His sprawling house in Jaipur’s posh Vaishali Nagar locality doesn’t offer any hint about the treasure tucked inside. Four classic beauties are parked in the garage along the driveway, but the real stock is further down, into his workshop where two Second World War machines rub shoulders with several 20th-century military and civilian lightweight trucks, popularly known as jeeps.
But the 3x2-metre office of Indra Vijai Singh, known as Tony Singh among friends and jeep-lovers, is in disarray — nuts, bolts, washers, headlight bezels and hood latches are strewn on the table.
Tony is president of Rajputana Jeep Club — a family of 29 jeep junkies who have passionately conserved the quarter-tonne, four-wheel-drive vehicles forged for the Second World War by two American automobile companies, Willys-Overland Motors and Ford Motor Company — and a jeep geek. His love for the compact vehicle began with the 1952 model of Willys-Overland CJ-3A that his father, Colonel Govind Singh, who was the first commandant of President’s Body Guard, the only mounted cavalry in service at the time of India’s Independence in 1947, bought in 1965. Tony soon grew fond of this “go-anywhere” machine and would often try his hand at the jeep even though he was only 12.
Before we settle down for talking about the Rajputana Jeep Club, he pulls out a four-page supplement a local newspaper carried when the first “Ford and Willys Jeep Rally” was organised in Jaipur in 2008.
“This was our first attempt at showcasing the Second World War jeeps. There was a six-kilometre off-roading in which 35 jeeps participated,” says Tony, 63. There was another rally in 2010. The club hasn’t organised any rally in the last six years but members of the club routinely take their jeeps out for off-road trips. Last August, the club organised a monsoon drive in which 25 jeeps lined up at Ashok Club in Jaipur and drove to Naila, a quaint village 30 kilometres from Jaipur, which was in the news in 2000 when US President Bill Clinton visited during his India tour.
Willys-Overland won a procurement contract in 1941 to supply multi-purpose logistical military vehicles to the US Army. Willys made jeeps with designations MA and MB, and Ford with designations GPW (GP for government pygmy and W to indicate Willys design).
Willys continued production of jeeps even after the war was over because of demand among farmers, ranchers, hunters and others who needed a utility vehicle for unimproved roads and trails. These civilian versions were designated CJ-2A with CJ standing for civilian jeep.
After the war, the military vehicles — Willys MB and Ford GPW — were auctioned to civilians. There’s a story about two shiploads of 2,000 brand new jeeps reaching Calcutta (now Kolkata) the day Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945.
The jeep club members own five Willys MBs and 17 Ford GPWs apart from several CJ models. There are 52 jeeps among the 29 members.
Some were picked up from families who didn’t take care of these glorious machines. For instance, in October 2001, Tony spotted the 1943 model of a Ford GPW in a family in Banswara, a tribal district in south Rajasthan. The jeep was in a bad shape — the machine looked a heap of dismantled body parts. Singh bought it for Rs30,000 (Dh1,621) and, in four years, restored it to its former glory.
Similarly, Dushyant Singh, the “thakur” of Naila, a “thikana” (estate) of the erstwhile Jaipur state, procured a Willys CJ-2A from a Rajput family in Mahar on the outskirts of Jaipur. The jeep was parked in an animal pen and was used to stock hay. “I was ready to pay any price for the glorious machine,” says Dushyant Singh. His son, Kunwar Trivikram Singh, owns a Willys MB.
Tony Singh was an hotelier until 1984 when he quit the hospitality industry “because there was no fun in that job”. He did various things — from running cabs to maintaining a poultry farm — before he began restoring jeeps. In the beginning, he restored one or two vehicles in a year because he had to run from mechanics to workshops to tailors and painters before the dead machines sprang to life.
In 2000 he set aside 420 square metres of his ancestral property to a workshop and founded Sai Kripa Motor Works. All jeeps owned by members of the club have been nurtured by Tony. Some credit him for igniting their interest in jeeps.
Vikram Singh, the club’s treasurer, owns four jeeps, two of them Ford GPWs, and thanks Tony’s son Adhiraj for them. “My interest in these machines grew because of Tony’s passion. He helped me in buying the jeeps,” he says.
Dushyant Singh, also a former hotelier, bought a Willys MB in 2008 but participated in the 2010 rally because he took some time to master driving a 4X4. He also owns a CJ-3A and regularly drives on Jaipur roads.
Most members of the jeep club are landed Rajputs and Tony Singh is the common thread among them. He restores eight to 10 vehicles every year. There’s a thick layer of dust on photo albums on his table. There are before-and-after photos of jeeps he’s restored over the years.
“A spick and span kitchen doesn’t necessarily produce good food,” he says when he catches me looking around his office. There are some photos of him with his jeeps on the walls, a poster of Willys jeep models over the years and some jeep prototypes. The walls are otherwise bland.
Adhiraj, 38, has taken after his father’s passion for jeeps but he works on modern vehicles and makes safari vehicles for heritage hotels.
Tony is president of the jeep club not only because he is a jeep geek but also because he has the biggest fleet of this vehicle. Between him and his son, Tony has seven jeeps: two Ford GPWs, one Willys CJ-3A, one CJ-3B, one M 38A1 and two models of Kaiser, CJ-4 and CJ-6. Apart from jeeps, his fleet also has a 1967 FJ45 station wagon, a 1982 FJ45 pickup van, a 1946 Hudson Super 6, 1948 Buick Super 8 and a 1951 BSA M20 motorcycle, apart from several modern vehicles.
Two members of the jeep club own one Willys M 38A1 each. These military jeeps were US Army aid to the Pakistan Army in 1963. During the 1971 war, India captured around 50 of them. “They were auctioned across Army depots. I bought it in 1978 from a man in Uttar Pradesh who got it from the auction,” says Tony Singh.
Two more members — Abhimanyu Singh of Alsisar and Shiv Pratap Singh of Madhogarh own M 38A1s. The Alsisar family got it in 1965 and imported parts from the US to restore the war machine.
Admiral Madhvendra Singh is the oldest member of the jeep club and proudly gallivants around in his Willys CJ-2A. The youngest is Gayatri Devi’s grandson, Devraj Singh. The oldest off-roader is Dushyant Singh. He drives his Willys CJ-2A with off-roaders who are at least 25 years younger than him. He developed a 12-kilometre riverine off-road track in Naila some years ago.
Dushyant Singh is a descendent of Thakur Fateh Singh, a prominent political figure of Jaipur in the 18th century and prime minister of the state for seven years during the rule of Sawai Ram Singh II.
Rajya Sabha MP Harshvardhan Singh of the erstwhile Dungarpur royal family and Punjab governor V.P. Singh of Badnor are also members of the club.
Rakesh Kumar is a writer based in Jaipur, India.