Q . . . It's a trying letter of the alphabet, isn't it? It causes mild convulsions in people when, in a game of Scrabble, they draw a tile with that very letter on it. It occurs in merely 0.09 per cent of words in the English language, outdone only by the letter Z in the rarity department. And as a corollary, is worth, in that most popular of all word building games, a whopping 10 points.
For me, the letter Q has for the past several years stood for one thing and one thing alone - Q'marri. A word that, even though it won't earn me points in Scrabble, has over time come to occupy an almost mythical presence in my life. Q has also then stood for quest, and it's this journey that has taken me five long years and led me to a covered shed in the back of an apartment building in Kolkata. For resting there, cooling her tyre treads after years of racing, is that car I have been chasing after. She's red, beautiful, and shaped like a 16-year old boy's ultimate fantasy with curves in all the right places. And she has quite a tale to tell. A sepia-toned tale of a time in Indian motorsport history that can never be replicated.
The Q'marri is acknowledged as the first Formula India
It was a sleepy morning in the 1960s when Ravi Kumar, the current president of the Calcutta Motor Sports Club, and his brother Rishi Kumar woke up to discover that their family had acquired a new car. A blue wasp-tail like racer had arrived at their house and given that the young 'uns seemed to be wired together with connecting rods instead of tendons and ligaments, it really was a momentous day in their lives. After all, they had seen that car race at the Barrackpore track in the past driven by an English-man named Alan Morley.
The Tiger, as it was called back then, finished dead last in the races in February 1963, just behind another special known as the Delilah. But the next year the car had clearly undergone a transformation and Morley was banging wheels at the front of the pack with ace racer Dickie Richards in the Bijou Special. It had proved that it was a racecar to contend with. And needless to say, when Morley left the country and the car passed into the hands of Suresh Kumar, Ravi Kumar's father, it was the beginning of a new chapter both in the history of that particular racecar as well as in the lives of two impressionable racing enthusiasts.
Ravi Kumar at the wheel of the Q'marri, scaring morning walkers out the way!
Ravi Kumar has a visible glint in his eye as he catches the look on my face when I first glimpse the Q'marri in the metal. His mechanics, both of whom have worked on the car since the day it came into their possession, rush forward to polish the bodywork a little, and wipe off a spot of grease from the bonnet. And then Ravi asks one of them to start her up - it's a loud roar that really is enough to cause one's hair to stand on end and awaken the ghosts of Indian motor racing past all at once.
Like any good motor racing family, there was no way the Kumars could leave the Tiger as was. Every car that came into their care would be meticulously fettled with in attempt to make it go faster and win more races. And so, given that Suresh Kumar had started building special racing coupes under the Q'marri banner, the Tiger found itself in the same workshop. Scuderia Q'marri was what they had christened their racing team, and so the Tiger underwent a transformation. The Ambassador engine with a Derrington head, with massive valves that I'm told were the size of dinner plates, was tweaked further, two 40mm Weber carbs were added to the mix, with a high lift cam and a short action shift gearlever. An Ambassador torsion bar suspension was added up front, with an independent rear suspension to complete things.
Then it was the matter of finding the perfect person to drive the car. And the task fell to a gentleman named Kinny Lal - a name hallowed and revered in Indian motorsport circles and with good reason. Lal was the first Indian to ever race Formula 2 and Formula 3 in the UK back in the day. With Kinny behind the wheel, the Q'marri made her debut at the old Alipore Mint Airstrip track in 1968 and it was he who raced her there all the way until the 1970 season.
Discreet key there, not so discreet keychain - Indianapolis it says!
Curves in all the right places and a wing to boot!
I'm sitting outside of Ravi Kumar's house in Kolkata. It is 4:30 am. The sun is beginning to come up, and I'm nervous. With Ravi Kumar behind the wheel, the Q'marri will lead us to the Tollygunge Club, where we're to shoot the car and, if I'm lucky, I might even get to drive it. Ravi Kumar had generously told me the previous day, Drive it, just don't wreck it." And all the while my mind is trying to wrap itself around the fact that this car is now 51 years old. Then it roars out of the gate, startling a pack of street dogs and sending them running helter skelter, bringing a bit of the past into the present, and confounding time itself.
The Q'marri made its debut at Sholavaram in 1971, with Kinny Lal driving it. Back then it was a challenge for the men from Calcutta to take their racers to the T-shaped track and battle against the racers from the South. There was competition aplenty to contend with - Dr Cesare Rossi in his Ferrari 275 GTB C, the Maharajkumar of Gondal in his Jaguar-based Godfather Special and several other specials from across the country. Legend has it that it was Kinny's racing prowess that nearly took the car to victory. He managed to lead the 275 GTB C and the Godfather Special for several laps until the car's brakes - Ambassador made - failed entirely. It was a case of so close yet so far - a memorable yet forgettable weekend all at once.
When viewed head on the Q'marri is very low indeed
A few signs of age on the Q'marri, expected from a racecar with as many years under her wheels
We're in a tiny white Hyundai i20, with Ravi Kumar driving the low slung Q'marri behind us, causing the eyes of many morning walkers to nearly pop out of their sockets. The car, low as she is, doesn't bottom out even once on Kolkata's roads as Kumar informs me later, with the only things hitting the ground being the jaws of a couple of Kolkata cabbies. Little do they know that the car is part Herald and part Ambassador, just like the yellow examples that they pilot all day long. When we take a wrong turn and get lost for a few minutes, Ravi Kumar and the Q'marri have disappeared. The car is quick, there's no denying that. But being a fifty year old racecar, the chances of her not starting once stopped are fairly high and not some-thing we want to risk. Ironically enough, all that the Q'marri and the Kumars did back in the day, was risk everything to go racing.
Alan Morley in the wasp-tailed open-wheel Tiger at Barrackpore
The first iteration of the Q'marri in white at the start of the races at Barrackpore
The Q'marri went back to Sholavaram for another stint. With the regulations for the Formula Indian class being very specific, it wasn't possible to race her with an Ambassador engine any longer. So a Fiat engine bored out to 1,198cc was plonked in, fully ported, with double sprung valves, and an F3Y cam ground by Piper in England. A Fiat gearbox was mated to the engine, with the Weber carbs being swapped for Solexes. Niaz Ali was strapped into the racing seat and off he went. There was plenty at stake too, given that when the floorshift gearbox had gotten stuck in second gear at the races at Barrack-pore, they'd been the laughing stock of all the racers from Mumbai, Chennai and Coimbatore, as Rishi Kumar remembers.
The race in Sholavaram was then all about retribution. Niaz and the Q'marri were the fastest nearly all weekend long, and finished the Grand Prix race third overall. It had beaten the likes of Porsches and Triumphs, but more than trophies, it was about proving a point. The Calcutta contingent went back home with Cheshire grins on their faces - their racecar had held its own all weekend long.
Ravi Kumar has a go at the wheel of the Q'marri - dust flying everywhere!
'Greased Lightning' inspired shoot, with Niaz Ali standing on the car and Rishi Kumar standing in front of the car
Kinny Lal in conversation with Niaz Ali at the races - the only two drivers to race the Q'marri
When we enter the Tollygunge Club, it is almost comical to watch the guard nearly falling out of his cubicle while reaching his hand out to give Ravi Kumar the parking token. After all, it isn't often that one encounters a low slung racer coming over for a Sunday drive to the club. Kumar tells me of the time Marcello Gandini was in Kolkata to judge a concours and caught sight of the Q'marri. It needs to be lower," were his only comments on the car. For a man who designed the Lamborghini Miura to not be critical of the design of this racecar - some sort of validation indeed.
Once they were done proving to the world what the Q'marri could do at Sholavaram, the Kumar brothers continued to race her at the Alipore and Barrackpore tracks. The car raced there all the way till the mid eighties, piloted by either Ravi or Rishi. Not for a moment did she stay stock, though.In her second iteration, she was converted to a somewhat Mercedes-Benz streamlined shape, in her third iteration she became more angular and developed a Corvette-like nose, in her fourth iteration she had a wrap-around windscreen that went all the way back, and her fifth iteration is what you see here - low, red and beautiful - a design developed by Rishi Kumar.The fact that the Q'marri is a 50-year old racecar is in evidence when little niggles pop up here and there. The engine overheats a little and we need to keep her parked for a bit in order to cool things down, the wing comes off - nothing that can't be fixed without some glue that the mechanics have handy, and the tyre treads on those old Bridgestones are coming off.
Ravi's version 4 of the Q'marri with Vijay Mallya's Dippy's Special Porsche, the Godfather and other specials at Barrackpore
Even so, probably with his heart in his mouth, Ravi Kumar allows me to climb into the car and take her for a quick spin. Well, quick might be a bit of an exaggeration, but a spin it certainly was. I engage the clutch, with him instructing me to push the pedal all the way down, depress the accelerator (I'm told to push it further down) and she's off in first gear. Depress the clutch again, slot into second, and the car is free and even more so in third. The steering isn't anything like any of the cars I'm used to - needs plenty more muscle than I have. And, I'm loathe to admit it, it takes Ravi Kumar's masterful ex-racer arms to turn the car around.
But even with two short spins in the car, sitting so low down in a car that first raced back in the 1960s has given me plenty of perspective. I can see it all in monotones, because we all know that history can only truly be seen in black, white and grey. I can see crowds of people cheering on as the Q'marri battled other cars at Barrackpore and Alipore and Sholavaram - cars like the Bijou, Mike Satow's Cheetah, the Godfather, AD Jayaram's Triumph 1200 Special, David Pieris' F1600 Ford Anglia Special and plenty more cars engineered by Indian motorsport legends such as Adi Malgham and Feroze Shah.
I see in my mind's eye young men in bellbottoms tinkering on cars and swapping tools and racing tips with great camaraderie. I see those same young men leave their bonhomie behind temporarily as they don their racing helmets and go hell for leather at racetracks bordered by bales of hay. As they walk from shop to shop in London (Who wanted to see the Westminster Abbey, we had car parts to buy!") in their search for new carbs and valves and racing steering wheels. I see them pouring over racing manuals and learning the art of racing the hard way - trial and error largely. But most clearly I see big happy grins on their faces because racing is what they lived for.
The Q'marri with the Adi Malgham chassis-ed hot rod parked in the Kumars' garage
Ravi and Rishi Kumar regaled me with tales aplenty of motor racing back in the day and even let me have a go in the car
All smiles is Ravi Kumar with his beloved Q'marri
And here I am, finally behind the wheel, and struggling with the gearshift
In the present I am looking at Ravi Kumar and his brother Rishi Kumar laughing about the odd fib they would tell their parents in order to ensure that all their energies could be actively devoted to racing. The years have gone by, the long hair and bell bottoms are no longer there, but their eyes still have spark aplenty. Just say the word Q'marri and you'll see it. Which is precisely why that beautiful red example of a racecar really is the pride and joy in their garage - a garage that features an eclectic collection of cars and racecars (including an Adi Malgham chassised hot rod) that are stories for another day.
So, what has my quest for the Q'marri taught me? Well, like the letter of the alphabet that her name starts with, the Q'marri has a similar effect on people. She causes mild convulsions in them because of her sheer beauty. She is extremely rare - forget 0.09 per cent, there's only one single example in the whole world. And as for 10 points. You could try 100, but it still won't be enough. For the sheer power of this one single car to transport us back in time 50 years, there's only one word - priceless.
Current images by Makarand Baokar. Archival images are copyright, courtesy the Calcutta Motor Sports Club and Q'marri Racing.