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On a relaxed day in the middle of 2007, I was scouring a junkyard in Mumbai for jeep spare parts when I saw a large, time-ravaged vehicle standing in a corner, sporting authentic military camouflage patterns. Like any hobbyist, my heart raced at the sight of this good-looking monster. I immediately started haranguing the scrap dealer with questions. What is this vehicle? Where did it come from? What will you do with it? And finally, the only question that really matters: Will you sell it to me?

My love affair with jeeps had started about three years earlier, when I drove one during a visit to Madhu’s garage, Madhu being my favourite mechanic and right-hand man in all things to do with vehicles. I took it on an off-road jaunt to the outskirts of Titwala, and the exhilaration of the experience – particularly the way it navigated tough terrains, and its dominance on the road– has stayed with me ever since. The first jeep I owned was a Mahindra Marshal. The next one came along in late 2006 – a Mahindra Legend, a limited edition 4WD jeep manufactured to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Mahindra & Mahindra. By then I had started building a collection of jeep accessories, (like, say, jerry cans with character…) and that is how I had ended up in the scrap yard that day.

The scrap dealer said he had no idea what this battered vehicle was, but explained that its only use for him was as scrap metal. It had been bought it as part of a larger auction deal and the man was just about to break it down. He was, however, willing to sell it to me whole– provided I bought it right away. He said he did not have much time, and quoted a price that was way beyond my expectations. I tried to bargain a little, but my efforts quickly proved futile. The offer, he also added, stands cancelled if I didn’t pay the complete amount that very day.

I had heard about the Jonga a long time ago but I had never seen one before, except pictures of it on a website. But seeing it that day in the junkyard I recognised it right away. No aficionado of jeeps could have failed to: for this truly was a creature of legend. Designed by Nissan in 1960, it was originally named the Patrol, but was christened the ‘Jonga’ once it was inducted by the Indian Army – an acronym for Jabalpur Ordnance and Gun carriage Assembly.

This particular Jonga, standing before me, was a 1977 model, which had been auctioned off by the Indian army. It was wearing army colours, and still had the army number on it. The name Jonga was on the vehicle, but it was all caked in paint. The army vehicles apparently get frequent coats of paint, as the soldiers take very good and vigilant care of them. So there were layers and layers of it, literally chunks of paint on this vehicle.

Madhu happened to be with me, and together we inspected the Jonga. It was clearly very old, and in a deplorable condition. It was missing one headlight, among other things. Most of the body was rusting. The engine looked fairly okay. But there was no way we could start it or check it in any manner. There was no battery, there were no plugs. The vehicle was just lying there as a huge mass of heavy metal. But visually, it looked okay. I consulted Madhu, and we decided to go for it. I had some money with me, which I gave the man to seal our agreement. Then I asked Madhu to wait there and returned home to Thane. There I transferred the rest of the amount to Madhu’s account, who withdrew it from the ATM and paid it to close the deal. The Jonga was now officially mine.

Madhu found someone to tow the vehicle, and it was taken to Madhu’s garage that very day. We had found the vehicle at around 11 in the morning, and at about half past eight at night it reached Thane. With a friend of mine, I waited by the side of the road to watch it arrive. All in all, an unforgettable evening.

It was only the next day that I managed to get a thorough look at the Jonga. Madhu and I decided that the first thing to do is to get the engine started somehow – all our efforts should be directed towards this goal. And with that, the slow and painstaking effort of the vehicle’s restoration got underway.

We spoke to Uday Bhan Singh in Calcutta, who is a veritable encyclopaedia on jeeps, who gave us many valuable inputs on how to go about it. Still, it quickly became evident that information about this vehicle was hard to come by. There was hardly anything on the internet back then. As scanty as the data was, getting the requisite spare parts proved even more difficult. Nobody even knew exactly how it looked. Among the few who knew, the consensus was that it was extremely difficult to restore this vehicle– because the engine is always a problem. That was true: the engine did prove to be our biggest challenge, because among the few Jongas that had been restored, I knew none that still kept its original petrol engine. Everyone seemed to have replaced the original engine with diesel engines belonging to other vehicles.

That is when we realised that the petrol version of the Jonga was never even sold to civilians. It was always a military vehicle, which proved its mettle during the 1965 and 1971 wars, eventually going on to acquire iconic status. It was the vehicle the Indian army trusted the most: it could navigate sand, it could tackle snow. Even today, it is said, the army hasn’t found an adequate replacement to the legendary Jonga, as nothing matches its mastery over the toughest and wildest terrains. The more I learned about it, the more determined I was to restore this iconic machine to its former glory. I kept up my search for information and assistance, and slowly found my way to a few knowledgeable people – Dr. Jaikumar from Pollachi and Rishi Sharma from Hyderabad proved especially helpful. Some of my newfound friends helped with their expertise, and some with much-needed spares. The restoration went very slowly in the beginning. Gradually, we oiled up the engine and got some spark plugs. There was oil leak in certain cylinders, and the clutch wasn’t working properly. We made the necessary alterations. Since this was a six cylinder engine, we couldn’t borrow the Delco of any other vehicle. Rishi Sharma played a very important role during this stage as he sent many spares from Hyderabad, sourcing them from wherever he could– army depots, salvaged vehicles etc. He would send all these parts to us by bus, which used to arrive at Sion. From Sion we would pick it all up, take them to Shahad to Madhu’s garage, and install them.

To cut a long story short, after about one and a half months I was told one evening that the engine has cranked up. It had started! I went over immediately. And right away, armed with a little can of petrol and just one headlight, we took a little ride. The old warrior did not let us down, but ventured forth bravely on bruised and battered tyres. It was a memorable moment for me, knowing that the hero of many stories has not retired yet. On the contrary, it appeared to be throbbing with vigorous life.

After this, the restoration picked up speed. We removed the multiple layers of paint. At all the places where the vehicle had rusted, we had to get steel plate of a similar gauge, not thinner. That took time, because it was a very heavy gauge steel– the whole thing. A lot of the workers were simply not ready to do it because it was very demanding work, truly heavy labour. Fortunately there were a couple of brave souls who didn’t baulk at the task. In any event, we decided to attempt it only when there was no other work at the garage, as we knew the process would take a very long time. So, in this fashion, small pieces which had rusted were cut and removed, and new pieces were put in. The leaf spring suspensions were removed, and similar springs from trucks and other vehicles were borrowed. A lot of the fitments we eventually used were borrowed in this manner.

The electrical components of the vehicle were in a particularly bad shape, and so we had to weave the whole harness. This was done by an expert electrician. There was no way that we could just buy the harness off the shelf. So the electrical work was brand new – charging coils, everything.

Finally, the painting work started. I have always wanted my Jonga to look like a civilian vehicle, quite shiny and vibrant. I had no wish to make it look as if it still belonged in the army. So the guideline for this was clear: the look of the classic Nissan Patrol of the 1960s. Which meant it was going to be done in gloss finish. This, however, proved particularly hard to achieve, since the Jonga has a very heavy metal plate. It is extremely difficult to achieve a gloss finish on it, while matte would have been comparatively easier.

I remember this stage as the most exhausting. The amount of work it took to get the finish right went beyond everyone’s expectations. Madhu worked incredibly hard. We did multiple coats, using hammer tone paint. A lot of chemical treatment was done to fortify the vehicle against rust. The engine compartment of the Jonga is stunningly large, and seemed even larger when we attempted to paint it. The bonnet alone took about a week to get right.

Finally, though, we achieved that finish: the glossy, mirror-like sheen I had always wanted.

The restoration lasted nearly a year, and we finished in early 2008. The accessories we decided to add all came from Hyderabad through Rishi, while Dr. Jaikumar graciously shared his expertise on the standard accessories of the Jonga. We found out that the civilian model of the Nissan Patrol never came to the Indian market. Nevertheless, we took a lot of tips from the civilian model that had been popular in Japan.

After I got it registered, we took the vehicle for test runs through various terrains. Small problems would crop up in the beginning, which we corrected as they appeared. This whole period was exciting, but also challenging– not least because the Jonga gives only about 3-4 kilometres to the litre. I remember one incident which happened while we were testing a rugged, hilly terrain. On a steep climb, the Jonga just tilted to one side, and the petrol stopped reaching the engine. From that place, to get the vehicle back on the road was a gruelling task. I had had to push so hard that the day after the adventure I ended up at the doctor with a severely cramped neck and right shoulder, which kept me in pain for a month.

Throughout it all, there was a lot of enthusiasm for the project because the Jonga is, after all, unique, and everyone was curious to see how it would turn out. It inspired a lot of affection. I still fondly remember this old vendor from Masjid Bunder who got us the Khaki cloth. Nobody had stitched such heavy canvas in a long time, ever since plastic had taken over. But this very old person went to a lot of trouble over it, keeping the canvas soaked in water before attempting to stitch it, –otherwise, he said, it will tighten up once it gets rained on– and then drying and sewing it.

No less than fifteen people worked on the project in various capacities, and everyone gave their best. Jonga was the lucky beneficiary of their intellect and understanding, not to mention networking skills –there was no way I could have procured all those rare and necessary spare parts by myself.

After we finished the restoration, a single worrying problem remained: the tyres. The ones the Jonga came with were thoroughly worn out. For a long time, though, we had to keep using them because it proved impossible to secure new Jonga tyres. The problem was finally solved in an unexpected way. Mr. Uday Bhan Singh helped us contact a person in Chennai, who had ordered tyres for his regular jeep and had mysteriously gotten Jonga tyres instead! He was eagerly looking for someone to buy them off him. Needless to say, we ended up being the grateful beneficiaries of this small miracle.

The new tyres arrived from Chennai by road. By then the Jonga had already participated in some shows, balancing precariously on battered tyres – a constant source of anxiety for us– but from this point on would sport brand-new ones. The earliest exhibitions that featured the Jonga were hosted by the Heritage Vehicle Owners’ Club of Thane. Some private jeep shows also featured the Jonga, including a memorable one at the IIT Bombay.

It was at one such show that Mr. Joy Chaudhuri of Autocar made his acquaintance of the Jonga, and expressed his wish to do an article on it. It appeared In the May 2008 issue of the Autocar: Operation Jonga. For a long time, it remained the most searched article in the Autocar archives. Around that time, Jonga was also featured in UTV’s The Autocar Show, showing off its mastery over craggy landscapes on primetime television. Business Standard Motoring took the Jonga on a wild ride, –Unleaded Patrol, September 2009 issue – and once back from the ‘muck fest’, quite unabashedly declared: “compared to the Jonga, these new-fangled SUVs look like wimps.”

Needless to say, all of this garnered Jonga, my humble war veteran, quite a bit of popularity. Not very long ago, Nissan’s very glamorous coffee table book showcased the Jonga on the first page, underlining a forgotten fact – how Nissan was the first Japanese giant to enter India’s vehicle scene, long before the Suzukis and the Toyotas. Throughout this journey, the Jonga acquired some diehard fans as well. Edward Rodrigues and Rishikesh Dixit, for example, would follow the Jonga to every exhibition it went to, clicking pictures and writing blog articles. There’s no need to even say it: the effort of restoring my Jonga has been immensely rewarding. As challenging as they were, a few of my early resolutions, such as to maintain the original petrol engine and to replicate the exact 1960s Nissan finish, have kept this vehicle truly unique, and made it the only one of its kind to survive to this day.

Over time, my love of jeeps has proved insatiable. After the Jonga I went on to acquire a 1967 Mahindra short-wheelbase jeep, and a 1942 Ford left-hand-drive petrol jeep, among others. But I have to confess that I am not an impartial guardian to them all: the vehicle that evokes the fondest affection in me is still the Jonga– there’s no doubting it. And yet, as devoted as I am, I have not shown it in many exhibitions these past years, having been extremely busy for the better part of the last decade. My Jonga, however, has stayed as young as ever, and is perennially prepared for new encounters. Be they in fields of combat or of sheer style.

Abhilash Nambiar
December 2017

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