Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Macho Machine
The jeep is a sturdy and dependable vehicle. But the jeeps that are being assembled in Punjab can be a terror on the road. Driven by the imagination and ingenuity of over-the-top Punjabis, they come in garish, loud and often unsafe avatars, says H. Kishie Singh

Mahendra jeeps stripped to the bone
Set for a make-over: Mahendra jeeps stripped to the bone

A jeep, whether an original from Ford or an indigenous one from Mahendra and Maruti, is a soft-top vehicle designed to be driven open. It has a canvas top and foldable or removable overhead rods. With the top off, it becomes a general purpose vehicle. The police Gypsys are testimony to this.

A lot of people buy the Mahendra jeeps and Maruti Gypsys and build a hard top body on them. This is in contravention of Section 52 of the Motor Vehicles Act, which states, "No owner of a motor vehicle shall so alter the vehicle that the particulars contained in the certificate of registration are no longer accurate." So the jeep is designed, manufactured and sold as an "open" vehicle. There is no reason to challan this vehicle on grounds of being "open", which incidentally the police does many a time.

It would seem that the police cannot see the wood for the trees. The jeeps that they should be targeting are specially prepared in rural Punjab and can be challaned for a number of reasons but not for being "open".

These made-in-Punjab jeeps are a tribute to the imagination and ingenuity of Punjabis. It is an industry born out of the Punjabis’ love of things automotive and a need to project a macho image. Jeep assembling is the ‘most organised unorganised’ cottage industry in Punjab. These jeeps are being mass produced in the Punjab heartland. The workshops, basic and primitive, are in the open on the roadside with an ustad in charge of design and build. He, in turn, is helped by a number of chhotus. There is nothing fancy or sophisticated about the manufacturing but the product is ‘deadly’.

Jeeps rebuilt as replicas of WW II vehicles
devils on the road: Jeeps rebuilt as replicas of WW II vehicles

The end result — low bonnet, split windscreen and open — is a replica of the iconic World War II jeeps. There is provision for fitting a canvas top but this is largely ignored. The similarity with the WW II jeep ends here.

There is one major deviation from the original. The rectangular-shaped headlights have been sourced from Maruti 800. A true-blue jeep aficionado will tell you that if the lights are not round, it’s not a jeep.

The vehicles are sourced from Army disposal sales and then stripped down to the chassis. Every original fitment is removed and replaced with modern technology. The heart of the new jeep is a two-litre engine, and if you want a big bang for your buck a two-and-a-half-litre turbo-charged diesel Toyota engine can be used. This is mated with a five-speed gearbox. The dashboard is faithfully reproduced with all the necessary instruments. The gear-shift lever is sporty with a wooden knob. Then follows a paint job. The more garish and loud, the better. A massive bumper, wrapped in coir rope and sporting large spotlights, adorns the front end. ‘Black-out lights’ are on the mudguards.

Two hooks actually meant for airlifting are also attached to the bumper. Fire extinguishers are placed on the radiator. Power brakes and power steering are fitted. The original wheels are replaced with mag alloy rims sporting oversized tyres. A sporty steering wheel, bucket seats and a jump seat for passengers in the rear and a fully carpeted floor. A jerry can and spare wheel are fitted on the rear. ‘USA or US MARINE CORP’ is painted on the bonnet, and it is followed by a broad arrow number.

The mechanicals and visuals complete, the accessories are then fitted to the exterior of the jeep. It is these accessories that make the jeep an extremely dangerous vehicle. Open or closed, this jeep is a weapon of war.

Fitted on the exterior is a shovel, an axe and a short-handle pike, a weapon favoured by foot soldiers in medieval times. A pick-axe handle studded with brass knobs is fitted on the cowl just below the windscreen. A gun rack is fitted on the driver’s side. A baseball bat nestles in the gun rack within easy reach. The owners are ready to go to battle. Even as road rage is generally unknown in Punjab, honour killings are very much a fact of life. While being concerned about the jeep being "open", the police have overlooked these accessories.

Once the jeeps are ready (the largest manufacturing facility is in Dabwali), they are sent to Moga, Bathinda and Barnala. These towns hold a bazaar of used cars on Sundays, where these jeeps take pride of place. There are tractors, trailers, and every make of car on sale. The venue is often the grain market, which can hold a couple of hundred cars on display.

"Only yesterday we sold eight jeeps in one go," said the proud owner of these vehicles. "A few boys came and said they were going in a baraat for a wedding". And the wedding could have been a bash (pun not intended!). Eight fully loaded jeeps, battle ready and we know that Punjab’s sixth river daroo flows freely at weddings. A deadly mix.

The open jeep is fun and street legal. It’s the made-in-Punjab variety with its accessories that the police should be concerned about.

Journey of the jeep

Its 60 years since the world first saw the jeep but it still continues to hold the hearts and minds of the automobile aficionado.

The story starts in 1930, when the pride of English automobiles, Austin of England, founded the American Austin Car Company in the US. Austin made small cars, famously the Austin Seven i.e. with 700 cc engines. The Americans loved big cars and had no use for a small car. By 1934, the American Austin Car Company was almost bankrupt. Roy Evans, chairman of the company, took over the company and renamed it Bantam Car Company. The company wanted to make small cars.

In 1938, Bantam realised the potential of a small, light and fast vehicle for military use but the military was not interested. What spurred the military into action were reports by the U.S Intelligence that Germany was planning a Volkswagen for military use for the German army. This was 1940. The Germans had occupied France in just three weeks and the reason was the high mobility of the German army.

The Americans saw the need for a light-weight car or truck which should have 4X4 capability. The obvious choice was the Bantam. The weight limit of 590 kg was considered impractical so traditional truck manufactures like GMC and Dodge stayed out of the race.

Bantam was too small a manufacturer so Willys was also given the contract. Ford came in at a later stage, after all they were the country’s largest auto manufacturers. Ford was making a car a minute, thanks to Henry’s genius in manufacturing methods. It was Ford who introduced the pressed grill, which gave the jeep its distinctive look. It was Ford who came up with the term G.P.

Ford had its own designations for cars i.e. A for passenger cars (remember the Ford Model A?), B for bus, C for commercial, and G for government. P was the 80-inch wheel base, the government demands for the length of the vehicle. W was added to denote that it was a Willys design. So the designation GPW was born, even though manufactured by Ford.

In 1942, Ford introduced the GPA. A stood for Amphibious. If the jeep could do everything on land, why not in water? Ford took the jeep and enclosed it in a watertight hull. A power take-off shaft drove the propeller. A rudder was added. The Ford GPA retained its four-wheel drive capability.

The GPA was not terribly successful. It rode too low in the water and sank easily. Only about 12500 were built while the GPW was churned out by the hundreds of thousands.

While doing service in the US Army, the jeep could tow a trailer, a field gun or a water tanker. It could accommodate a stretcher across the rear, it could carry all types of communication equipment and be a commander’s vehicle.

One of the most amazing points of jeep’s versatility was its ability to run on railway tracks. If the tyres are removed and only the rims are fitted back on to the jeep, the width of the rims was 4 feet and 6 inches. That is the width of a broad gauge railway track.

"The jeep, the Dakota and the landing aircraft were the three tools that won the war", said General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the allied forces who went on to become president of the US.

A World War II correspondent, Ernie Pyle, who drove around Europe covering the war in the jeep, said of the vehicle, "It goes everywhere, it does everything. It is as faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule and as agile as a goat! It carries loads twice as heavy as those it was designed for, and it keeps going. The jeep is a divine instrument in military locomotion!"

The great Enzo Ferrari said of the jeep, "America’s only real sports car!"

And, of course, one of the greatest tributes to the jeep was an ad, which said, "Paved Roads — just another example of useless government spending!"

— H.K.S.

The original Ford jeep of WW II
Old favourite: The original Ford jeep of WW II