Of Wheels & Fortunes – The Supercar Enthusiast Manoj Lulla

Manoj Lulla surprises us with stories of hardship and success, while his coveted fleet of supercars is a symbol of his willpower and passion-By Sabrina Rajan

Photography: Kunal Daswani

Hair and Make up: Bounce Salon, Nungambakkam

With four hyper cars purring in his garage one can be forgiven for thinking that flamboyance is Manoj Lulla’s calling card. Instead you find an easygoing man lounging in his shorts and T-shirt, talking about keeping life simple and real. ”I have seen it all,” starts the 44-year-old sagely. Born into an affluent business family, Manoj was not given a choice when picking his career. He started working with his father at the age of 17. Unfortunately when in his early 20s, his family suffered a massive financial crash when they took over a company in New York that collapsed and eventually drained their resources. Saddled with the responsibility of restoring the family fortune, it took Manoj more than a decade to get back on the track. “It was 10 years of fire-fighting,” says Manoj, director of Emerald Group, adding that the tough times took away his primetime when his peers were following their dreams. It also taught him a harsh lesson about the true nature of people. “I had a few close friends who stuck to me like family. The Page 3 type meanwhile, were filtered away. But today I can proudly say that I stayed and fought the situation. I didn’t run away from the problem.”

In fact the irony is not lost on us when he says, “There were people who would refuse to let me even see their car.” Even though Manoj has founded an exclusive club of supercar owners, the Madras Exotic Car Club (MECC) in 2011, he has a big soft spot for enthusiasts who have the interest but don’t own one of these snazzy wheels. Often you will find this businessman letting strangers take selfies with his supercars and even sharing some interesting auto trivia with them.

It is no surprise that he is constantly called upon by automobile giants for advice and suggestions. “Right from Lamborghini’s Asia Head who consulted me on the location of the dealership to having a say in Ford’s Mustang strategy in the country,” informs the car aficionado who doesn’t think twice to enthusiastically help a friend pick a car and also share his expertise and connections in the auto world.

His passion is contagious one might think. Especially, when one finds his charming wife Shradha earnestly talking about the importance of maintenance and care of the supercars. “I knew nothing about cars when I got married – but now I enjoy sharing his interests. I love going for drives with Manoj in his supercars – the whole experience is exhilarating,” says the 36-year-old who is a Fine Arts graduate and is known for designing exquisite stationery and more recently for her homemade chocolates. Manoj adds, “It is great how Shradha has been really supportive of my hobby.”

On the track

“It is a positive hobby. You can appreciate and admire cars without owning them. In fact if you decide to own them it makes you more productive and ambitious,” says Manoj, an alumnus of Don Bosco school, as he reminds us that a decade back he was driving a Palio and was still passionate about supercars.

His pursuit of cars began early. Right from the age of five, Manoj was collecting the now famous Matchbox cars. The miniatures are much sought after now for their vintage value. “I remember that Shastri store down the road used to have those dinky cars. I had boxes of those cars – till my grandmother gave them away to a kid who was visiting us,” he sighs.

After finishing a successful real estate deal in Guindy in 2006, finally Manoj’s business made a dramatic comeback. His first splurge was a German supercar. “A petrol head will understand when I say that a Porsche 911 manual is special,” says the auto expert who eventually sold it to acquire another second hand car – the Porsche 911 Turbo. Though he gave that one up too as he switched to Italian wheels – Manoj says he often thinks of getting the Turbo back for sentimental reasons.

The man and his wheels

One cannot refer to Manoj Lulla without harking back to when his eye popping yellow Baby Lambo was the talk of Chennai back in 2011. People would stop and stare when he took the Lamborghini Gallardo LP 560-4 for a spin – after all it was the first one in South India. “It has every option – including a glass engine cover with lights that come on when you start the engine,” informs Manoj. But what truly made him the topic of dinner parties was his garage. It was in his living room – in fact you could call the set up a garage lounge – with a gleaming bar counter and artfully scattered auto memorabilia. “I was inspired by John Travolta. His passion for planes is well-known. He has his planes parked in his front yard and backyard – and a runway that begins from his doorway. I loved the idea. I loved the idea of being able to see my car from my dinner table,” gushes Manoj, as he slides open a partition door to illustrate the view – the pristine white interiors now house four sports cars and yes they are visible from the bedroom and the dining. Rubbing shoulders with the Lambo now are the Mercedes SLS Gullwing, Ferrari 488 GTB, and Ferrari F430. “This is my family home from 1965. Though we have expanded since, I have retained the columns. In fact I have replicated the columns to retain the original feel,” says Manoj nostalgically as he surveys the renovation in progress at his Nungambakkam residence. The garage-lounge has a striking blue sofa and green chairs to fetchingly break the flow of the otherwise white interiors. “Choosing the chairs was about comfort,” says Manoj as he adds that he actually sat in the chairs for half an hour before picking the set from – of course, Italy.

Ask him his favourite drive and he picks his year-old flashy red Ferrari 488 GTB that has customized interiors with monogrammed seats and happens to be the first one in India. “It is so refined that you can drive it like your everyday Mercedes,” says Manoj who cannot help adding excitedly that this mean machine can “reach a blistering speed of 0 to 100 km/hr in 2.9 seconds”. And besides the four supercars he does have a Mercedes E 400 Cabriolet, a Mercedes CLA, a Mercedes GL 350 and an Eco sport in his garage outside.

“It is not about the speed but about the mood,” says Manoj, explaining how he will choose his silver Mercedes SLS Gullwing if he was looking for a slow drive. A much sought after set of wheels, there are only seven of these limited edition beauties in India. “It has a V8 naturally aspirated (NA) engine – and is the last NA from the AMG family,” he adds.

Collector’s cue

“In my house you will see no paintings on the wall,” says Manoj unapologetically. But he does believe in art. “There is an F1 car on my wall,” he says gleefully pointing at Rubens Barrichello’s Formula car’s nose and rear-wing that is hung on the wall. Alongside, one can find Michael Schumacher’s 2001 car exhaust, standing shiny. And true to Manoj’s quirks, on display is also is a model of the much-loved red and white checkered rocket from The Adventures of Tin Tin.

What would you say is the ultimate car in your wish list? “A Pagani Zonda,” says Manoj emphatically, and promptly rattles off trivia – how it was designed by the Italy-based Argentinian Horacio Pagani who has formerly designed Lamborghini’s composites and Mercedes’ gearbox. “Meeting him was like meeting God Almighty,” says Manoj wistfully recalling the time when the designer had made a sketch for him.

Meanwhile this collector does own a Ferrari 250 GTO – probably the most expensive car in the world at $52 million. Before one gets hysterical, allow us to reassure you – Manoj’s model is part of his Amalgam Collection cars and sits on his mantel with two other models – the Ferrari F40 and LaFerrari. Deeply detailed models, they are scaled down versions that replicate intricate aspects of the actual cars. Manoj also has an F40 Lego set that he is eager to put together soon.

Off road adventure

While Manoj is often touted as the life of a party thanks to his humour and positive energy, ask him his favourite getaway destination and he picks a history-rich, quiet and picturesque location in Austria. “I love Salzburg. That’s where Shradha and I went for our honeymoon in 2004. I love that place, it is small and quiet. I love the food there. There is a monastery there that serves beer and has a Harry Potter feel,” says the doting father of two adorable little girls, adding that even the Hotel Sacher where they stayed in is steeped in history and is 130 years old. In fact he recently revisited the place with Shradha and the kids. “I hate big, bustling cities. I hate to go to malls,” says the self-confessed foodie whose favourite haunts in Chennai include Golden Dragon, XO for “the world’s best duck” and Pan Asian “for the dimsums”. For traditional South Indian dosa it is always Hotel Palmgrove and Junior Kupanna for ‘meals’.

Contrary to his taste in automobiles, Manoj’s choice of personal fashion is subtle and centred on comfort. “I hate those flashy Armani Exchange kind of brands,” says the man who likes to drive his own cars and is not fascinated by the Rolls Royce which is “chauffer driven”. His favourite footwear is Cole Haan’s driving shoes just because they are “really comfortable”. When it comes to wrist watches, the Rolex that his dad gifted him when he turned 21 is his all time favourite.

Another little known side to this auto buff is his acting skills. “I used to love acting during my school days. But then I started working early and my acting became part of my bucket list,” admits Manoj. Now it seems like he is all set to reclaim that celluloid dream. His first outing was in a song and cameo role in the Dhanush-starrer, Anegan. Next Manoj was seen in the “sollu sollu sollu” song in Natpathigaram, aptly shot in a garage. But his latest is a substantial character role as the villain’s right hand man in Singham 3. Before signing off Manoj does let in that there are other offers on the table – hinting at a dramatic main villain role in the near future.