More from Motoring

It isn’t often that I begin a story with a reference to an assassination attempt; in fact, I’ve never had the opportunity to begin a story in such an exciting manner. Nevertheless, that is where this story begins. In 1693, had three brothers of royal lineage not fled an attempt on their lives in Kudal, Maharashtra, and ended up in modern-day Pernem, Goa, I would not have been looking in awe at the palatial Deshprabhu residence, wondering where I could shoot the cars I had come to see (and if cricket could be played in its corridors if I’m being honest).

The Deshprabhu family was given the title of Visconde (Viscount) de Pernem by the Portuguese as a gesture of gratitude for its services, making it the only Hindu family to be given that honour.

The Rauraje Deshprabhu Royal Palace, to give it its full name, started out as little more than a temporary structure; over the next few generations, it took on its current shape — a stunning amalgamation of Hindu and Portuguese architectural influences, tucked away in a quiet corner of northern Goa. It has, among other things, two temples, a rose garden, elephant stables, a separate guest house for European visitors (back in the day), a private museum and library — and the principal reason I had showed up there, a garage full of vintage and classic cars. More importantly, I was keen to meet Mrinalini Deshprabhu, a member of the family, an entrepreneur and a vintage car enthusiast; in a community that’s overwhelmingly male, she certainly stands out.

As often happens with me, I made the acquaintance of a couple of canines first, while waiting for Mrinalini to join me near the garage. As I attempted to win them over, I had a quick glance at the occupants of the garage — a Ford Model A and Zephyr, and an Austin Seven RP Saloon, Austin Eight, Austin Atlantic and Austin Mini (clearly the Austin brand was a family favourite), alongside what looked like a Yezdi D 250 Classic. ‘There are a couple more cars in another shed, by the way.’ I turned to see Mrinalini walking towards me from the palace’s massive gate, and the dogs immediately took off in her direction. ‘Only thing is, they’re just the body shells; one’s a Volkswagen bus and the other is an Austin, come take a look.’ I followed her to a nearby garage, which was piled high with all manner of things, behind which were the cars she was referring to. ‘I do want to dig them out and some point and restore them. I doubt I’ll get parts for the Austin, so my cousin and I want to turn it into a hot-rod. Of course, time is the crucial factor here — and currently I have very little of it’, she said.

The connection between motorised transport and the Deshprabhu family goes back over a century. ‘Ours was the first family in Goa to acquire a car — in 1904 — as well as a telephone,’ Mrinalini said. There’s evidence of the former on the wall of one of the palace’s numerous courtyards, in the shape of a tile illustrated with three motorcars; I couldn’t decipher exactly which models they were, although two looked like Fords from the time. ‘Those were different times, when I was growing up. Us kids would drive our parents mad, running all around the house and driving around the compound in a Jeep Commander, when we were about 13 or 14.’ Different times indeed — when I was 13, I was still making do with a bicycle.

A car she drives pretty regularly is the Austin 8. The sprightly little number isn’t in what you would call concourse condition, but it’s a proper runner all right. Mrinalini proceeded to crank it up, and it settled into a steady idle, making all the mechanical noises you’d associate with a car of its age (it’s from 1947). As we were discussing the nitty-gritties of the shoot, we were joined by Mrinalini’s mother, Rupa, who possesses the most radiant smile I’ve seen in a while. ‘I’m not a car lover per se, but I absolutely love driving,’ she offered. ‘I’ve accompanied my late husband and his friends on vintage rallies around the country, and Mrinalini and I intend to take part in them this year as well.’

Back to the Austin Eight, then. It was the first model from Austin to reap the benefits of the know[1]how of Leonard Lord (there’s that name again), who envisioned it as a competitor to the hugely popular Morris Eight (the company from which he’d been poached by Lord Austin). Envisioned as an affordable family car, it was essentially a pre-war design with a few touches of modernity, with a 900cc engine making 24 bhp, a 4-speed manual gearbox, independent suspension and hydraulic brakes, among others; its top speed was reportedly in the region of 90 kph, although you would have had to be an exceptionally brave family man to attempt that number. Its cabin was reasonably spacious, features were kept to a minimum and it was reliable as all hell, which probably explains why over 40,000 of them were sold during its production run between 1939 and 1948.

My question about where we could go to get some tracking shots was answered pretty quickly by Mrinalini. ‘Our driveway is right here, why would we need to go outside?’, she asked, pointing in its direction. The driveway was longer and broader than a lot of public roads I’ve seen, so I honestly felt a little silly for not having thought of this blindingly obvious solution myself. Off we went, with Mrinalini at the wheel of the Austin and me hanging out of the boot of a Nexon EV driven by Rupa, who had very kindly agreed to help during the shoot. A few up-and-down runs and we were done, after which some very welcome coffee and snacks were conjured up in their stately visitor’s room, along with an elderly and rather goofy Labrador

My first love was always motorbikes,’ Mrinalini said, as she chatted further. ‘It wasn’t considered very ladylike to ride them — patriarchy and all that — but I’m a rebel, so I went ahead and did so anyway, regardless of the repercussions. I became interested in cars in my early 20s, and had an accident pretty soon after that; thankfully that didn’t scare me off them. After that, though, I didn’t get to drive these cars again, because my late father, Jitendra, didn’t think that I could. I wish I had shown him that I did have it in me, and that I really loved the cars. He bought our Austin Mini from his friend, and told me that it was for me. I never got to drive it, because it was in a garage being repaired for years, and then I went off to the USA to study. This year, I’m going to get it up and running.’

When that happens, I hope that we’ll be able to feature that car in these pages.