool.
I’m not kidding. After the Premier Padmini I drove last month, the Hindustan Contessa feels like a Roller. You’re not sucking in your paunch to fit behind the ’wheel. Your head is not smothering the headlining. You’re not rubbing shoulders with passengers. The dashboard is, sort of, from this century. And, the Fiat Club guys are going to lynch me for saying this, but the Contessa looks infinitely cooler. If I’m saying all this today imagine the reactions the Contessa must have evoked back in the day, in an era where all we had were Ambys and Padminis. This was the car for the plutocrat of the day. The car for the well-heeled babu. Bucket seats, floor shift, air-con, power windows and a back seat you could stretch out in — this was the country’s first luxury car! It rode wonderfully and once it got a decent engine, the Isuzu 1.8-litre petrol, it also moved smartly. Did I forget to mention it had power steering?
Originally the Vauxhall Victor, the Contessa came to India after production ended in the UK in the late seventies and HM bought the moth-balled (or scrapped, I don’t know) dies. Didn’t matter. It was three decades more modern than anything in the existing car park save the woefully underpowered Standard 2000. As a kid, clocking a Contessa was an event. Going for a drive in one was something you talked about for the next six months. It was also the fastest car of its day, until the 1000 and then the Esteem came along.
Obviously the Contessa was thrown into motorsport. But it was made by Hindustan Motors, in much the same fashion as they made Ambys, and it never finished anything of note. The Gypsy went on to become the car to have if you wanted to win while the Contessa remained the preserve of the very few like Dilip Desai. It must have been at least 35 years ago but I still remember his quote in Car and Bike International magazine, “Do you know the difference between surgery and butchery!” His surgeon’s tool was fast but it was too big, too heavy and too fragile. And no matter what you did, it didn’t want to slow down.
Today I think a Contessa will make for a great hot rod. I remind you that this is a rear-wheel drive car, and a reminder of the days when saloons were cool. Back in the day they put high-lift cams and twin carbs on the 1.8 Isuzu motor but today you can plonk in a turbo and get the rear tyres to light up without much effort. If built by somebody who knows what they’re doing, and with beefed-up drivetrain components, this will be a great project car. A great drift car too. And if I’ve inspired you enough to get your hands dirty, you know whom to call when your drift machine is ready.