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Jeep lover's garage of WWII wheels

As the American marquee Jeep makes its foray in India, a Jeep guru has been quietly working in Howrah, trying to save the World War II vehicles from passing into oblivion.

By Anasuya Basu
  • Published 31.08.16

As the American marquee Jeep makes its foray in India, a Jeep guru has been quietly working in Howrah, trying to save the World War II vehicles from passing into oblivion.

Uday Bhan Singh with a (extreme left) modified Mahindra Jeep and a modified Willys MB

Anyone wanting to recreate WWII Calcutta makes a beeline to 266/A GT Road in Liluah. Be it Dibakar Banerjee for his film Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, or Sreejit Mukherjee for Begum Jaan or Gunday-maker Abbas Ali Zaffar. The Liluah address is a veritable Jeep museum, home to 85-odd vehicles saved and restored by Jeep guru Uday Bhan Singh, or UBS.

"I buy Jeeps to save them from being scrapped," said Singh, who owns 85 of them, all in various stages of restoration.

The place where Singh's sprawling bungalow stands used to be his grandfather's bagan bari (farmhouse). "The place was taken over by British troops during the WWII. We as children played with Jeeps as there were so many of them around. There was an amphibian Ford GPA Jeep too, shaped like a boat and could sail on water," said Singh, who rebuilt his first jeep when he was 14, under his father's guidance.

Six years after the family moved to the house from its Salkia home in 1960, Singh got his first old jeep, a Willys MB, bought for Rs 2,200. "I dismantled and rebuilt it. All my pocket money used to go on jeeps," he said. After he left college, he formed a team to build Jeeps.

"Then there was a demand for Jeeps which would run as taxis. I bought second-hand Mahindra Jeeps, converted them into diesel engines and Right Hand Drive vehicles and sold them. But I used to keep aside some rare Willys Jeeps, about 13 or 14 of them," said UBS.

He shut down his garage in 1991 but restarted it in 1994. "I started saving Jeeps from the scrap yard. There were a lot of spare parts of Jeeps around because they were being scrapped. You got them from kabaddiwalas," he said.

Of his prized acquisition was an M38, submersive jeep from the Korean War. "I got it from a missionary named Father Sircar. After 20 years of persuasion, he gave the Jeep to me in 1995. It used to be parked in the compound of the Hastings Chapel. I would eye it every time I passed by. Finally, I had the courage to ask the Father for the jeep. I was of course shoo-ed away," UBS narrated.

One day, he noticed that the Jeep was no longer there. He asked the priest and was told that the Jeep was in Raghunathpur and was not starting. The Father gave him the manual of the Jeep.

UBS went to Raghunathpur and found that the distributor coil was missing. He put in an Ambassador's coil and drove it for 11-12 km before the radiator gave way. "I came back to Raghunathpur, fixed the radiator and made my way to Panagarh from where I bought a Jeep carburettor and put it in the vehicle," said UBS, who got the vehicle absolutely free from the missionary.

The Dodge Power Wagon that was seen in Byomkesh Bakshy and will feature in Begum Jaan, too, was acquired from an air force station near Midnapore.

He got one from BE College in Shibpur, now Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology. "There was a weapons' carrier at the BE College workshop and I was pursuing the then head Dr Seal to sell it to me. I fixed his Vauxhaul for him. But he told me selling the vehicle would require permission from Delhi. Later in 2006-7, the college authorities auctioned all the vehicles and I got my Dodge 1.5 tonne WC 63 (WC 63 standing for Weapons Carrier six wheels and 3 axles)," said UBS.

UBS also has a Mercedes Unimog of 1954 vintage that used to be a troops carrier. He got that from an auction at the Telco factory in Jamshedpur.

His vintage jeeps have taken part in the Classic Himalayan Rally in 2006 that was organised by Rhythm of a Road Rally (ROARR). "They had organised a Calcutta-Islamabad run along the Himalayas. Three of my Jeeps participated in it, a WWII Willy's 8181, a CJ3A, and CJ2A," he said.

UBS has also driven in the Great Arc Recce in 2006. The Great Arc is an imaginary line at 77 degrees 41 minutes which the British drew in the 19th century connecting the northern and southernmost tips of India.

"It connects Cape Comorin to Mussourie. I drove my Willys MB along the Great Arc, through agricultural fields, mountains and inhospitable terrain."

UBS is the first Indian to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from Rain Forest Challenge India, one of the most challenging offroad competitions.

UBS and his sons, who share his passion, have founded an offroading club in Calcutta called the Kolkata Offroaders. "We take out the jeeps and do some offroading in Suri, Pandua, Massanjore," said Hero Sen, a UBS admirer and part of Kolkata Offroaders. The Singhs also have a plan to start an offroad track in a two-and-a-half bigha land near Bijon Setu. A Jeep museum is also on the cards.