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Postcard from... Delhi: Do classic cars hold the key to India-Pakistan relations?


It is Sunday morning and Deepak Marwah and his son Raghav are carefully navigating their gleaming 1947 Pontiac Silver Streak along a twisting, narrow road south of Delhi.

There are a couple of wrong turns but we get where we are heading and the passengers in the back seat discover that riding in this 67-year-old wonder is as comfortable as sitting on a sofa.

“I’ve had the car for 15 years,” Mr Marwah tells me of his beloved American car, which just happens to be coloured British racing green. “I discovered it in Shimla.”

Sunday morning’s drive was essentially a bit of fun. But next month, Mr Marwah and other members of the Heritage Motoring Club of India are hoping to accomplish something rather more ambitious – nothing less than a road trip to Pakistan.

If all goes to plan – and that remains if – up to 100 members intend to drive a convoy of 40 classic cars and 10 motorbikes across the Pakistan border. On the other side they will be met by 30 classic cars owned by Pakistani enthusiasts who will escort the Indian drivers to the city of Lahore. They’ve named the trip Wheels for Peace.

“My family were originally from Peshawar,” says Mr Marwah, 55, who owns a film and television studio on the edge of Delhi. “But this will be my first trip to Pakistan.”

The car enthusiasts are hoping their trip will be a lot of fun. But there is more to it than that.

The members, who include historians, lawyers, tycoons, writers and other representatives of India’s elite, believe that so-called people-to-people contact can work where government-to-government may not. For all the antipathy levelled at each other by the governments of the two countries, it is rare to hear an Indian criticise a Pakistani individual, or vice versa.

The members point out that a former Pakistan High Commissioner to Delhi, who is also a car enthusiast, used to regularly partake of the club’s events as a guest.

“This contact is extremely important,” says Atul Anand, who owns an IT business in Delhi and who is planning to make the journey in a 1949 tomato red MG Y-type.

Mr Anand’s family originally came from Lalamusa, a town in what is now Pakistan’s Punjab province. He said he had a number of Pakistani friends and unlike most members of the HMCI had visited on several occasions. He is hoping he will be accompanied by his father, who is aged 98. “I definitely want to take him with me.”

The car enthusiasts plan to drive 30 miles from the Indian city of Amritsar along a recently upgraded section of the Grand Trunk Road to the border crossing at Wagah, famed for the foot-stamping ceremonies involving troops on both sides. From there it will around another 20 miles to Lahore.

The enthusiasts had thought about driving all the way to Amritsar as well, but decided against it. “We have done that before. The new thing will be to cross the border,” says Mr Marwah, who will be accompanied by his son.

Their planned visit will coincide with the “India Show” in Lahore, which will promote Indian businesses in Pakistan and which is being organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

Their counterparts on the other side, members of the Vintage and Classic Car Club of Pakistan, are equally passionate. Last month, the club held a cross-country event that involved members driving their vehicles on a 1,700 mile-journey that stretched from Karachi to Peshawar.

Among those taking part was Karim Chhapra, a Karachi industrialist who has among his collection of cars a 1924 silver Rolls Royce Ghost, originally built for the Nawab of Bhawalpur. It is said the vehicle was used to drive Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and the last Viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten, to the Sindh Assembly building in Karachi on 14 August 1947 to formally announce Pakistan’s birth.

The only thing stopping the wonderful cross-border coming together of men and machines is red tape. The VCCVP’s president Mohsin Ikram told me from Karachi that previous attempts to organise such events had failed because the two sides could not get the necessary clearance for the vehicles.

He said the club’s influential members had been busy trying to secure approval. They had even reached out to the office of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, himself a classic car enthusiast and who owns a 1974 Mercedes Benz 450 SLC.

“That is the plan. We are trying to make it happen,” said Mr Ikram. “Visas are not the problem, but no private car has crossed the border since 1947.”

Mr Ikram said he owned ten vintage and classic cars. (He said vintage is usually used to refer to vehicles made before 1939 while classic refers to those built before the early 1970s.) For next month’s event he plans to drive a Lincoln Continental Convertible, which also dates from 1947.

And even if the notorious bureaucracy means the two clubs don’t on this occasion get permission for what would be a genuine joy-ride, he has a fall-back plan to turn to.

“We will ask the Indian members to cross the border on foot where we will then be waiting for them,” he said. “We will then drive them into Lahore in our vehicles and have a show for them.”