Vintage cars and bikes are not merely old machines but a window to history, says Prince Frederick

Watching two youngsters straining their necks to look at the dashboard of a locked Ford Prefect, I couldn’t help thinking about how lucky I am. Thanks to the ‘Man & Machine’ (M&M) column, owners of vintage and classic vehicles actually invite me to sit in their precious machines. I study these timeless machines week after week.

No information is held back: from dog-eared, decades-old maintenance logs to week-old bills issued by mechanics, all that I need to know is presented on a platter. Owners, invariably, provide fascinating accounts of how their cars and bikes survived the ravages of time. But the column also involves doing homework, and researching for an M&M article is a joy — it lets me indulge my fondness for stories rooted in history. In a way, this column is about more than machines, but the march of history — political, social, economic.

Fascinating stories

For example, the Type I Volkswagen Beetle is inextricably linked to Adolf Hitler. Ordaining that it be sold at the price of a small motorcycle, the Fuhrer saw it as the “people’s car” in the Third Reich. Any discussion of the Jaguar Mark II has to include larcenous men who held up banks and broke into houses to feed their taste for high living. Fast and spacious, the Mark II was a reliable getaway machine. Ironically, the British police also swore by the Jaguar Mark II, as it allowed them to chase down criminals.

Similarly, a realistic portrayal of vehicles from the 1930s and 1940s, and even the 1950s, is hard to achieve without touching on the effects of two major world catastrophes — the Great Depression and World War II — which greatly impacted automobile production.

As this column — which has run for four-and-a-half years — requires me to peddle hard facts, I am often subject to information anxiety. Sometimes, a piece of information proves elusive, and the owner simply shrugs his shoulders and admits ignorance. Search engines dredge up dross, and automobile books are frustratingly silent. With the deadline looming, I despair of finding the key to unlock the mystery. On some occasions, an unexpected phone call from a vintage vehicle aficionado, who had been told about my predicament, gives me the vital piece of information.

Through this column, I have become acquainted with people whose interest in vintage and classic vehicles extends beyond the old marques parked in their driveway. They come from a cross-section of society and do different things for a living, but are consumed by a common love for an era when transport machines were made differently. For them, the experience of restoring and maintaining rare, out-of-production vehicles is more fulfilling than the awe they evoke. Most know their machines so well that they tell professional restorers exactly what needs to be done.

Given this, I need to be careful not to make silly mistakes. But they creep in now and then. A blatant mistake that remains fresh in memory had to do with a Chevrolet Impala from the Sixties. In a moment of moon madness, I attributed the old, heavy-sprung vehicle with a top speed that only compact roadsters can achieve. In a subsequent edition, we apologised for “unwittingly placing the old Impala in the league of Lamborghinis”.

Apart from having to write for a niche readership, the biggest challenge lies in lining up a vehicle week after week. The problem is not one of scarcity, but availability. The city boasts of two veteran vehicle clubs, and membership swells by the month. But most of these members tend to be busy; even worse, their weatherworn machines are not always in the best of health to go out for a date.

Also, most owners shy away from taking ‘ailing’ machines out to prevent further damage. “I am attending to a few snags. Why don’t we do the story next week?” is a constant refrain.

When the monsoon lingers on like an unwanted guest, it gets more difficult. You can trust them to say “Sorry, I don’t want her catching a cold!” But the column wouldn’t be half as colourful without these men and their magnificent machines. I push hard for appointments, and usually end up having my way.