War or peace, the jeep rolls on

For purists, the Jeep is an off-road, rugged, adventure vehicle. But from campaign trails to wooing heroines in movies, the all-terrain vehicle finds

War or peace, the jeep rolls on
The versatile Jeep is popular with all manner of vehicle enthusiasts. It is ideal for high altitude areas. The Jeep is useful as a farm and plantation vehicle. It is also popular in off-road racing where crossing the river, negotiating the ups and downs, and manoeuvring the rugged terrain are part of the adventure.

Though the Jeep is slow on the road, it is very rugged and reliable off it. The vehicle is popular with the Forest Department as it helps patrol the rugged forest path, besides finding use in Jeep safaris. During World War II, Jeeps were an important part of the arsenal of countries such as the US and Russia. Not long ago, they were also popular in Indian election campaigns.

The Jeep has come a long way ever since it was introduced in India when they began to be assembled here after World War II. Since then, several models and variations have been manufactured here.

For instance, these days Jeeps are fabricated to cater to the luxury segment. In effect, it is a car with the cowl of a Jeep with all the trappings of luxury like AC, music system and plush interiors — all of which are turn-offs for the purist.

Jeep purists will have none of the fancy variations. For them, Jeep is an off-road, rugged, adventure vehicle. For them Jeep means vehicles of Jeep lineage only such as the Willys, Ford Jeep, Mahindra flat-fender models, MM 540s, and related models.

Early 1940s origins

The origin of the Jeep as a general purpose vehicle goes back to the early 1940s, when America realised it could be drawn into World War II. The US military sent out requests to automobile manufacturers to create an all-terrain vehicle and come out with the prototype within 49 days. The vehicle needed to be rugged and tough, but at the same time not as big as a truck.

The Bantam Car Company created the first prototype and submitted it on time, meeting nearly all of the army's explicit specifications. The Willys and Ford companies also submitted their own improved designs, but did so later, and used Bantam’s original as a model. In short, the army’s contract went to the Willy-Overland company, which then contracted with Ford to help it build the 700,000 vehicles needed. These old war relics can still be found in the collection of diehard enthusiasts.

The word ‘Jeep’ is said to come from the initials GP, standing for general purpose, influenced by ‘Eugene the Jeep’, a creature of great resourcefulness and power represented in the Popeye comic strip. Many explanations of the origin of the word jeep have proven difficult to verify.

The most widely held theory is that the military designation GP (for Government Purposes or General Purpose) was morphed into the word Jeep. Joe Frazer, Willys-Overland President from 1939 to 1944, claimed to have coined the word Jeep by slurring the initials GP.

Long Indian connection

After World War II, Mahindra and Mahindra co-founder K C Mahindra went to the United States in his capacity as head of the Indian Supply Mission. He happened to meet Barney Roos, who had invented the Jeep, and became fascinated with this new vehicle design. Realising that the Jeep would be a perfect vehicle with which to navigate India's unpaved roads and rugged backcountry areas, Mahindra and his business partner brother J C Mahindra won the bid contract from Willys and began assembling Jeeps in India.

Mahindra initially used to import the CKDs (completely knocked down) Jeeps from Willys under licence and used to assemble them here. Later, under licence from Kaiser and Willys, they started manufacturing them in India.

However, when the CKD Jeeps came to India, they lost their charm. More and more Jeeps were converted to diesel, which was cheaper than petrol, and the steering was switched over to the right-hand side.

Mahindra and Mahindra (or M&M) began manufacturing light service vehicles in 1965 which retained much of the look and all of the ruggedness of the original Jeep design. Some of these Jeeps were stretched to odd lengths to serve as taxis and people-movers in rural areas. A 4x4 transfer case was unnecessary for masses hence a large number of Jeeps were re-operated and the transfer case was removed to reduce the weight from the Jeep.

High altitude

To a large extent, civilian Jeeps in India lost their 4x4 benefits except in high altitude areas like Darjeeling, Sikkim, Assam, and Manali in the north, and the hilly terrains of Western Ghats like Coorg, Chikkamagaluru and the Nilgiris in the South.

In 1974, Mahindra introduced the B275 (2350CC 38BHP 12Kgm@1,400rpm) International Harvester Co tractor engine on the CJ4A and called it the CJ500D. The CJ500D has been the mainstay of most government fleets.

By 1986, Mahindra designed the MM540 series which were essentially a CJ5 with the Peugeot XDP 4.90 engine. The Indian Army used the Mahindra CJ3Bs and Nissan Patrol P60 (known as Jonga) till the late 1980s.

Mahindra’s ‘CJ Army Model’ based on the CJ-3B was ironic, since Willys originally chose the ‘CJ’ acronym to represent ‘Civilian Jeep’.

Military-specification Jeeps include the ‘Rakshak’, a bulletproof vehicle with ballistic protection designed by the Israeli company Plasan Sasa. It was described as “effective aid in counter-insurgency and anti-terrorism operations as well as on the battlefield”.

During the 1990s, the army phased out CJ3Bs and Jongas, and opted for MM550s (XD3P engine and KMT90 Gearbox) and Maruti Gypsy.

In 1999, Mahindra introduced the MDI 3200 (2,650 cc, 59 BHP 15.5 Kgm@1,400 rpm) aka B 575 engine on the CJ 500D and called it the CL 500 & CL 550. The engine is extremely torque and is able to give better road speeds. Off-the-road this Jeep is extremely capable. In 2004, the MDI 3200 TC (2650 cc, 68 BHP 18 Kgm@2,000 rpm) was introduced on the CL 550 known as Mahindra Major post 2000.

A campaign vehicle

Jeep has been a popular vehicle in election campaigning in India. It was a Congress tradition to allot Jeeps for campaigning in the dusty hinterland. The Jeeps were to be kept in safe custody for the next elections but a majority of the candidates never returned the vehicles and the party ended up by buying more Jeeps.

The Jeep scandal in 1948 was the first major corruption case in independent India. V K Krishna Menon, the then Indian high commissioner to Britain, ignored protocols and signed a Rs 80-lakh contract for the purchase of 4,603 army Jeeps with a foreign firm. While most of the money was paid upfront, just 155 jeeps landed, the then Prime Minister Nehru forced the government to accept them.

Govind Ballabh Pant, the then Home Minister, announced on September 30, 1955, that the Jeep scandal case was closed for judicial inquiry ignoring suggestions by the inquiry committee led by Ananthsayanam Ayyangar.

He declared that “as far as the government is concerned it has made up its mind to close the matter. If the opposition is not satisfied they can make it an election issue”.

Soon after, on February 3, 1956, Krishna Menon was inducted into the Nehru cabinet as minister without portfolio. Later Krishna Menon became Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s trusted ally and defence minister.

Used to woo heroines 

Arguably, the Jeep derived its maximum mileage in films. It was a favoured vehicle for wooing the heroine, best exemplified by Rajesh Khanna singing, Mere Sapnon ki Rani in Aradhana, while driving a Jeep cruising alongside a mountain train to Darjeeling on which a coy Sharmila Tagore was a traveller. Jubilee hero Rajendra Kumar serenades in a Jeep singing, Kaun hai Jo Sapnon Mein Aaya in Jhuk Gaya Aasman.

Over the years, like the evolution of the Jeep itself, scenes featuring the Jeep became bolder such as the song sequence in Jism with John Abraham and Bipasha Basu. The Jeep too has become brighter and bolder.

The Jeep continues to chug along in India as M&M’s utility vehicle Thar, which shares the MM540’s iconic original frame. The Jeep brand in the US is owned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, the Jeep division of which has eight Jeep branded vehicles in the market. This icon is still going strong for sure.

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