Experience A. Gopal’s love for jeeps extends to restoring old war relics, rebuilding them from scratch and educating youngsters about the exciting history of the vehicle. He invites K. Jeshi to Kanuvai where he performs some daring stunts with his Willys Kaiser
It’s a hot Sunday afternoon in Vadavalli. A team of men are busy getting a fleet of jeeps ready for an outing. As passers by stop and stare at the impressive line up, A. Gopal is thrilled. He runs the Jeep Clinic, a registered company for jeep restoration, and he just loves his jeeps. Gopal has invited me to join him for an off road experience at Kanuvai.
We get into his Willys Kaiser that is built up from scratch. It is his prized possession. “The Kaiser was a skeleton, with only the chassis, engine and the gear box, when I picked it up from an estate in Masinagudi for Rs.67, 000,” he recounts. Gopal took nine months to build the Kaiser. He points to the word JEEP inscribed in steel on the gleaming body and says “It’s a new born baby now. We built the body inch by inch, the nuts and bolts ….”
The original miles metre and gear box are intact. He has added a rock slider on the sides to prevent damage to vehicle. A metal roll cage prevents injury to the driver even if the jeep turns turtle. There are two form jacks (which can lift the vehicle by 48 inches and 54 inches when it gets stuck in mud or river), a solid front bumper and a set of 12 lights that can light up an entire jungle.
A convoy of jeeps follow Gopal in his Willys Kaiser. “I am with my jeeps 24 /7,” he says. As we hit the Kanuvai road, the landscape turns red, it is from the red soil, the raw material to the brick kilns along the way. At Kanuvai, the foothills of Marudhamalai, the venue for the stunts is an endless sunken red stretch with elevations and humps at varying degrees. The towering Western Ghats forms the backdrop.
Gopal puts on his safety helmet revs up the engine of his Kaiser and takes a 90 degree leap over a hump, while I watched from a safe distance. The vehicle soars above the ground and then lands. He repeats the feat at other elevations… kicking up clouds of dust and red powder. Gopal’s face is by now caked with mud but he says, “That is part of the thrill of an off road experience. We did river crossing at Agali in Kerala and enjoyed the splash. Now, the tough jeeps are made to cater to the luxury segment. What you get is a car with the face of a jeep. There is AC, music system, plush interiors… nothing can beat the experience of a cool air rushing against your face from an open windshield. It also ensures clear vision while manoeuvring the rugged terrain,” he says.
Jeeps and history
Gopal has collected the technical details of Jeeps manufactured from 1939 to the latest Wrangler Sport, introduced in 2012. Every jeep has a history, he says. “Willys CJ 3B model (a World War II vehicle) has the P4 engine one of the first in the series of high-performance engines. Later, there have been more than 10 variations to the latest CRD engine. Youngsters should know the evolution of technology. Instead, they come to me looking for a jeep with Rs. 30,000 to show off among friends. I try and educate them and build interest in these vehicles. I want to make it affordable for the youngsters. One has to spend a minimum of Rs. 3 lakh to build a Willys jeep from scratch” he adds.
Willys all the way
Standing pretty among the line-up is Willys CJ 3B (1961 model), another premium World War II vehicle. “I picked it up from an Army auction and restored it. It has the original gunner seats (front) and bench seats at the back, tow hook, and the four-wheel drive gear box with two levers for high gear and low gear. After the war, the open-type jeeps used as weapon carrier were made available for civilians. The four-wheel-drive can carry weight up to 1.5 tonnes,” he says.
Gopal has so far restored over 300 jeeps for jeep enthusiasts across India. Some of the Willys series from his clinic have also figured in movies like Kuselan and Dasavatharam. “I first collect the literature of the vehicle from various sources before I start rebuilding. My team of over 20 technicians are my asset, they are my walking dictionary. They are hands on when it comes to the history and evolution of jeeps as they have been in the field for many decades.”
He sources his components across India, especially from Punjab, Jammu and also in Chennai.
A jeep is an all-purpose vehicle that can jump, hop and run, uninterruptedly, on any terrain, he says. “During World War, jeeps changed the fortunes of countries such as the U.S. and Russia. In India, jeeps became a part of Royal households in the 1950s when the British left the country and their jeeps here. Landlords could buy a jeep for as little as Rs. 700. The components came in a grease pack and a mechanic assembled it for a fee of Rs. 100.”
He says the older generation still treasure the jeeps. “A customer from an industrialist family in Coimbatore wants us to restore his CJ3B Willys, a 1951 vehicle with its original components. That’s the kind of clientele we want to cater to, true jeep lovers.”
Work at the Clinic
It takes a minimum of three months to build a jeep from scratch. On an average they send out 15 jeeps every month
Restoring vintage World War jeeps (that came during 1940 to 1955 with hurricane engine, 3- speed T 90 gear box)
Rebuilding disposed Indian Army jeeps in the U.S. Army vehicle style
Remodelled jeeps for extreme off-road experience with the limited-slip differential (LSD) gear system
The jeeps so far
Three hundred jeeps across India. Some of the notable ones are the Ford GPW jeep, Willys Station Wagon (1951), Willys Kaiser (1967), Nissan Jonga, CJ 500 (1985), MM550 (2001), Bolero Invader (2005) with value additions such as ‘snorkel pith’ to control water entering the vehicle while river crossing, max wheels and off-road lights…
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