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In India, a different sort of driver's ed

Concerned that their brand image is being damaged by messy drivers, luxury automakers are encouraging chauffeurs to clean up.

  • The image of cars on a parking

NEW DELHI — Imagine the reaction of luxury car dealers in India on seeing their sculpted beauties being driven around Bombay by unshaven, malodorous drivers in tight polyester pants and plastic sandals with their generously oiled hair smudging the fawn leather headrest.

Dismayed by the shabby quality of the drivers who work for the wealthy Indian owners of their cars, Audi, Honda and Mercedes have teamed with the Institute of Chauffeur Services in Bombay on a program to improve appearances.

A voucher entitles new car owners to send their drivers for training in personal hygiene, grooming, car care and courtesy in an effort to protect the brand image of the automakers.

The institute is training 200 drivers in one-hour sessions a day spread over a month. Apart from the drivers of private individuals, the other drivers are Audi, Honda and Mercedes showroom employees who interact with wealthy customers and drop cars off at their home.

In a month, the institute turns Eliza Doolittles into Audrey Hepburns: a smartly dressed, fragrant, smiling, polite, uniformed and capped chauffeur who can do the owner of a luxury car proud.

Alan Khan, head of training at the institute, says there is a lot to teach drivers, most of whom are school dropouts. That much is evident from a cursory glance at an Indian car park.

While waiting for his master to emerge from lunch or a meeting, the driver relaxes. He reclines his seat, pushes it back as far as it will go and then lifts his legs and stretches them out through the window, his naked, unpedicured feet nestling against the wing mirror.

The training is much more than merely telling drivers to shave and bathe daily, avoid eating raw onions at night, brush their teeth, wear fresh, ironed clothes and polish their shoes. It includes looking after a car, anger management (a necessity on Indian roads where unbridled insanity reigns) and basic good manners.

“Many are from villages and know nothing about etiquette so they will help the master of the house into the car first instead of his wife. Or they’ll stare at women passengers with low necklines,” says Khan.

In one session, he teaches them about eye contact with women. In India, he says, a driver is permitted eye contact with men but not with women. The sophisticated, well-travelled wives of luxury car owners can find it disconcerting to talk to a driver who looks fixedly into the middle distance.

“We have to teach them that eye contact is important with women, that it’s a good thing but they misinterpret it and do very direct continuous eye contact. Then I have to explain the difference between normal eye contact and staring,” he says.

The institute’s success in the five months since it opened is a measure of the modern Indian tycoon’s love affair with luxury cars. In May, for example, Mercedes-Benz recorded its best ever monthly figure with 561 cars sold, marking a growth of 36 per cent over the previous May.

In 2010, Rolls Royce sold 70 of its top end cars, growing seven-fold in a year. In the past year, luxury and sports car makers such as Bugatti, Maserati, Aston Martin and Ferrari have entered India.

Overall, the sales of luxury cars has risen by 36 per cent over the past year thanks to India’s 55 billionaires and 153,000 millionaires, the 12th highest number in the world.

All these cars rolling out of the showroom have generated a clamour for “trophy” chauffeurs whose appearance and bearing redounds to the glory and social status of the owner.

While it’s good to be in demand and able to command relatively good salaries of between 10,000 to 18,000 rupees (about $223 to $400 per month), a chauffeur’s job is not easy. One employer wants him to be chatty. Another wants him to stay silent unless spoken to. One wants to be pampered. Another wants a no-fuss policy. The institute helps drivers negotiate these social potholes.

“I found the training very useful. They taught me not to interrupt people. In India we never let anyone finish a sentence. I wait. And I was told to sense an owner’s mood — whether he feels like talking or not — from his replies,” said Mangesh Bagkar, 33, who has been driving for 16 years in Bombay.

Bagkar works for Mercedes and is very aware of his “top dog” status as the driver of a luxury car. In the drivers’ food chain, the man driving a small little family car is at the bottom. He is in awe of a uniformed driver at the wheel of a powerful and silent machine.

It’s an oddity of India that luxury car owners, by employing chauffeurs, do not enjoy the experience of driving a beautiful, powerful and exquisitely styled car.

New Delhi fan manufacturer Nitin Jain, who has a BMW 7 Series, is aware of the irony that his driver enjoys the experience more than him. “The driving conditions are so bad in Delhi that I only drive when I’m heading out of town for the hills. So it’s my driver who talks passionately about its performance and pick-up,” he says.

People like Jain want drivers who can look after the car, handle it gently, and drive without honking or switching lanes every few minutes, and can avoid slovenly behaviour.

Khan relates the story of one of his recent trainees who said no one had ever taught him good manners. “Years ago when he was driving a Honda, he stopped at a light and spat the gutka (a chewable tobacco popular in India) out of the window. He saw a foreign woman photographing him and thought, with pride, that she was admiring the car. After our training, he realized she must have been photographing his spitting,” he said.

The institute plans to open more centres in other cities. Sunil d’Souza, a Mercedes-Benz dealer in Bombay, predicts a huge demand for a better class of driver than what rich Indians have been accustomed.

“With a sophisticated car, you need a sophisticated chauffeur who drives in a certain manner and treats it with respect,” he says. “The days of having a scruffy boy fresh from a village who stays in third gear for most of the time are over.”

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