Pointing to the crumbling red-brick building at the far end of the compound, I ask, “What’s in there?” “Why don’t you go take a look,” replies the dapper man with the twinkling eye called Uday Bhan Singh. “But you will need a four-wheel drive to go in there,” he says gesturing at one of his workers to get us a Jeep.
A 1988 Mahindra badged CJ3B retired from the Indian Air Force is brought into service. Drive engaged, we crawl into the building. A heavy musty smell assaults my nostrils as the headlights pierce the inky darkness. In front of me, like some prehistoric dinosaurs feeding in the swamp, lie the ghostly carcasses of half-a-dozen Jeeps standing in a pool of water. Our Jeep pitches and rolls alarmingly, as I undertake the most unique guided tour of my life. This seems like the primordial pond from which the Jeep emerged, and crawled into the earth. Or a scene from Armageddon.
I am not surprised there are Jeeps here. There are Jeeps everywhere. There are Jeeps growing out of trees. There are Jeep chassis stacked one on top of another. There are Jeeps on the grounds, Jeeps in sheds, Jeeps in front of the house, behind the house, around the house, and even on the house – its front sticking out of the first floor. There are green Jeeps, blue Jeeps, unpainted Jeeps, rusted Jeeps. And where there are no Jeeps, there are Jeep differentials, Jeep steering wheels, lights, frame, chassis, nuts, bolts, hoses, pumps. Uday Bhan Singh’s house, ‘Jeep Junction’ at Liluah, on the outskirts of Kolkata, is a Jeep nursery, sanatorium, hospital and museum.
Uday Bhan Singh, who I shall hereafter refer as UBS for the sake of brevity, is a man possessed. It’s an infection he caught from his paternal uncle when he was a lad in half-pants. His uncle owned a 1942 Ford GTW. They would sit for hours talking about Jeeps and making plans on how best to modify and improve the vehicle. Seeing the boy’s enthusiasm, his father bought him his first Jeep when he was in class nine; not to drive, but to learn the workings of the Jeep. UBS stripped down the vehicle and rebuilt it. That was the earliest lesson.
After doing his engineering from BITS Pilani, UBS started off doing what he knew and loved doing best. Running a Jeep garage. He repaired them, modified them and whenever he came upon a good piece, bought it. But you can’t give your family the good life running a Jeep garage. UBS and his wife decided to build a school. The next few years went by with UBS getting more and more involved with the project. The school quickly established a reputation but UBS had lost his mojo. Till one day his elder sister told UBS to return to his first love. So in 1993 UBS decided that from now on, the only work he would do on a Jeep was for himself, and UBS’s Jeep garage was lost to the public.
How many Jeeps does this man have? He thinks for a moment, “about 40 or 45”. And none of them are for sale. They are his babies. Collected painstakingly over the years. It’s a collection difficult to catalogue.
World War II Willys MB and Ford GPW Jeeps dating back to 1942. Then there are a few post-war Willys Civilian Jeeps (CJ). The CJ 2As and CJ 3As with their low-bonnet, ‘Go Devil’ side-valve engines. In fact even a 1966 model, one of the very last of the left-hand Mahindra-assembled Jeeps. Then there’s the high-bonnet Willys CJ 3B with the Hurricane overhead valve engine.
Looking after all these Jeeps is a full-time job for UBS and his five-man team of mechanics and assistants. And the only reward is the satisfaction of a job well done. And maybe a word of appreciation from some fellow enthusiast. UBS declares that he has been able to pursue his dream because of the support of his team who he insists should be named. So say cheers to Pankaj Dutta and Sadhan Majumdar, ably assisted by Pawan Prasad, Ashok Maity and Pramod Singh. Great job guys.
A man wearing a dirty blue shirt and a mournful expression comes and squats down in front of UBS. From his multi-coloured nylon shopping bag he takes out his wares. A dusty fuel pump, assorted hoses and other bits and pieces. UBS picks up each part, and then identifies for my benefit which model it belongs to and from which year. I learn the difference between 12V and a six-volt brake system. Volts? Brake? I get a crash course from UBS. Till 1966 all Jeeps came with six-volt electricals and the American Lockheed brake systems. In 1966, a 12V system was adopted along with the European Girling brake system. Local mechanics colloquially started referring to the Lockheed as the six-volt brake system, and the Lockheed as the 12V brake system.
UBS is the centre of a parallel economy in Liluah. The people in this place know that there is one man who will pay them a fair price for old Jeeps and parts. So whenever a Jeep is scrapped it finds its way to him. At times he gets lucky enough to get something closely looking like a Jeep. Other days, like today, he gets bits and parts that will join his bulging inventory of assorted Jeep spares.
“This area is a happy hunting ground for old Jeeps,” UBS informs me. This was the front to Burma during World War II, and a number of American Army Jeeps found their way here. After the war, the Jeeps were left here. And UBS is still unearthing them.
It’s a collection built up painstakingly over 40 years. And behind each of his Jeeps is a story. UBS shows me a brown 1952 Willys M38. It’s a ‘submersible Jeep’ designed to operate under 70 inches of water. The ‘M’ stands for ‘military’. Powered by a 60bhp Go-Devil engine this Jeep has a 24V electrical system.
This particular vehicle belonged to a priest, Reverend Father Sarkar. He had bought this Jeep from another missionary in Burma and then brought it down to Kolkata through Assam. Since this Jeep was used primarily in the Korean War, this is a rare piece to find in India. Naturally, when he first saw the Jeep, UBS was star-stuck. His offer to buy this vehicle was turned down flat since the priest was too attached to his Jeep. Years passed and UBS kept his offer open but the priest never relented. Every time UBS passed by the priest’s house, he’d stop at the garage to check out the Jeep. Then one fine day, the Jeep was gone.
UBS ran up to the priest in panic and was told that the Jeep had suffered a terminal breakdown at Raghunathpur, around 250km out of Kolkata. It was lying at the missionary hospital there. Everyone, including mechanics sent from Kolkata, had tried to start it and failed. Now UBS believed that even if a Jeep was left standing for 20 years, he could start the vehicle and asked the priest to allow him to give it a try. And what Father Sarkar told him left him standing in his tracks — UBS could have the M38. No payment. His passion was enough and the priest was convinced that the Jeep would have a good home. Needless to say, UBS wasted no time in hot-footing to Raghunathpur, got the Jeep started and brought it home. The time elapsed since he made his first offer till the day he drove it home? Twenty years!
Then there are the stories of the Jeeps he pursued for years that slipped away from him. Then there are stories about Jeeps. And anecdotes and facts. Did you know that the Army used Jeeps to power its laundry machines? Jack up the Jeep, run a belt from the wheel to the laundry machine and voila, clean uniform! The flat bonnet of the Jeep was used by the missionary priests to hold their services. Ford Jeeps have a square front crossmember, while Willys uses a tubular design. The different types of tailgate stampings. The man is an encyclopedia on Jeeps. Throw him a query and in less than a second he throws back 10 answers, sorted in order of relevance.
“Who is the one person you owe this all to?” I ask. He answers simply, “My wife Atima.” And I had presumptuously assumed Jeeps were his first love!