From MGR to NT Rama Rao, Raji Nayakar’s cars have seen superstar passengers.

Meet the Chennai man whose vintage cars youve seen in dozens of Tamil films
Flix Tuesday, June 06, 2017 - 14:49

It’s easy to miss Raji Nayakar’s garage in the bustle of the Thiruvottiyur High Road in Chennai. Amidst the chaos of the main road, one may hurry past the tiny space that is a really a museum of vintage cars. But Raji is not like any other vintage car lover, his four-wheelers have made many a guest appearance in South India’s films and is now firmly a part of its cinematic history.

Sixty-five-year-old Raji greets us excitedly, as the dim light reveals the walls plastered with photographs taken from various Tamil films, his cars owning the frame alongside superstars such as MGR, Rajnikanth and Kamal Hassan. He points to the car parked in the garage as the centrepiece - a red ‘58 Chevrolet Impala, with an iconic TMZ 2233 number plate. His prized vintage car is most famously featured in the ‘72 MGR starrer, Nalla Neram.  A frayed picture on the wall shows the late actor MGR sitting on the Chevy’s bonnet, with KR Vijaya smiling from the driver’s seat.  

MGR and KR Vijaya 

Parked out front is a modified ‘64 Camaro, as well as a Studebaker Avanti that’s featured in Vijayakanth’s films. Raji’s face lights up as he reels off the various stars who’ve taken a ride in his cars for films that stretch across decades – from Dhanush in Polladhavan to Karthi in Aayirathil Oruvan to GV Prakash in Bruce Lee. While his cars have seen VIP passengers like Vijay and Ajith from Tamil cinema, it’s also had the good fortune of having the likes of Telugu superstar and former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister NT Rama Rao, Bollywood’s Shakti Kapoor and veteran actor Urvashi get behind the wheel. “Urvashi drove very well, better than some actors,” Raji confides.  

Ajith

These cars have been his profession, as well as that of his father, N Manicka Nayakar, who established the garage over 40 years ago in T Nagar, where shootings were commonplace. It was then shifted to its current location on Thiruvottiyur High Road, where he manages the garage along with his son, R Vijay Kumar, who handles the rentals these days.

“These cars are my livelihood,” Raji notes, “I rent them out to movie shoots and weddings, but I am dependent on their seasonal demand.”

Despite the challenges, he still takes pride in maintaining these vintage beauties. “It’s often difficult to find spare parts for cars these old,” he explains. He tinkers and modifies them when needed, and his patrons help pay for spares from time to time. “VIPs, politicians and film stars all keep returning to rent the cars because they know they’re well-maintained,” he beams, “Because of this, my cars are well-recognized around the world.”

Raji also has tales to tell from his time on the sets - while he occasionally drives the cars themselves, more often than not, he hands over the keys to the actor. “I just show them the ropes, but actors like Ajith and Sathyaraj quickly took over. All the cars are easy to drive.” He talks about the respect accorded to the Impala because MGR drove in it with director KS Ravikumar once explicitly instructing his crew to not step on or muddy the car for the same reason. He also smilingly points to a few photographs of his own tryst with cinema, in minor roles alongside actors like Sarath Kumar.

Raji with one his vintage cars

Raji has been in the vintage car business a long time now. “Many showrooms have approached me to buy and showcase these cars, but they’re all I have,” he says, pausing to perhaps reflect about what could’ve been. But Raji emphatically confesses, “I’ll never sell them.” 

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