ALLOW yourself to think a bit imaginatively, a bit impressionistically, and it really is a unique place, for a unique reason. The Jeep Bazaar on Rawalpindi’s City Saddar Road is where time moves simultaneously in three directions: there is timelessness, but there’s also salutes to decades past — and then there’s the sense of being drawn towards a very beguiling future. This is the place where the conquerors of old come to be resurrected.
Passion for anything elicits respect, awe. And in this cluttered, chaotic, greasy street, about a kilometre long and barely wide enough for two vehicles to cross each other, the sparks thrown up by a multitude of welding torches come together in a glow that speaks of that most indefinable yet all-consuming of passions for many: the love for the man-made machine that takes on a life — becomes a living legend — of its own.
Underneath the haphazard sprawl littered with bits of iron and steel, nuts and bolts, rubber and plastic, all of it streaked with paint, lies perfect order: a universe of logical progression laid out in mathematical harmony, beginning to end — no time wasted, no detail overlooked, no desire left unfulfilled.
You love driving a jeep, but find the steering wheel cumbersome? No problem, the men here will give you power steering. The early morning drive is fun, but it’s annoying that there’s no place to put your cup of coffee? Here’s a cup holder customised to the size of your preferred latte. The joys of modern vehicles with rear-cams have spoilt you? All it takes is some wiring.
In short, the Jeep Bazaar is where people such as you and I, and indeed the mechanics themselves, build ourselves the off-roaders of our dreams, customised in every detail from chassis to engine to body, and then the sweeteners — the shashkay. The only caveat is, it has to be a jeep. No SUVs, please, but otherwise Willis, CJ5, Wrangler, Toyota, Mahindra, Defender, Land Rover, what have you — the men here will handle it. You can commission a jeep here to be built to your specifications, or buy as is, or bring in your own to be remodelled.
Often starting with nothing but the hulk of a chassis, as illustrated by the picture, the vehicle goes first to the denters, then to the bodymakers. After that it’s the painters’ turn, and then mechanical and electrical work. Then it’s time for the denters and the painters to have a final go, give the by-now gleaming machine a spanking polish. And last but not least, all the paperwork such as registration etc will be handled. Then, the vehicle is yours to buy.
Or not, since many of the vehicles here, once built, become too dear to the mechanic to part with. Take the red Willis jeep in the picture, for example. It’s priced at Rs12 lakhs, but the owner Syed Altaf Shah has hung on to it for five years. It has a Toyota 3C turbo diesel engine, something Mr Shah called ‘rock jeep’ machinery (I couldn’t quite understand and he couldn’t quite explain), a Pajero steering system, with the tyres alone worth a lakh and a half. The roll bars are real, the vertically extended exhaust pipe is not. It does 13km per litre.
Ali Autos, that the 30ish, matriculate Mr Shah runs, acquired it as merely a rusted chassis on four unusable wheels, but from there to what you see in the picture took only a year. Mr Shah likes to take it on fishing trips to Mangla Dam. He says that he caps his driving speed at about 100km/h because the wind in his hair starts annoying him, though the machine is capable of more.
Each of the shops along this stretch has its own speciality: denting, painting, welding, electrical work, mechanics, etc. A vehicle passes down the line, all the mechanics working on it in turn. Many of the hulks in need of restoration come from Sindh and Balochistan, where large-scale zamindars (land-owners) have held on to them to traverse properties spread across rugged terrains. A major source used to be the army, which used to regularly auction off aging vehicles, but that supply seems recently to have dried up, I am told, for unknown reasons.
The buyers are everywhere, says Mr Shah, pointing out one vehicle that has been commissioned by a gentleman in the UK. And many, if not most, of the jeeps that traverse Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Northern Areas were brought back to life here. At one end of the spectrum are the customised ‘trophy jeeps’ described above, and at the other the workaday horses that actually earn their living in places such as Gilgit and Skardu.
This is no hidden treasure. Amongst the aficionados, the Jeep Bazaar is well-known. You’ll find several videos on YouTube, and it has been the subject of short VoA and DW features — I was shown them on Mr Shah’s phone. Me? I would really like to have seen these vehicles being put through their paces on Top Gear — if only Jeremy Clarkson et al were listening.
Not for nothing do I invoke in the headline John Coltrane’s admission that he didn’t own his talent, but was channelling a higher power. His iconic spiritual work describes the artist as having mastered the discipline, the tools, and the technique (in Coltrane’s case, music), but the magic coming together from a life of its own.
One wonders whether that is true of these beauteous forms, too... is it the men, or the machines, that shine more brightly.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, January 24th, 2022