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Friday, December 04, 2020

Many miles ahead

How the jeep became India’s favourite all-purpose vehicle

Written by Surbhi Gupta | Updated: November 3, 2020 5:14:09 pm
Congo Crisis in 1963, mahindraOn rough terrain: Indian peacekeeping troops during the Congo Crisis in 1963

The genesis of Mahindra & Mahindra, a leading Indian vehicle manufacturer, lies in World War II. Timeless Mahindra, a new book by veteran journalist Adil Jal Darukhanawala which celebrates the company’s 75th anniversary, traces its origins to 1941. The United States military’s search for a low-volume, low-cost scout vehicle for the frontlines led to the development of the Jeep, designed by American Bantam and further developed by Willys and Ford. Hailed as “one of the three tools that won the war”, it was distributed in various countries and made its way to India when the Allied forces were fighting the Japanese on the Burma front.

“After World War II, the vehicle had to be put to other uses. The Mahindras knew that India was on the cusp of independence and the new nation would require motorised transport that was easy to operate, service and repair,” says Darukhanawala. Established in 1945 in Ludhiana, as Mahindra & Mohammed, by brothers Kailash Chandra and Jagdish Chandra Mahindra along with Malik Ghulam Mohammed, it was renamed Mahindra and Mahindra, after Mohammed emigrated to Pakistan to become its first finance minister.

 Timeless Mahindra Cover of Timeless Mahindra

Meanwhile, Mahindra tied up with Willys Overland to manufacture the iconic CJ-3B in India. “Manufacturing and procuring investment in India was extremely time-consuming and difficult. So, Mahindra created 30-40 variants of the vehicle over the next 25 years,” says Darukhanawala. On India’s tough terrain, the jeep had many functions — ferrying the public, carting goods and making medical facilities reach remote corners.

All forward units of the Indian Army, from the Indo-Pakistan war in 1947, to subsequent conflicts in 1962, 1965 and 1971 have used Mahindra’s CJ-3B jeeps. It was a lifeline in rural areas and was also used by royalty and law enforcement officials across India. “Till the early ’90s, Mahindra was considered a vehicle used by the government, law enforcement and those in rural areas. Armada (1993) was the company’s first attempt to reach out to urban buyers,” he says. Armada did not make a mark, but Bolero (2000) and Scorpio (2002) helped the company tap urban markets.

In 2010, Mahindra launched the Thar, an off-road Jeep CJ-like SUV. “After a number of MNCs started coming into the country, the jeep had started getting relegated to the fringes of the automotive world. Hence, Mahindra had to reinvent, which they did with Scorpio, but they infused the essence of the original CJ-3B into the Thar, which had a sportier bloodline and appeal,” says Darukhanawala.

When he travelled across the country for this book, Darukhanawala was struck by how each Mahindra jeep drew its character from its location. “In Punjab, the jeeps are ostentatiously decorated, while in Hyderabad, they keep the vehicle as close to the original as possible. People in Goa use it differently from people in Kerala. It’s not so much about the vehicle as it is about the people,” he says.

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