They were once the favoured beasts of Punjabi men. But the iconic jeeps with their VIP Parking stickers and gun-holders are rapidly losing their allure
For years,they have been one of the most boisterous symbols of Punjabs macho youth. Young boys,hailing from remote corners of the state have driven them,with music blasting,across Chandigarh. But loudly refurbished and modified open jeeps,once a rage in this part of the country,are now struggling to exist.
From discarded stray parts,they emerge phoenix-like into wicked,racing machines. Purchased in bulk by private operators from military auctions,the worn out jeeps are completely dismantled and all their major components sold off as separate items. It is from here that smaller players purchase their chassis by the dozens and transform them into fashionable speed machines.
Mandi Dabwali,a small town in Haryanas Sirsa district,has been the manufacturing and marketing hub of these jeeps for a little over a decade. A plethora of small and medium-sized shops manufacture and supply components,ranging from bodies to seats to the other decorative paraphernalia,which go into the making of these clamorous monsters.
It takes around two months for these shops to create an almost new-looking jeep from a rusting chassis. Around 15 people work round-the-clock,building the metal bodies on the chassis,painting them and giving the finishing touches. When ready,these vehicles are handed over to the half-a-dozen commission agents in Dabwali who then display them in rented commercial spaces (not quite showrooms) and sell them off to buyers.
Often painted in loud shades of red,these jeeps make quite a sight. Nearly all these refurbished jeeps have either a Ford or a Willys embossed on them,along with the quintessential VIP Parking sticker. Boards and signs proclaiming USA,Canadian Boyz and USA Sports,too,are common to most. Some of them have details like engine and chassis numbers painted on the sides. Been there,won that, proclaims one. City of Roaders, states another. US Ermy H2, flashes a third.
The chassis costs us around Rs 25,000 apiece. The engines,which we get from Delhis Mayapuri market,cost another Rs 1 lakh per piece. Putting the entire vehicle together costs something between Rs 2-2.3 lakh. Once ready,these jeeps sell between Rs 2.5 to 3 lakhs,making them some of the cheapest diesel vehicles in the market. The manufacture of a single jeep provides a livelihood to at least 15 families, says Rajinder Singh,who runs the Friends Jeep Bazar on Sirsa Road,Dabwali.
Most of these jeeps have a seating capacity of six and come fully embellished with different insignia and accessories. A showpiece spade fastened to the body of the jeep on the drivers side is a must. Gun-stands,too,find a place near the bonnet. A small fire-extinguisher in the front and a typical military-type fuel container at the rear complete the picture. With their halogen lights blazing they are sure to leave other vehicles blinded.
But what probably sets these jeeps apart are their unusually large protruding tubeless tyres. Costing as much as Rs 45,000 for a set of four tyres and five-alloy wheels,these gigantic tyres provide the jeeps an unique identity. The huge tyres necessitate that the jeeps come with power steering. For the past few years,makers have also started introducing power brakes in the jeeps.
The jeeps used to be very popular but their appeal seem to be waning. The business has never been so down. There was a time (around two years ago) when we sold three-four jeeps a month. Many NRIs used to purchase these jeeps. But its not the same anymore, says Kulwant Singh,who now sells only one or two modified jeeps in a couple of months. Originally a motor mechanic,Singh moved on to this business around four years ago and now runs the Baba Vishawkarma Jeep Bazar in Mandi Dabwali.
Rajinder Singh of Friends Jeep Bazar echoes a similar sentiment. Not many people are buying these jeeps nowadays. Eh fukrapanti diyan gaddiyan ne,family wala koi nahin lenda (These are vehicles to show off. No family person buys it), he says. After all,why would a family want a vehicle that doesnt protect its passengers from heat,cold or rain?
But what happened to the youngsters,the NRIs who used to flock to this market to procure these machines? Kulwant and Rajinder have a common answer. A lot of these jeeps used to be bought by youngsters from Punjab who used to then show them off on Chandigarh roads. But ever since the Chandigarh Police started challaning these vehicles,there has been a huge drop in their sales, they say.
For the record,the Chandigarh Police has been fining dozens of these modified jeeps over the last few years for various violations under the Motor Vehicle Act. The violations range from having protruding tyres,to no seat-belts to use of pressure horns. Even a Chandigarh Police cop,who used to flaunt one of these jeeps was penalised a few years ago.
While the sellers in Dabwali guarantee proper documentation and registration,many doubts remain about the sourcing of the components that go into the making of these jeeps. At times,the engines we buy from Mayapuri dont have engine numbers. A jeep with such an engine can easily be challaned, admits a seller in Dabwali. Many cities dont allow roofless vehicles on the road. To counter that,we have also started having a provision for a hood now, says another. To tackle the fines due to protruding tyres,many manufactures have started using normal tyres as well.
Manufacturers in Dabwali believe that the negative publicity these jeeps have generated because of the fines is now threatening to rob them of their livelihoods. And this small,dusty town is yet to find a way to keep their locally-made beast roaring down the road.