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Timeless Mahindra book review: From Jeep CJ-2A to Thar, the journey chronicled

From assembling the Jeep CJ-2A at Mazagaon near the Mumbai docks to the design and development of the all-new Thar

By pradeep mishra Published 3 years ago 6 min read

Did you know that for the first two decades, all the Jeeps made by Mahindra were left-hand-drive? Or that the 20 crore rupees Pawan Goenka asked Anand Mahindra to invest into developing a curved windshield for the Mahindra Bolero ended up making the company over 20,000 crore rupees? Or the Rs 600 crore allocated to the design and development of the Mahindra Scorpio would otherwise have gone into a joint venture with Ford and their new Chennai plant? Or even the fact that the CJ-5 was never made in India and the few examples with enthusiasts were captured from the retreating Pakistan Army and later sold off in Army auctions?

Timeless Mahindra, a lavish 332-page coffee table book, is brimming with these priceless bits of information. Penned by noted automotive historian and evo India’s editor-at-large Adil Jal Darukhanawala, this is the definitive history of one of India’s most venerable automobile manufacturers and starts, as it should, with how the World War II Jeep came to be. The journey from American Bantam to mass production by Willys-Overland and Ford, the tens of thousands of Jeeps left behind with the allies all over the world after the war becoming the ‘greatest free sample in automotive history’, and even the origin of the word Jeep (in a story by journalist Katherine Hillyer quoting Willys test driver Red Hausmann) the book chronicles the spiritual father of all Mahindras.

The story of Mahindra & Mahindra begins pre Independence

The story of Mahindra & Mahindra begins pre IndependenceTimeless Mahindra book

A thousand Jeeps landed on India’s eastern front to halt the tide of the rampaging Japanese and just as hostilities ceased another thousand landed, which were slowly disposed off as surplus to requirements. The fledgling Mahindra & Mahindra (Mahindra & Mohammed before partition) looked at picking up this war surplus but felt they weren’t in good shape and so placed an order of 75 Jeeps from the Willys-Overland Export Corporation in October 1947. These arrived in early 1949 and on June 3, 1949 the first Willys Jeep CJ-2A rolled down the assembly line set up at Mazagaon, close to the Bombay docks. This soon made way for the CJ-3A, CJ-3B and the iconic ‘Jeep face’ that we know and recognise to this day.

Timeless Mahindra chronicles the spread of Mahindra’s manufacturing facilities from near the docks to Worli, Ghatkopar and eventually consolidating at the village of Kandivali on the outskirts of Mumbai, the hurdles the socialist regime threw in the way of expansion, manufacturing restrictions, price caps, and also the close relationship M&M forged with Willys. Adil quotes from M&M’s annual report of 1954-55 the appreciation of the board for Willys’ credit of one million US dollars to meet the urgent demand for Jeeps for use in the General Elections (foreign exchange restrictions meant Mahindra needed extended terms to pay for it). The partnership eventually ended in 1974 (by then Willys had been bought by Kaiser Jeep which in turn had been bought by American Motors) though Mahindra were allowed to use the Jeep name on their products till the late 90s when DaimlerChrysler acquired the rights to the Jeep name.

The book traces the journey of Mahindra’s product line with 80 pages of gorgeous illustrations. From the CKD assembly of the CJ-3A to localisation of the CJ-3B and its various iterations right till 2010's CL Commander; the CJ-4 which was never a Willys-Overland platform but Mahindra extending the CJ-3B’s wheelbase from 80 to 90 inches; the shift from the Go Devil and Hurricane petrol engines to the International Harvester and later Peugeot diesel engines; all the Army variants; the curved fender MM range that was an all-Mahindra effort in design and manufacture; all the export versions that eventually led to the Thar; the FC truck, NC station wagon range and FJ minibus range; even the Armada / Grand Armada to the Bolero and today’s XUVs, every single one of Mahindra’s vehicles is chronicled with full specifications.

Apart from the history, my favourite bit of the book is the motorsport section. For the 1980 Himalayan Rally, Mahindra entered a CJ-3B/CJ-4 mishmash driven by three M&M employees, and finished 16th overall, also taking home the trophy for the best performance by an Indian vehicle in the country’s first international motorsport event. This Mahindra had the Hurricane petrol engine, a 3-speed gearbox and only rear-wheel-drive — had it had four-wheel-drive it could have won the 1981 Himalayan since the second and third legs were a veritable slush fest. Till 1986, Mahindra fielded works entries in the Himalayan Rally and then went on to win the 1988 and 1989 Great Desert Himalaya rally raids with Farad Bhathena driving the Mitsubishi-engined MM540. Mahindra were exporting the MM540 to Iran with the Mitsubishi 2555cc 4-cylinder petrol engine, gearbox, front and rear diffs and transfer box and this was employed for the GDH, beefed up for rally-raid demands by Kamlesh Patel along with the addition of disc brakes which was the first time this was fitted on to a Mahindra Jeep. The GDH battles between Farad in the MM540 against a trio of works Maruti Suzuki Gypsys, all built in Japan, makes for engrossing reading backed up by fantastic images as well.

An interesting aside is the RET-4 diesel engine developed by Kirloskar Oil Engines in the early seventies when Mahindra were looking to replace their thirsty petrols. While the commercials of that partnership didn’t work out, Kirloskar continued development and entered a RET-4 powered Mahindra in the 1980 Himalayan, winning the class for Indian-built diesel-engined cars. In 1981 Kirloskar went one better with a Mercedes-Benz powered by a turbo-charged version of the RET-4 engine to finish eighth overall and was the highest placed diesel-engined car.

Other chapters of this voluminous tome chart the evolution of Mahindra’s own in-house R&D capabilities from tinkering with the CJ-3B platform to the development of the Bolero, Scorpio and today’s sprawling Mahindra Research Valley in Chennai that has not only created the all-new Thar but is putting finishing touches on the W601 (XUV500 replacement which will also be shared with Ford), Z101 (all-new Scorpio), and has also developed a brand new family of engines for the new Mahindras and will also be used by Ford and Ssangyong. The book includes a whole chapter of Mahindra’s army special and also another on the enthusiasts, customisers and off-roaders who have not only kept the legend alive but nurtured and grown it. Aptly titled Passionates, the leading lights of the community have been profiled and you will also be surprised to read about outfits like Shree Ganesh Industries based at Reengus near Jaipur, who make and export body tubs of the CJ-2A, 3A, 3B, Willys MB and Ford GPW all over the world. A tidbit from this section, and one which even hardcore product managers at Mahindra didn’t know of, is the origin of the Thar name. It was first coined by automotive historian, restorer and curator of the Cartier concours Manvendra Barwani when he did a one-off customised vehicle for M&M based on the Bolero in 2002-03, in response to demand from M&M’s Rajasthan dealers for a special version to cater to international tourists. Incidentally this name was inspired by the Sahara variant of the American Jeep. Adil even digresses into the myriad other businesses of Mahindra Group, including Indian & Eastern Engineer Co Ltd that had a publishing arrangement with Iliffe & Sons of the UK which included Autocar in its portfolio.

A final note. The VIN plate on the passenger side of the dashboard of the all-new Thar came about when Adil reminded Mahindra’s design chief Kripa Ananthan of the data plates on the dashboard of all Mahindra vehicles from the CJ-2A right till the MM550.

All in all, Timeless Mahindra is a must-read, not only for enthusiasts of the brand but Indian automotive enthusiasts in general, chronicling as it does the formative years of the Indian automotive industry through the lens of one of India’s most pivotal automotive manufacturers.


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