While in common parlance, everything with a bit of ground clearance is reffered to as a Jeep, we make a trip to the north-eastern end of to meet a real Jeep, in one that keeps it real from the current crop
All I could hear was a little purr in the distance as it drove past, bouncing over rocks in the riverbed and almost skimming over the surface of the stream. The petrol burning “Go Devi?” engine still showing me a fair few of the sixty horses it originally punched out of its flat head motor. The Willys MB stood before me, all of seventy-five, a full head of silver, few rattly bones and dressed in olive green. It did not seem to have missed a single day of action in the time gone by as it moved around the little trail with absolute precision and light-footedness while looking every bit as cool as only a Jeep can.
Not much has changed over three-quarters of a century, well, not in the cool department anyway. The Wrangler, that Jeep launched a couple of months back in India, is every bit as cool and still sports the same basic silhouette as its ancestor did in 1941. I already like this playground, up in the hills of Nagaland, very much. The mist keeps rolling in to settle down for the night and the clouds seem to carry just enough moisture to water the trails in the evening, just to make sure they are that much more interesting when we decide to go trail hunting.
In the little village of Dzuleke, roughly 20 kilometres out of Kohima, the resident farmers go about their life as usual. The fields are lush green and the paddy itself is heavy with grain. Our hosts are furiously hacking away with their knives at the chopping board while the wood is fired up to boil the broth that has been put together. There’s a distinct, sharp smell that floats through the air and it interrupts our conversation about the Jeeps. Yanren, a Jeep aficionado and the chap who found me this impeccably kept MB, could tell by the look on my face what I wanted to ask – and proceeded to inform me that the fragrance was that of king chillies being ground; to join the vegetables and the pork in the broth, of course. Apart from being added to the pickle they had carried along and the fish paste that was being put together.
In case you are wondering, yes, it is the same one that ranks fifth on the list of the hottest chillies in the world and nearly killed an over-enthusiastic competitor trying to down the most number of chillies in a minute at a local festival.
With that out of the way, we returned to discussing Jeeps and all the cool things that they had figured out 75 years ago. For instance, the four handles on the bucket was so the light-weight MB (it weighed in just under a thousand kilograms) could be lifted up and out of a sticky situation, the headlamps could pivot and face inwards to help mechanics work on them in the field and, not to forget, the neat little case built into the dashboard to stow away your rifle.
Not one to be left out, I came up with a few about the Wrangler as well, like the three clips that can be undone to take the roof panels off, the drain plugs that can be pulled out to give it a thorough wash in case the muck got to a point where it engulfed you and, the party trick, a couple of bolts and the doors could come off too. And although over the years, the Jeep has grown a fair bit chubbier and a lot more plush; with the leather upholstery, dual-zone climate control and a Bluetooth equipped infotainment system; what remains constant is their incredible ability to tackle difficult situations.
Give it a thought, does anything else come to mind that you would rather take to go ploughing through six-inches of mud, climb slippery slopes, embark upon a narrow trail only to find a couple of trees that have blocked your way- contemplate towing them out with a simple strap and only back out because you discover fifty leeches crawling up your legs and the thought of fainting at the sight of all that blood.
Well, the last bit was a bit of an exaggeration, but it is a possibility, right? Again, in case you think I was kidding about the ability, well grandpa ‘MB’ did it just as well and at certain points better than the Wrangler. By the way, if you thought this was interesting, you should’ve seen the look on the faces of this bunch of kids who seemed to be both in shock and awe of what happened in front of them, at a picnic spot, beyond the treaded path, in the middle of some hills and with no communication possible.
Oh, I think I forgot to mention, their SUV was parked halfway across a stream with its nose well below the water. You can see where this is going, right? Shock and awe came from the fact that we, strapping young lads (writer’s liberties, so shh), showed up in a pair of Jeeps, almost like a scene from the movies. We assessed the situation, which frankly was pretty four-letter-worded, and decided to help them out. Out came a tow strap and in went the Wrangler, in four-wheel-drive low-ratio, to bring their stricken SUV to shore. Easy as making a cup of tea, with the right sort of equipment, like an electric kettle which knows when the brewing is done. We were offered a box of fries and a bowl of ketchup, as a token of gratitude, but we politely declined.
There were more trails to be explored and, more importantly, a fresh stash of pork was on its way for dinner.
The light rain over night had left t he trail s just mucky enough to have the Jeeps slide around a little bit and it sure was a whole lot of fun. However, the old MB had had enough for a day. The drum brakes began weakening in response and the starter motor began to act up. I’ve been around a few classic cars and believe me, as much fun as they are, they can be very engaging as well – like the time when you need to pull the hood up and pet it carefully till it decides to start again or give it a little push to get the motor rolling.
In this particular case, we ended up doing both, and did so happily until a point when we’d just wait for the MB to falter, just so that we could run out and give it a push as we headed towards Kohima. After all, we thought it was the perfect way to end a brilliant day with a World War II hero. We went on to the war memorial, to pay our respects to the fallen soldiers, from the vicious battle of Kohima, who possibly determined the course that this world took after 1944.
What should be acknowledged though, is the fact that the Willys MB possibly played as much of a role in it too. There is the bit about the MB being born out of a Bantam design, bearing a Ford patented nine-slat grille and was possibly named after a cartoon character, but you can’t deny the fact that over the 75 years of its existence, Jeep has gone from strength to strength. From winning wars, to offering utility usage unlike any other, to becoming the chosen mode of transport for explorers, they have done it all.
In fact, they did it so well that almost everywhere in the world, including here in India, the SUV has been known as a Jeep, regardless of the actual nameplate it bears. Moreover, it gave birth to an off-road culture, which is still simply known as ‘Jeeping’. It isn’t surprising to note that the first SUV in the world is also the most recognised SUV and was seen before any other in every continent out there. It inspired various manufacturers to replicate their awesomeness and some even tried calling their product a Jeep.
But then, the real Jeep prevailed and seventy five years on, it is as cool as ever and possibly more capable too. The Wrangler may have grown into a plush, sophisticated vehicle with a host of features, but it stays true to its original concept of simplicity and usability while paying homage with its patented seven-slat grille.
Jeep in general and the Wrangler in particular have a certain degree of responsibility almost and so far, it has managed to outdo itself to add to the legend that it already is. And so, as we sit around a perfectly curated bonfire, chomping down on delicious Naga-style pork, we can do little but raise our glasses and cheer on the pair of Jeeps that accompanied us.