I ate, drank and slept cars as student, Dilip Chhabria explains his passion

Success Quotient is a weekly feature in Firstpost that appears every Friday,that looks at the pains and joys en route to success for a head honcho-whether a CEO, MD or an entrepreneur. The column looks at the idea that helped launch a company, its highs and lows.

He has been in the driver’s seat since he started off his career. He revels in pulling apart a car and giving it his designer touch. Fifteen years of purring down the high lane customising almost any car you can think of, Dilip Chhabria of DC Design (Dilip Chhabria Design Center Pvt Ltd) still nurtures many dreams, some of them impossible he admits. His obsession with the four-wheeled man-made comfort vehicle has influenced almost every sphere of his life from designing cars to his other hobby, of sculpture to even… naming his children after them — son, Bonito and daughter, Minica. Chhabria does not reveal his turnover but says the company has had a 40-45 percent growth year on year.

Excerpts from the conversation:

What keeps you going to the drawing board every single day for the past 16 years?

I am happy largely, but I work with a lot of insecurities. I wish I were somebody else. I am an owner and also a designer and these two worlds are difficult to straddle. In business, it is all about being optimistic in revenue and it must be higher on the value chain. It is an intensively skilled job. Every year I try to increase revenue by 10 percent. Hence, bikes are out of the picture. A Rs 3 crore project is possible only with a car or a bus. In some ways, we have outpriced ourselves because we had choices and due to our unique positioning. We can only have a Shah Rukh Khan or a Hrithik Roshan and a businessman who is fond of his car or bus and wants it to be done steeped in luxury.

Is there any vehicle on the road in India that you would like to see off due to its bad design?

Let’s turn the question around. I would like to tell you the car I find well-designed in India and holds so much potential to be better. That is the Mahindra Thar. It can be turned into a knock-out vehicle. It is the only vehicle in its class that looks so macho. It is quintessential in the sense it can be modernised and will still remain phenomenal for a car in that price range. Its sheer proportions and stance stand out.

Were you born with a passion for vehicles, so to speak?

Dilip Chhabria, automobile designer, founder, DC Design

Dilip Chhabria, automobile designer, founder, DC Design

As far back as I can remember I loved cars. My mother showed me a picture of mine when I was barely two years old with a garland of cars, no less, around my neck! I am 61 years old now and my love for cars remains unabated. I continue to excel at what I do and don’t burn out because as a company we are into designs on a daily basis. It is a continuous love affair. Everyday there are new elements to be added, surprises to be had on the drawing board and the final work.

Did your parents indulge you in this costly hobby?

I come from an affluent family. Also, I was the only male child and my parents were happy to give in to my wishes. That my father was into buying cars and changing it periodically also helped fuel my love for cars. I would doodle on every surface at home. After graduating with a commerce degree, I wondered what should I do next when I chanced upon a magazine devoted to cars. It carried an advertisement titled, ‘Do You Want To Be A Car Designer?’ and I was surprised to know that my hobby could be turned into a career. I applied to the Automotive Design Arts Center, California, and majored in transportation design. I worked for General Motors briefly, but I felt stifled in its large bureaucratic order. I realised that if I continued working there, all that I would ever be allowed to make was a handle or a hub.

Did you then decide to return home?

I knew even before I left the country that I could not live in the USA and work there. I was a shy lad and not given to socializing. In my class then, I was the only Indian student and the others were from South Korea, Japan and there were a few Americans, too. I ate, drank and slept cars and got high scores and citations from professors that read, ‘unusual interest’, ‘fantastic talent’, etc. I returned to India and applied to Tatas and Mahindra but since there wasn’t a concept of a designer for cars, they could not understand what I was applying for. (See photos of his designs here)

What did you do then?

My father ran an electronic manufacturing business and I was given a small space there with a time-span of just one month to do whatever I wanted to. With 3 members of staff to get on with my design venture, I made an indigenous design of a horn in the shape of a ring for Premier Padmini cars in the replacement market. The horn, which cost me Rs 8, was sold for Rs 40 and it brought unprecedented orders. I made more money in that one month than my dad did in a whole year! Dad gave the factory to me and I got the capital established.

Which was the first car that you worked on to turn it into your signature?

It was the Gypsy in 1992. As it was my car, I decided to showcase my craftsmanship the best there. The car would get mobbed wherever it went. I sold it to finance my projects for designing cars. For a while I signed an exclusivity deal with Mahindra where we worked on the Armada and concepts that led to the Scorpio. I wanted to be free from all restrictions and got off the deal after the two year period so that I can work on any car, like we do now, from across the world. Our positioning is understood in the market. I have to be an extremist. I try to create cars that manufacturers cannot. People come to me for extreme cars and extreme comfort.

Is there a car that you have found difficult to customise?

It has to be the Porche 911. It hasn’t dated since it was designed. It is a very desirable car. I have attempted to redraw, reskin, redesign it but could not do anything with it. I realised that it is difficult to alter the perfect design.

What is your take on Indian car manufacturers?

Being a car designer is more than just talent. It is an ability to do futuristic designs. To get credibility as a designer, it takes a quarter of a century. Designing a car is expensive. There are 14,000 parts and each one of them must go through standards of safety, performance, durability and services. India does not have a history of car designing. There are no designers for cars in India. Indian car manufacturers lack the last mile of sophistication and sensitivity. The top management in companies have understood it but they need to walk the talk.

You also sculpt.

I paint too. I find time to indulge my hobbies on Sundays. I have a full-fledged studio in my factory where I use the same material as in the cars to make sculptures—steel, fibre glass, acrylic and plastic. You have to be an artist to be a designer. All my art is displayed in my showrooms in Mumbai, Delhi and Pune. Those who can't afford to customize or buy my car can have a piece of DC design through my art work.


Updated Date: Mar 09, 2015 11:22 AM

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