The quintessential jeep was, and continues to be, a lifestyle thing in Bhopal. Not always connected to the brand, a Bhopali ‘jeep’ could be a Ford GPW, a low bonnet Willys MB, a Willys M606, an M38 A1 or even a later Mahindra equipped with jholas— one attached at the back and a smaller one near the dashboard. Bhopali jeeps are often unpainted, or only have a coat of primer, and continue to find patrons, with owners never having to think about resale values.
Arriving in Bhopal as the wheels of choice for Nawab Hamidullah Khan, the early jeeps were mainly used in shikaar. Wealthy farmers also used them to ferry themselves to and from their farms. The jhola at the back carried anything from dead game to beaters to gunny bags, while the smaller jhola mostly held chaalia (the Bhopali word for supari) and paan.
“With shikaar gone and farm holdings shrinking, the jeep lost some of its importance, but continues to be a utility thing here,” says Bhopal-based automobile enthusiast and restorer Rajan Deb. “In Bhopal, there are those who use the jeep for work and then there are those who collect original Fords and Willys,” he adds.
The jeeps have survived the decades thanks mainly due to ‘doctors’—mechanics who keep them going using jugaad. “The work is not what it used to be but I am happy with what I have done,” says Mohammed Zameer, who uses the takhallus ‘Nirale’ and is one of the better known jeep mechanics in Bhopal. Nirale’s grandfather opened a garage in 1946. Nirale appren- ticed with him before starting his own shop in 1967. “You learnt everything on the job; there was no option for training or getting a degree,” he says, adding that the work is still commercially viable. “Bhopali jeeps have great demand. One of my old jeeps is in Canada with a collector,” he says. Prices for original Ford GPWs and Willys MBs range from Rs 10 lakh to Rs 15 lakh.
In the Lal Masjid quarter of Bhopal, more than a dozen garages thrive. Pyare Bhai, one of the owners, says that modern SUVs have taken a toll, but the jeep craze remains. “There are people who spend the entire day with us, seeing how jeeps are repaired,” he says. Expert mechanics have come from the ranks of jeep owners as well. One of the sons of a family of Pathans living at Khandera—Pudhiya—was referred to as an ‘honorary engineer’. Many jeeps bore a ‘designed by engineer Pudhiya’ message on the registration plates. And today, jeeps are no longer an all-male preserve. “Driving a jeep is all about slowing down in life, to appreciate everything that you could miss in a fast car,” says Sonia Rashid, who is married into the erstwhile Bhopal royal family and is the proud owner of a Willys jeep.
Just as Nirale is about to close his garage for the day, a customer walks in and admires a parked Ford GPW. Inquiring about the price, he is taken aback at the quote. “Why is it so expensive?” he asks. “Nut, nut par Ford likha hai, miyan (Everything is original—even the nuts and bolts have the Ford ‘F’ emblazoned on them),” replies Nirale.