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A brief biography
The images of Dilip Chhabria being taken into custody by the Mumbai police mark a major comedown for the high profile automotive designer. That the primary reason he was taken in involved the DC Avanti is somehow fitting. In an interview to The Economic Times a few months before the 2015 launch of the sports car he designed and his company built, he had said, “As a company and family, we had taken a huge risk. I have risked all that I have on this supercar.”
It looks like the risk did not pay off. His high-profile customer base, his flamboyant automotive designs and the reputation that made DC Design a byword for automotive modification in India will ensure the spotlight will be on him till the case is resolved.
Dilip Chhabria made a mark in the late-1990s in a big way. After a formal degree in automotive design from one of the pinnacle institutions – the Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena in the US – he set up DC Design in Mumbai in 1993, to offer design and prototyping services to auto firms and customization solutions to individuals. One of his modifications on the Maruti Suzuki Gypsy called BTS (not many knew it stood for ‘Better than Sex’), earned him a blaze of publicity and got him attention as the go-to guy if anyone wanted extra oomph in their run-of-the-mill production vehicles. At that time, the modification scene was populated by small garages and the unorganised sector. Chhabria, with his US-earned design degree, an eye for visual drama, attention to quality and finish, and a superior aesthetic sense, burst onto the scene. To be sure, his designs were polarizing, but they couldn’t be ignored.
The visibility his cars got rubbed off on his personality as well. Soon he was the designer of choice to top celebrities and film personalities to make their vehicles virtual palaces or living rooms on wheels. One of his most popular creations was with the Toyota Innova, where he stripped down the factory-spec interiors and lavished it with leather, wood and top-notch electronics. He even extended the wheelbase to liberate additional room inside.
But there was a catch. You couldn’t buy a second-hand vehicle and give it for a DC Design makeover – the donor car had to be all-new. The interesting part was that the car would not wear the original manufacturer’s badge, but that of DC Design. This gave the brand a household reputation in the country, so much so that it has become generic to modifications.
Moving on from car interiors, DC outfitted entire buses for celebrities and big-name stars to be used as vanity vans. His customizations stood out for their finish and eyeball-grabbing appearance. The interiors were simply an extension of the star’s homes.
Bollywood came calling, this time for an on-screen presence. The 2004 movie Taarzan: The Wonder Car, which had a modified Toyota MR2 car fettled by DC Design as the main attraction, would not exactly leave box office cash registers ringing, but it brought him more pan-India fame.
Beyond working with Indian auto makers, his fame soon reached the corporate headquarters of many international automotive companies, who were scouting around for affordable yet world-class prototyping solutions. Design prototypes, better known as concepts or design studies, are exhibited at motor shows to gauge customer reactions and to kindle interest for future products. The high point for DC Design was when he developed the prototype for the stunning Aston Martin V8 Vantage which was based on the British supercar company’s specifications. The prototype was unveiled at the Detroit Motor Show in January 2003.
Despite the fame and publicity, at heart DC remained an automotive geek with an enormous passion for transportation design. His renderings, styling, concept sketches and observations show that he is at heart the consummate automotive designer, with a sharp focus on eye-catching creases and lines, and liberal usage of standout elements.
He then decided to think big. If his modifications could carry the DC badge, why not an actual car? That too, a stunning, low-slung, two-seater sports car? Enter the DC Avanti.
As one would expect from a car wearing the DC badge, the Avanti, which was powered by a 250bhp turbocharged RenaultSport engine, stood out for its extreme and aggressive styling. The car had adequate ground clearance as compared to Italian exotica, and more importantly, wore an approachable Rs 40 lakh price tag.
Chhabria shifted to Pune from Mumbai to work from the Bhugaon facility where the Avanti was being put together. The sports car was unveiled by Amitabh Bachchan at the Auto Expo in New Delhi in 2012, where Chhabria told The Economic Times, that it is "…a calling card for our own capabilities, which have now progressed from mere styling in the early days to full prototyping and bespoke one-off manufacturing."
Billed as the first truly Indian sports car, the Avanti was nearly a decade in the making till it eventually hit the roads in 2015, making DC Design a car maker, not just a car design firm. But the journey to get there was excruciating, not just in engineering and manufacturing, but in the financing too.
Despite the publicity around it as well as its presence at visible spots like the Mumbai international airport, customers who bought the car were reputedly not happy with its performance and fit-and-finish. Sales, it is believed, were not as per expectations and soon second-hand Avantis were seen in the marketplace wearing marked down price-tags. Even in 2018, at the Delhi Auto Expo, DC Design boldly unveiled the TCA (Titanium Carbon Aluminum) concept as a replacement for the Avanti. It was supposed to be an electric sports car, according to a press report in April 2020. However, the bravado was not enough to bring more buyers to the first all-new car to wear the DC badge.
Essentially, with the Avanti, the designer seemed to have overreached his capabilities. Financial woes caught up with DC Design, leading to the company being declared bankrupt and even the Bhugaon facility was put up for auction by the lender it was mortgaged to. Over and above it, come the recent charges of cheating, not only on illegal financing and re-registration of Avantis by DC Design itself, but also comedian Kapil Sharma’s case with the Economic Offences Wing.
Despite its name in Italian meaning ‘forward’, the Avanti seems to be heading towards a full stop. With it, bringing down the hard-won reputation that Dilip Chhabria built since 1993. The author is former editor of Business Standard Motoring and writes on classic cars and road safety. Follow him on Twitter @SriniKay