Mr. Anand Mahindra must be a happy man. This week he travels to Detroit, USA to launch his “off road” Sports Utility Vehicle, made in his US plant, for American buyers. The vehicle is named ROXOR (internet slang for ‘Rocks’ or ‘Awesome’) and will be unveiled on 2 March 2018. The automobile has 21st-century features of course, but it promises to look so much like the Jeeps that were imported from USA, exclusively and for years by his company, starting 65 years ago. This week he will be returning the favours.
Sports Utility Vehicles—SUVs for short—are rough and tough automobiles that are so much in vogue these days. What sets these vehicles apart from others are key features like high ground clearance for best “off road” use on unpaved terrain, a 4 Wheel-Drive system coupled with deep-groove tyres for better traction needed in say muddy waters or rocky streams, and a rugged body for its exteriors. Such vehicles are built on a light-truck chassis and have high seats. Today’s SUVs are typically station wagons with air-conditioning, power steering and satellite navigation systems, but at one time, that wasn’t the case. These were mostly open-air vehicles, many without even doors. The appointments were spartan, so there was no question of air-conditioning of course. In fact, the ancestor of SUVs was the open Jeep.
It all started in the early 1940s, after USA was forced to enter World War II. The Army wanted a robust vehicle it could depend on, especially for where there were no paved roads. It put out tenders for tough cars that could also be used in rough weather and not fall apart. Many companies sent out proposals and bids, and the winner was Willys-Overland. This auto-maker already had a head start in the business since it had earlier shown to an astounded audience of Senators and Congressmen how their small, truck-like vehicles could ride up the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington DC. Off-road capabilities already in place, winning the US Government contract was a foregone conclusion for them. The company sold well over half a million of these vehicles to the US Army. In course of time, its ownership changed many hands, as did the Jeep’s design. Over the years, the Jeep also went on to have many competitors, principally Land Rover, but the original Jeep is still in production.
In India, the early units were imported by Mahindra and Mahindra in knocked down condition, then re-assembled and sold to the Indian Army and to the Police. Many were bought by Princes, for whom the Jeep became the preferred mode of transportation when they went hunting—in their sport called Shikar—into the jungles. For this last job, the Jeeps were replacing the elephant as by far the more tractable of the two.
Shikars are not so hot now, and the Princes have all but gone too. But the Police still use such vehicles, as does the Army, which was spotlighted last year for a new, out-of-the-box use: tying up a stone-pelter to the bonnet of just such a vehicle, for the safe passage of many others.
Jeeps are also popular among collectors, and so there have sprung up a few companies that make a living selling the refurbished kind. It is for the he-man, rough-and-tough image of these vehicles that filmdom too has engaged with them quite a bit. For instance in Aayi Milan Ki Bela (1964), Dharmendra forces Saira Banu to ride with him in a Jeep, with Rajendra Kumar in hot pursuit on a horse. In Do Badan (1966), we saw Manoj Kumar in one, working as he was in a lumbar estate owned by his sweetheart’s father. Shashi Kapoor drove one too, as a Police Officer in Deewar (1975). Actors have even been singing songs while driving a Jeep too. Here are some cases of actors behind the wheel in a Jeep during a song, whether they themselves were lip-syncing or another actor was, or even if the song was being filmed background:
- Shammi Kapoor in Raahi mil gaye raahon mein (Rafi/Dil Deke Dekho, 1959)
- Sunil Dutt in Soch rahi thi kahoon na kahoon (Lata/Ek Phool Chaar Kaante, 1960)
- Dev Anand in Main zindagi ka saath nibhaata chala gaya (Rafi/Hum Dono, 1961)
- Johnny Walker in Aashiq hoon apne pyaar ke jauhar dikhaoonga (Rafi/Kaun Apna Kaun Paraya, 1963)
- Vijay Anand in Masti mein chhed ke taraana koi dil ka (Rafi/Haqeeqat. 1964)
- Manoj Kumar in Aa tu aa zara dil mein aa (Lata, Mukesh/Phoolon Ki Sej, 1964)
- Biswajit in Pukaarta chala hoon main (Rafi/Mere Sanam, 1965)
- Firoz Khan in Pyaar ka fasaana bana le dil deewaana (Mukesh, Lata/Teesra Kaun, 1965)
- Rajendra Kumar in Kaun hai jo sapnon mein aaya (Rafi/Jhuk Gaya Aasmaan, 1968)
- Asha Parekh in Tumhaare pyaar mein hum beqaraar ho ke chale (Rafi/Shikar, 1968)
- Rajendra Kumar in Main raahi anjaan galiyon ka (Rafi/Anjaana, 1969)
- Sujit Kumar in Mere sapnon ki raani kab ayegi tu (Kishore/Aradhana, 1969)
- Dharmendra in Dekha hai teri aankhon mein (Rafi/Pyaar Hi Pyaar, 1969)
- Deb Mukherji in Chal akela chal akela chal akela (Mukesh/Sambandh, 1969)
- Anup Kumar in Gham pe dhool daalo…Yaaro neelaam karo susti (Bhupinder, Kishore/Prem Pujari, 1970)
- Shashi Kapoor in Aaha ha ha ha ye suhaana safar (Rafi/Suhaana Safar, 1970)
- Shammi Kapoor in Re mama re mama re (Rafi/Andaz, 1971)
- Dharmendra in Meri jaan meri jaan kehna maano (Kishore/Do Chor, 1972)
- Both Neetu Singh and Shashi Kapoor in Keh doon tumhen ya chup rahoon (Kishore, Asha/Deewar, 1975)
- Firoz Khan in Kya khoob lagti ho (Mukesh, Kanchan in Dharmatma, 1975)
- Vijayendra Ghatge in Aaj se pehle, aaj se zyaada (Yesudas/Chit Chor, 1976)
In a predominantly high number of cases from the list above, the Jeeps were driven by men, as we saw. Most of these vehicles were also the Left Hand Drive kind. These are the ones that Mahindra and Mahindra had imported from USA for sale in India. Later the company started making the Right Hand Drives right here. Later still, many other auto-makers entered the scene, like Maruti, which launched its Gypsy, a low-cost SUV, way back in 1985. Mahindra now has its Thar, a similar product. However, the thrill of driving a Willys Jeep, especially in the ‘60s and’ 70s, can hardly be described.
Meanwhile, the current irony impresses: for an Indian to be hiring American workers to be making Jeep-like vehicles in USA, and then even selling these to Americans.
There’s another irony too. While the company’s boss, Anand Mahindra runs a huge car corporation in India, his own daughters are not among his buyers. In a recent interview to a TV channel, he announced that his daughters don’t purchase cars. They don’t even drive. “They use Uber”, he said. One wonders if the script would have been different if he was selling jewellery. Or if he had a son. Because if diamonds are a girl’s best friends, automobiles are a man’s buddies.
Featured snap on top: Dharmendra in Meri jaan, meri jaan, kehna maano
Originally published in DNA Jaipur on page 13 on 25 February 2018 http://epaper2.dnaindia.com/index.php?mod=1&pgnum=1&edcode=131002&pagedate=2018-02-25