Towing the Sipani Dolphin into the spotlight

When was the last time you saw one on our roads?

February 26, 2019 04:58 pm | Updated February 27, 2019 01:17 pm IST

Vicky Chandok, who won the Rally d'endurance which concluded in Bangalore on July 14, 1985, waves to a well-wisher just before his Dolphin was flagged off on July 11. 1985, Rajiv Rai was his team-mate.
(Published in The Hindu on July 14 ,1985)

Vicky Chandok, who won the Rally d'endurance which concluded in Bangalore on July 14, 1985, waves to a well-wisher just before his Dolphin was flagged off on July 11. 1985, Rajiv Rai was his team-mate. (Published in The Hindu on July 14 ,1985) PHOTO: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

In this sequel to the previous column that suggested a Red Data List for rare machines, I tow the Sipani Dolphin into the spotlight. That’s no typo, I did key in ‘tow’. Because, the marque seems all but forgotten and abandoned. If there is a Dolphin enthusiasts club somewhere, it is most definitely functioning along the lines of secret societies that are allergic to attention. Not only that, in recent times, my paths have not crossed with individual collectors that have a Dolphin on their flaunt list.

Before anything else, let us first look at the background to the Dolphin story. The Maruti 800 with its front-wheel drive arrived in 1983, and the Dolphin had arrived a year earlier. For the Dolphin, it was akin to running into Novak Djokovic in the first round. With Djokovic across the net, a club-level player would find his weaknesses more exposed than ever before, and his strengths less inviting. And that is what happened in the Maruti-Dolphin story. Montana, the five-door hatchback (that is, if you count the tailgate, the Brit way), was essentially a last-ditch effort by the Bengaluru-based Sipani Automobiles Ltd to steal some of the 800’s thunder. With just one door on each of the two sides, the Dolphin had to fight a bias built into the Indian car buyers’ market. There was also the elongated Dolphin Estate, again with one door on each of the two sides. Not only these two, but the Montana could not do anything either to cause a dent in the popularity of the 800.

The Dolphin, the Montana and earlier the three-wheel Badal, were patterned, down to the cotter-pin, on machines from British automobile manufacturer Reliant Motor Company. Just like their British counterparts, these fibreglass-bodied cars had enough quirkiness to make themselves endearing, in a market ruled by the Maruti, the Ambassador and the Premier Padmini.

It takes fanboys of a vehicle to present everything about it in the best possible light. The Sipani Dolphin had one in Suresh Rau, a dentist with an ability for quick and inventive verbal humour. When he was featured in this column with his white Dolphin many, many summers ago, he defended the car’s two-door format, saying it spared parents the hassle of having to remember to engage the child locks and ensured greater safety for children parked in the rear seat.

Not just user recommendations, the Dolphin also had some rally-sport stats to buttress its case. In the mid 1980s, the Dolphin came to be associated with endurance rallying, as a good number of participants chose to sit behind its front windshield. The Dolphin should have counted itself lucky that the duo comprising race-rally driver Vicky Chandhok and navigator Rajiv Rai was among them.

In the mid-1980s, the two steered the Dolphin to many a victory in gruelling rallies, that included the Rallye d’Endurance and the South India rally. In those days, rallies in India were long-drawn and ranged over an expansive terrain. The challenge would often last ten days and take in many states across the country. So, the machines had to withstand the punishing schedule. Going by its popularity on the rally circuit of those days, the Dolphin did that very well.

Focussing on the issue at hand, a count of Dolphins, or any other rare vehicle for that matter, in the country, should be possible with the support of pan-India groups operating within the hobby. One of the ready examples is the Federation of Historic Vehicles of India formed in 2017. Affiliated to the Fédération Internationale des Véhicules Anciens, this group has so far organised two drives for its member-groups in two parts of the country, with the goal of introducing them to various collections of vintage vehicles. The first — FHVI Royal Classic Car Drive to Mysore — took place in September-October last. The second, a drive from Ahmedabad to Jaipur, ended last week.

In the future, the Federation could throw slight detours into its itineraries for the purpose of identifying rare vehicles that may have to be helped on to their wheels. Hereby, I am repeating a suggestion made in the last column.

Now, any efforts to have some ‘moving Dolphins’ on our roads can be supported by technical expertise from beyond our shores. In other words, from clubs formed and kept alive by owners and enthusiasts of Reliant cars, especially Reliant Kitten after which the Sipani Dolphin is modelled. Recently, I chanced upon one Reliant Motor Club that seems to have a good online presence ( There are probably a few others.

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