By KJ Bennychan
Mumbai: It’s an irony that what was supposed to be a big leap ‘forward’ for Dilip Chhabria, the only super-carmaker who built the country’s first real sports car DC Avanti, has turned out to be his nemesis.
Chhabria, the founder of DC Designs, was arrested by the Mumbai police on December 28, 2020 allegedly for cheating and defrauding car buyers and financiers, and the man who changed the face of automobile design in this part of the world since the early 1990s is now languishing in a city jail.
But the final blow to what was his biggest, boldest dream was when a DC Avanti customer from Tamil Nadu claimed to have found his prized possession already registered in someone else’s name in Haryana and was also hypothecated twice.
This happened soon after the comedian Kapil Sharma moved the economic offences wing of the city police complaining that despite paying full amount for a vanity van long ago, Chhabria did not deliver the van.
According to the joint police commissioner (crime) Milind Bharambe, the police have found that nearly 90 DC Avantis were used for fraudulent financing by availing multiple loans on the same car and they peg the scam at around Rs 100 crore. The police have also found that most of these 90 vehicles were registered with two or at times three RTOs in various states.
For the uninitiated, Avanti in Italian means ‘forward’ and launching DC Avanti was meant to be his fast forward move. But fate had it differently.
The car, billed as the first Indian sports car, was unveiled by Amitabh Bachchan at the 2012 Auto Expo in New Delhi and it hit the road in 2015 after being in the making since 2008.
Though the car had adequate ground clearance compared to the Italian namesake and had a killer pricing at just about Rs 42 lakh, it failed on many grounds in terms of performance and this had sales not picking up as expected. All he could manage was to sell 120-odd cars.
Chhabria set up DC Designs way back in 1993, bringing a whiff of fresh air after securing a degree from the Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena in California, the Mecca of auto design, to offer design and prototyping services to auto firms and customers. His timing was so perfect as he launched himself into what was then an unknown territory called automobile designing in a market that had no choice except a Maruti, Premier Padmini and Ambassador.
One of his initial successes was his modification on a Maruti Gypsy which he christened as BTS (Better than Sex), earning him wide publicity and making him the go-to guy for auto design.
Soon Chhabria was going places and he made personal history — in January 2003, the stunning prototype of the V8 Vantage that he developed for the British supercar maker Aston Martin was on display at the Detroit Motor Show!
But all that is history and a new history is being made in the jail today.
In fact, his first major break in the country came when he got an on-screen presence with the 2004 flick ‘Taarzan: The Wonder Car,’ which had a modified Toyota MR2 car. Though the movie did not make it big on box office, it gave him a national nameplate.
The rest as you say is history as soon Bollywood began to make a beeline for his service, prodding him to move big, and the biggest and the boldest move was the decision to build the DC Avanti — progressing from mere styling to full prototyping and full manufacturing.
“Chhabria was very ambitious and it seems to me that he bit a lot more than what he could chew. Also his growth was too fast,” is how Hormazd Sorabjee, the veteran editor and co-owner of the Autocar India Magazine, explained the fall of the person.
But he quickly added that Chhabria has built a great brand for himself and also does not rule out the possibility that he was framed.
On the nemesis that DC Avanti has turned out to be, Sorabjee told that the car didn’t match expectations it was built on and marketed because it had performance issues.
“The car was more of a style statement than an an actual product; it wasn’t engineered properly and had many flaws,” he said.
An insider, who does not want to be quoted, said many customers were not happy with the performance and fit and finish of the car.
And this was clear from the financial problems he began to face after rolling out the car from the Pune facility, which by 2018 was put on auction by the banks after declaring him and the company bankrupt.
Srinivas Krishnan, former editor of Business Standard Motoring magazine, is more sympathetic to him, having been professionally acquainted with Chhabria in those days. He said that at heart, Chhabria was a true automotive geek with an enormous passion and talent for transportation design.
“Chhabria came like a breath of fresh air to the Indian automotive design and modification scene. He was the right guy at the right time when there were limited options to truly personalise your car or give it an additional dose of oomph,” Krishnan told .
Chhabria brought a sense of contemporary design and quality to the automotive modification industry in the country, bringing with him not just academic rigour but also a penchant for flamboyance.
His work opened doors for him at domestic and international automotive companies which sought his professional services for their own design requirements. “You can add DC’s name to the long list of ambitious people from the global automotive industry who dreamt and worked towards affixing their names on their own cars. However, for every Ford, Honda or Suzuki, there are failures like Tucker, DeLorean, and more recently, Fisker,” Krishnan adds.
Refusing to hazard a reason for his fall, Krishnan said, “It pained me to see him handcuffed or in bare feet. Perhaps he stretched himself beyond capacity. He is a household name today thanks to the high profile work he has done, more so for stars and celebrities. The fall is very visible now for his rise was as meteoric.”
Whatever be the reasons for his untimely and shameless fall, the credit and the success so far he achieved cannot be erased and will remain part of the automobile history in the country though what he set out to establish has ended as a half-baked cake. BEN RAM MKJ
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