ALLOW YOURSELF to think a little imaginatively, a little impressionistically, and it truly is a unique place, for a unique reason. The Jeep Bazaar on Rawalpindi’s City Saddar Road is where time moves in three directions simultaneously: there’s timelessness, but there’s also homages to decades gone by – and then there’s the sense of to be drawn towards a very attractive future. It is the place where the ancient conquerors come to resurrect.
Passion for everything arouses respect, fear. And on this congested, chaotic, greasy street, about a mile long and barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass, the sparks from a multitude of welding torches come together in a glow that speaks to what There is one more indefinable but all-consuming passion for many: the love for the man-made machine that comes to life – becomes a living legend – all its own.
Beneath the random sprawl strewn with pieces of iron and steel, nuts and bolts, rubber and plastic, all streaked with paint, hides a perfect order: a universe of logical progression arranged in mathematical harmony, from start to finish – no time wasted, no detail overlooked, no desire left unfulfilled.
Do you love driving a jeep, but find the steering wheel cumbersome? No problem, the men here will give you power steering. The early morning car ride is fun, but is it boring that there’s no place to put your cup of coffee? Here’s a custom-sized cup holder for your favorite latte. Have you been spoiled by the joys of modern rear cam vehicles? All it takes is some wiring.
In short, the Jeep Bazaar is where people like you and me, and even the mechanics themselves, build our own dream off-roaders, customized down to the smallest detail, from chassis to engine to by the body, then the sweeteners – the shashkay. The only caveat is that it has to be a jeep. No SUVs please, but if not Willis, CJ5, Wrangler, Toyota, Mahindra, Defender, Land Rover, what have you – the men here will take care of it. You can order a jeep here to be built to your specifications, or buy as is, or bring your own to be remodeled.
Often starting with nothing more than the carcass of a chassis, as shown in the photo, the vehicle goes first to the dentures, then to the coachbuilders. After that it’s the turn of the painters, then mechanical and electrical work. Then it’s time for the dentists and painters to try one last time, to give the now shiny machine a spanking polish. And finally, all the paperwork like registration etc. will be processed. Then the vehicle is yours to buy.
Or not, because many vehicles here, once built, become too expensive for the mechanic to part with. Take the red Willis jeep pictured, for example. It is priced at Rs12 lakhs, but owner Syed Altaf Shah has clung to it for five years. It has a Toyota 3C turbo diesel engine, something Mr. Shah called “rock jeep” machines (I couldn’t quite understand and he couldn’t quite explain), a Pajero steering system, with the tires alone which are worth one and a half lakh. The roll bars are real, the vertically extended exhaust pipe is not. It is 13 km per litre.
Ali Autos, run by Mr Shah, 30, acquired it as just a rusty chassis on four unusable wheels, but from there to what you see in the picture it only took a year. Mr. Shah likes to take him on fishing trips at the Mangla Dam. He says he caps his driving speed at around 100 km/h because the wind in his hair is starting to annoy him, although the machine is capable of more.
Each of the workshops in this section has its own speciality: dent removal, painting, welding, electricity, mechanics… A vehicle passes over the line, all the mechanics work there in turn. Many carcasses for restoration come from Sindh and Balochistan, where great zamindars (landowners) kept them to cross properties spread over rough terrain. A major source was once the military, which regularly auctioned off aging vehicles, but that supply seems to have dried up recently, I’m told, for unknown reasons.
Buyers are everywhere, Mr Shah says, pointing to a vehicle that was commissioned by a gentleman in the UK. And many, if not most, of the jeeps that pass through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the northern regions have been brought back to life here. At one end of the spectrum are the custom “trophy jeeps” described above, and at the other are the work horses that actually earn a living in places like Gilgit and Skardu.
It’s not a hidden treasure. Among aficionados, the Jeep Bazaar is well known. You’ll find several videos on YouTube, and it was short VoA and DW features – I was shown them on Mr Shah’s phone. Me? I would have really liked to see these vehicles put through their paces on Top Gear – if only Jeremy Clarkson et al would listen.
It is not for nothing that I invoke in the title John Coltrane’s admission that he did not own his talent, but that he channeled a higher power. His iconic spiritual work describes the artist as having mastered discipline, tools and technique (in Coltrane’s case, music), but the magic coming from a life of his own.
One wonders if this is also true of these beautiful shapes… is it the men, or the machines, that shine the most.
The writer is a journalist.
Posted in Dawn, January 24, 2022