- About Us
My journey has been a series of events impossible to be experienced either by railway, bound to a given track, or with a slow moving native conveyance, but simply with the help of a good reliable car.” Thus begins Paul Hartlmaier’s log of his epic journey across India in 1935-36 in three DKW cars; a journey to “give foreign countries an example what a sound and highly developed German engineering product can do.”
Hartlmaier was a wanderer, a filmmaker, a photographer and a writer in the days when travel writers were the only window to far off lands and road trips were mighty adventures that made heroes out of men. Three years before he came to India, Hartlmaier rode a DKW motorcycle across Africa, and that “most excellent experience” convinced him to stick with the brand, but shift to four wheels considering the size and scope of the task at hand.
And what an undertaking it was going to be – 11,000 miles (17,500km) across India and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), an epic road trip across a country made up of hundreds of big and small kingdoms, and a country that didn’t have much in the way of roads. Hartlmaier’s log talks about the 71 bridgeless rivers that they crossed, river beds so soft the cars would sink into the mud if allowed to stop, incredibly deep dust that made the cars swim in it, bullock-cart tracks worn down over centuries and tracks so rutted they made the cars “tilt at such an angle that one expects them to heel over any moment”. Rather prophetically he later adds, “Although full of interest, travelling was by no means a so-called pleasant car-outing but really strenuous work, imposing many hardships of one way and another.”
Our recreation of his epic road trip is hardly going to be a hardship though. The task we have set ourselves is to retrace, more or less considering roads have changed massively in eight decades, the route of the DKW India Expedition and hit the major cities that Hartlmaier and his crew (five Germans, one “native” cook) stopped off at. We will start at Mumbai, the erstwhile Bombay where Auto Union had set up their first Indian dealership, travel up to Vadodara (then Baroda) and through Udaipur and Jaipur to Delhi. That’ll be leg one which you will read about here. Next month the Q3 will be joined by the Q5 and we will drive from Delhi to Varanasi, up to Gangtok where the Sikkim king took the DKWs for a spin, down to Kolkata and end at Chennai. And at Chennai the Q7 will join the other two SUVs as we drive to Bangalore, Mysore, Thallasery and Coimbatore, ending at Madurai. That’s where Hartlmaier’s road trip ended, after which he put the cars on a truck to the port at Ramanathapuram from where they were shipped over to Ceylon, where the men made merry big game hunting and celebrating the end of an epic road trip.
And the reason for choosing Audi’s SUVs has something to do with history. In 1932 Auto Union was formed when four brands – Audi, DKW, Horch and Wanderer were merged, hence the four rings logo. In 1934 Auto Union set up a dealership in Bombay and the brand had a vested interest in Hartlmaier’s journey as the “ultimate success of our venture through India meant a great deal from the view point of propaganda.” Records show that in the year after the successful completion of the expedition, Auto Union sales went up to 183 cars but then an increase in tax and the onset of the great wars put a stop to exports. And of course, in 1985 Auto Union became Audi while retaining the four rings badge. To put all that into perspective, Audi isn’t a decade old in India, but over eight decades old. And it is now exactly 80 years since Hartlmaier had the crazy idea of exploring a far-off, remote unknown land, full of elephants and snake charmers, a land called India.
We begin where it all began, in Mumbai, searching for the site of the original showroom of the Bombay Cycle & Motor Agency that were the agents for Auto Union among other brands. The building no longer exists so we wind our way out of South Mumbai and then head out on the NH8 where the road, miraculously, improves. Where Mumbai is littered with potholes, as soon as you get out of the city there’s not a pothole in sight, and since we hit the road before sunrise there’s barely any traffic to contend with. Even the toll booths, of which Maharashtra has plenty, have short lines and so we make great time as we enter Gujarat where the road gets even better.
Incidentally Hartlmaier also mentions toll booths in his travel log. “We travelled through a number of small native states of which there are 562 in India under separate rulers. In a single day we had to pass sometimes ten different frontiers at each of which a toll of half a rupee per car had to be paid.”
What is it that they say, the more things change, the more they remain the same? But at least now we don’t pay toll for crossing states, the money actually goes into giving us really good roads like the Golden Quadrilateral that is six lanes all the way through Gujarat and into Rajasthan. In fact, the only bottle neck on the NH8, the bridge over the Narmada river outside Ankleshwar is more or less sorted with a new bridge taking up the heavy truck traffic and an even wider bridge is coming up which will end the problems (of which there used to be plenty – I was once stuck in a six hour jam there).
Our companion on leg one of our expedition is the Q3, the smallest SUV in Audi’s range. Now I have spent considerable time in compact luxury SUVs to do a doctorate thesis on them and one thing I can definitely say about the Q3 is that it feels like a proper SUV, not a hatchback on stilts. It has all-wheel drive to start off, the underpinnings feel tough, as an SUV’s ought to and you don’t think twice before putting two wheels off the road to effect a quick overtake. And while its ride quality is already good, we’ve equipped it with a set of Goodyear EfficientGrip tyres that have a slightly higher profile, that further adds to the ride comfort of the Q3. As we will learn later on in the drive, it also does what it says on the sidewalls, the tyres delivering both grip in the wet and being a contributing factor in the 12.5kmpl we consistently averaged on the drive.
The Q3 also swallows up all our luggage and equipment, but then again we are travelling light compared to the “enormous quantity of luggage” Hartlmaier lugged around including “a quantity of spare parts, 12 spare tyres, all sorts of tools, 8 cameras with accessories, cinematograph and roll films for 3000 films, also standard film equipment, 100 dozen plates for colour photography, all cooking and table requisites, five steel campbeds, a full supply of provisions, clothing, linen, some shotguns and many other necessities; in addition of course to the five members of the expedition and a native cook.” Good lord!
Hartlmaier was drawn to Baroda, as it was called back then, because of the diamond jubilee celebrations of Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III. “The full magnificence of an Indian court is unfolded before our eyes like the leaves of a fairy book,” said Hartlmaier and even today, even to the eyes of journalists who have been there and done that, the Lukshmi Vilas palace has our jaws sweeping the floor. Today the main part of the palace is a museum open to visitors and it is definitely worth a visit, if not for the sheer magnificence then at least to hear stories of Sayajirao Gaekwad who was amongst the most progressive rulers in that period, enforcing compulsory and free primary education even for girls, setting up the first underground drain network in India, establishing the Bank of Baroda and setting up the M S university with a three crore rupee grant (eight decades ago was an awful lot of money), the interest from which still keeps the college running.
The Baroda palace was the first, but won’t be the last palace we visit on the journey as next on our agenda is Udaipur, but first we take a detour to Banswara to meet Hartlmaier’s original route. Back in the thirties the road to Delhi, the Bombay – Agra High Road, cut through Central India and from Bombay, the Germans headed to Daulatabad, Aurangabad, Dhulia, Mhow, Indore and Rutlam in four “comfortable days on dusty but otherwise passable roads”. But then, on hearing of the diamond jubilee celebrations they took a big detour and went back down to Baroda. Banswara, the next major town after Rutlam, was where the weary Germans (“we are fairly exhausted and think of nothing but sleep-sleep-sleep”) spent Christmas of 1935 (“in our bags the X’mas candles brought all the way had been reduced to a multi-coloured lump”).
This is where Hartlmaier also encountered India’s famed hospitality. “A native policeman, bare-footed and shouldering an old muzzle loader, arrives and reports that he is instructed to conduct us to the Town Hall where accommodation is prepared for us. We follow him through dark lanes, a ghostly procession; in front the policeman, then our cook with the steaming soup followed by 5 coolies each carrying a campbed on his head, then our three cars accompanied by a curious village crowd. In this procession, we arrive at the Town Hall and make ourselves at home in the large audience hall.”
And much to our surprise the Town Hall still exists, it is the old Nagar Palika building in the heart of town. Of course the trees that surrounded it are gone and behind it is the shiny new Nagar Palika building but the original structure, over a hundred years old, still remains, now christened the Gandhi Municipal Hall and with some pink paint over the original white arches. It’s thanks to Jagmal Singh, whose great-grandfather was the Maharaj who offered Hartlmaier hospitality, that we identify the original Town Hall and also the camp ground (which also still exists) where they pitched tents. It’s our first opportunity to recreate the original pictures in Hartlmaier’s book and Gaurav, our photo editor, is most thrilled at the prospect.
Jagmal also shows us around Banswara town, the sprawling old palace, parts of which he is restoring, and then takes us 20km out of the city to the mighty Mahi river and the catchment area of the Mahi Bajaj Sagar dam, all of which looks decidedly un-Rajasthan. You expect to find deserts and dry, parched land but in Banswara you find thick forests (the region gets its name after the original bamboo forests which have now given way to more profitable teak), scores of overflowing lakes and so much water that the catchment area has been identified as a site for a nuclear power plant. It could also make for a great location for water sports until we are informed of regular crocodile sightings in the region.
City of lakes
From one lake city to another, we take the narrow state highway to Udaipur where we have an appointment with Anu Vikram Singh, caretaker of the Udaipur vintage car museum. We then head to the Fateh Prakash palace, the most beautiful of all the palaces and hotels dotting the Pichola lake, all the lights shimmering in the waters of the lake, a sight that remains now, as it was in Hartlmaier’s time, one of the most mesmerising in the world.
Early next morning we catch the sunrise at the City palace and then head over to the Shambu Nivas palace for an audience with Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, the 76th custodian of the House of Mewar, great-grandson of the Maharaja Hartlmaier accompanied in “a splendid big game drive in which 26 elephants and 270 beaters were employed and very nearly shot a panther.” Our shooting was limited to the cars of which Shriji is a great fan, after all the family runs the vintage car museum (that is open to the public) with a beautiful collection of cars and bikes, all with a glorious family history. The first car from India to be showcased at the Pebble Beach Concours also came from his stables.
From Udaipur we head north to Jaipur but first we take a pit stop at Deogarh to visit our friend Shatrunjai Singh at his new heritage property Dev Shree where his wife Bhavna cooks up the most delectable laal maas (mutton curry) and other Rajasthani dishes. There are two things you must do in Rajasthan – visit a palace and lick laal mass off your fingers. Not sure if Hartlmaier’s “native cook” rustled up some laal mass for his crew for his book only mentions wood pigeons shot on the tracks, chicken curry and rice, and fruits. And since the European tummy couldn’t handle well water the crew made it a point of “drinking always tea and nothing but tea.”
The last leg of our drive takes us in to Jaipur but a tussle between the erstwhile royal family and the government puts paid to our plans of shooting at the City palace. And with Delhi just 250km away we decide to head out in the evening itself. Bad idea. The Jaipur – Delhi highway, while six-laned for the most part, has the most incredible truck traffic and as you get closer to the NCR region there are road works, diversions, and the most hellish traffic I’ve experienced in a long while. And then Gaurav reminds me that this is just the start – next month we have UP, Bihar and Jharkhand, and Hartlmaier didn’t follow the road that was to eventually become the Golden Quadrilateral. Looks like we might just experience some of the “hardships” Hartlmaier waxed eloquent about.