India’s Superrich Have Supercars, but Nowhere to Drive

KOLKATA—When Indian property developer Parveen Agarwal bought a papaya-orange Lamborghini Gallardo, it came with the works—550-horsepower engine, high-performance brakes and an electronically controlled rear spoiler.

The only thing missing: a place to drive it.




These kinds of cars are supposed to be driven on open roads,” said 33-year-old Mr. Agarwal, who bought the car in 2014. “Kolkata roads are pathetic.”

Mr. Agarwal and his friends in Kolkata, the eastern Indian city probably best known in the West for Mother Teresa and extreme poverty, share the crowded streets with hand-pulled rickshaws, horse-drawn carriages, livestock, jaywalkers and other gawking motorists.

“They come from all sides and you’re sitting so low in these cars, you can’t see them,” he said.

Mr. Agarwal and some friends started a “supercar” club, organizing weekly group drives late at night and early in the morning in an effort to avoid the worst traffic and find stretches of open road.

On Thursday nights after 10 p.m., they head out on a weekly foray through India’s onetime colonial capital, setting off from the Eden Gardens cricket ground.

One recent evening, about a dozen men and their machines, including a midnight-blue Aston Martin Virage, a white Ferrari 458 Spider and a Bentley Continental GT convertible, went for a spin, crisscrossing bridges over the Hooghly River.

Rishi Raj Lohia, a 26-year-old tea-estate owner who sells his products to British luxury department store Harrods and others, accelerated to about 60 miles an hour on an overpass in his burnt-orange, open-top Jaguar F-Type V6s, weaving around slower-moving trucks.

“It’s an obstacle course,” Mr. Lohia said as he slowed to a crawl and maneuvered around a mound of sand left in the middle of the street by a construction crew.

Revving his engine at a stoplight, Mr. Lohia said, “You can say about Kolkata, it’s a developing city, but what Britishers or the Americans think, that it’s still in that backward zone where the Britishers left it, it’s not.”

Mr. Lohia and the other club members live in a country where hundreds of millions of citizens get by on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank, and businesses struggle to cope with inadequate infrastructure.

India has 97 billionaires, more than Russia and the third-highest after the U.S. and China, according to the China-based publishing group Hurun Report, which compiles a global rich list. And there are supercar clubs in Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chandigarh and New Delhi.

Auto-industry analysts estimate that between 100 to 125 super luxury cars—those costing over $60,000, with engines capable of delivering more than 400 horsepower—are sold in India annually, in part because the roads are in such poor condition, although the market for them has grown between 20%-25% in the past two or three years. “The infrastructure is still not there,” says Abdul Majeed, a partner and auto analyst at Pricewaterhouse in India.

Other deterrents include taxes of up to 140% on imported vehicles, concerns about after-sales service, the difficulty of finding spare parts and a general lack of road safety, Mr. Majeed said.

Ferrari SpA, which opened a new showroom in November on the side of a potholed road in Delhi, says it is fully equipped to solve drivers’ problems. A team of flying car doctors, on standby in the United Arab Emirates, can be in India within four hours in case of an emergency, said Enrico Galliera, a Ferrari senior vice president.

Mr. Galliera said the Italian sports-car maker’s vehicles can now “be driven in a traffic jam or with a hole on the street,” and at extreme temperatures like those encountered in India, something that he says would have been difficult for the cars’ engines 25 years ago. Temperatures in Delhi often exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the hot season.

Paritosh Gupta, founder of New Delhi’s CannonBall Club, which limits membership to owners of cars with at least 400-horsepower engines, says some only own them to park in the driveway to impress guests at parties.

For those without available driveways, finding a place to store these expensive cars can be another challenge.

Kabir Talwar, 36, says he keeps his yellow Lamborghini Gallardo 560 parked at the dealership in New Delhi. “I haven’t told my parents” about the car, he said. His father, with whom he lives, wouldn’t want him to have such a powerful vehicle on India’s roads, Mr. Talwar said.

In Kolkata, Arijit Saha says that narrow lanes and potholes around his house mean he can’t keep his red Jaguar XFR at home. Instead, he parks it in an empty lot off an unpaved road, where the $75,000 car shares space with a bicycle rickshaw and a group of homeless people.

“I keep it covered so no one knows what kind of car it is,” said Mr. Saha, a 28-year-old iron trader.

Along with some others in the Kolkata club, he plans to take his Jaguar to a drag-racing contest set for February. The location: an air strip in the southwest of the city.

“One thing that everyone wants to do is put their hardware on a runway and see how fast it can go,” said Rahul Mishra, organizer of the three-day event.

The youngest member of the Kolkata group is Devansh Modi, 13. He brought three cars—his father’s—to the recent Thursday night outing.

Chauffeurs drove the Bentley Continental GT convertible and two Ferraris, an F Type V8 and a 458 Spider with Devansh in the passenger seat.

“My main passion is for speed,” said Devansh, who hopes to become a Formula One racer one day. For now he is content to ride along. “In the passenger’s seat you don’t have to look out on the roads and keep an eye on traffic. You can relax and enjoy the drive.”

By the time Devansh is old enough to get behind the wheel, Kolkata roads might be better, said Mr. Agarwal, the club founder.

“Five years back, there were hardly any supercars here, they were just a thought,” Mr. Agarwal said. “Now people are getting used to them.”