Musings by Shekhar Nambiar
A visit to the Vintage and Classic Car Museum, Udaipur and earlier to the Chowmahalla Palace museum in Hyderabad, both owned by former royalty, is the inspiration behind this piece on the Willys jeep and the Jonga.
Willys and Jonga were sturdy vehicles that acquired legendary and cult status as multi-utility passenger transporters.
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Both have origins to World War II. Willys had seen action across the world. Known as the ‘truck’ in America, it was a successful light utility military vehicle. Also known for its offroad capability, a new variant of the vehicle, Jeep Willys Wrangler, was introduced in 2020 bringing memories back of the old Willys to people’s mind.
Jonga, an equally versatile vehicle, was manufactured for the military by the Jabalpur Ordnance and Guncarriage Assembly under licence from Nissan, which is how it got its name. Jonga is also of the same vintage as the iconic Willys.
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Mahindra and Mahindra acquires licence
After decades of military service, the Willys 4wd found wide use in ferrying our civilian populations in rural areas and mofussil towns. Several World War II Willys vehicles were acquired by taxi pliers from military disposals. By 1949 Mahindra and Mahindra acquired the licence to manufacture Willys CJ3A in India. The CJ2A was in production from1946 to 1947. So there were a mix of old and new jeeps plying on our roads, not distinguishable from one another except to the discerning eye.
Willys saw active service in remote villages and inaccessible places. In the hilly terrains of the North East and Kerala, they plied for years on end serving people to transport goods and produce from one place to another.
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Willys is rough and tough
Such was the rough and tough Willys that it found good use for several years since India’s Independence, up until the mid-70s to even the early eighties. This, after faithfully serving the military, carrying men, material and guns across continents, and deployment on our frontiers.
Every time I have taken a ride in the Willys, it had been a sheer delight. The rural interiors, national and state highways, crossing streams and big rivers were all child’s play for it. The jeep had no problems with steep inclines, or to negotiate dirt roads, sharp bends and narrow forest paths. But for an inexperienced rider, it could spell trouble if you’re not seated in the front seat. The two benches facing each other in the rear were not everyone’s cup of tea. The rural hardy people found it not difficult to ride, many even hanging out precariously. But the city types, especially after an arduous train journey, were in for a tough last-mile jeep ride home, ending with being nauseous and dizzy. These rides are certainly not for people of delicate disposition. Careful if you’re not, you run the risk of being thrown out, especially during steep uphill climbs. With very bad roads and the highly inadequate highway infrastructure those days, the vehicles were the only mode of transport, and therefore the lifeline, for inaccessible interior villages and isolated pockets.
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Jonga from Nissan stable
The Jonga, an equally versatile patrol vehicle from the Nissan stable, saw action during World War II. After Japan’s defeat, the vehicle’s use as a military vehicle came to an end. They began to be deployed for the fire department and health services. The 1960s saw the Indian Army show interest in it and for its indigenous production and acquired the rights for its manufacture at the Vehicle Factory in Jabalpur.
Unlike the Willys jeep, the Jonga never really became a popular commercial vehicle. Still, Jonga 4wd SUVs have been used as taxis in Rajasthan’s sandy terrain. The commercial variant was introduced in 1969. A few were bought by aficionados for their personal collections.
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The Jonga saw service until 1999 when it was replaced by the Mahindra MM540 jeep. The Mahindras have been in the vehicle business for over seven decades and are the pioneers in SUVs and multi-utility transporters. The Mahindra SUV introduced in the early seventies took over the Indian roads where the older vehicles ruled the roost once.
Dhoni brings it to limelight
Jongas were almost lost from the public’s mind until news surfaced of cricketer Dhoni acquiring one and having it restored. This brought the vehicle back into the limelight triggering a renewed interest.
Like the old Ambassador and Premier Padmini, the Jonga and Willys, even if confined to personal collections and slowly as museum pieces, should not only help kindle nostalgia but also a revival of interest in history and culture, especially in the youth. Both these light multi-utility vehicles have given more than their share of service to the people and so should rightfully go down in the annals of our history.
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