Curator of Relics

Willys MB Jeep and Chevrolet truck representing SAS and LRDG roles in WW II
Models of the Willy’s MB Jeep and Chevrolet truck used by the SAS and LRDG respectively during WWII in North African deserts.

The scale model you see in the picture is of a wartime Willy’s MB Jeep. The actual scale model didn’t come that way. The camouflage paint, jerry cans, guns, and figures were all painstakingly made by hand and then assembled on the model. This set-up, including the truck in the background is a representation of roles played by the British Special Air Service (SAS) and Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) in North Africa, especially in the Libyan desert during the second world war. This is just one of over eight hundred vintage and classic scale models, most of them stock unlike the Jeep in the picture, at Retromoto. Retromoto is a vintage and classic automobile gallery owned and curated by Srivardhan, a retired Head of Cargo with Air India.  Besides scale models, Retromoto currently hosts six cars including a 1938 Mercedes Benz 170V and 1942 Ford GPW Jeep; and eight two-wheelers including wartime icons like the 1938 Triumph 3HW and 1943 Famous James.

Srivardhan began collecting and restoring vintage cars in the early 1990s. Those days, before the internet became mainstream in India, potential cars and motorcycles were identified through word of mouth or connections in vintage car clubs. Photographs were exchanged between owners and serious buyers by snail mail. Though Srivardhan began fully dedicating his time and effort towards his passion in the 90s, he traces his formative years to his school days, when he spent most of his holidays and spare time at his maternal uncle’s home garage. Srivardhan credits his dear uncle for bestowing him with an unending enthusiasm for automobiles. The kind of work that uncle and his mechanic did, gave Srivardhan exposure to a wide variety of automobiles and knowledge of the wizardry that happened under the hood. At the age of 86, Srivardhan’s uncle inaugurated the Retromoto gallery when it formally opened for viewing in 2011.

Srivardhan is always on the lookout for classic and vintage vehicles that he can add to his collection. Rather than acquiring ones in “mint” condition, he prefers ones that are in “fairly complete state” and he then works on them to bring them up to his standards. He may also go for ones that are totally run-down, only if he’s sure that he can restore the vehicle to its former glory. His Mercedes Benz 170V was one such case. Srivardhan recounts how enjoyable restorations were back in the 90s, but now all he can equate restoration to is Frustration. He believes that skilled mechanics and craftsmen have  become a rarity in the city. And most of whom are available lack the dedication and work ethic of their predecessors.

There are three cars and three motorcycles of Srivardhan’s currently being restored, all outside Chennai, in Kerala and Bangalore. One of his latest acquisitions, a Morris Minor Traveller Woody, was picked up for restoration by an expert in Kerala.  The Morris Traveller was originally made with elegant wood work that kind of wraps around the rear section of the vehicle, giving it the nickname “woody wagon”. Like he does for some of the rare spare parts, Srivardhan ordered all the wood work for his woody wagon from England to avoid the risk of having to go through unreliable suppliers and workmen back home.

 

1946 AJS 16M Classic Motorcycle
In the foreground is a 1946 AJS 16M. In the background is the wall dedicated to the Jeep. The wall exhibits information cards, archived advertisements and artwork exclusive to the Jeep.

The gallery was not something that was conceptualised and realised in a short period of time. A lot of thought and effort was put into every detail, including the lights, neon signs, posters and artwork. Srivardhan spent nearly a decade setting things up  iteratively, till he was sure the gallery was ready. Retromoto is now a compact, cafe-like garage that occupies a portion of Srivardhan’s home. There is a special wall in the gallery that is dedicated to the Jeep and is called the Jeep corner. Srivardhan  considers the Jeep to be a pioneer that contributed a lot to the development of modern day SUVs. The wall’s got neatly arranged information cards on all theatres of war that the Jeep participated in, artwork and paintings of the Jeep signed by real SAS men, and old advertisement cut-outs of the Jeep from around the world. Also on display in the gallery is an old school fuel filling tank made for Shell and several stamps featuring iconic automobiles.

Like father like son Jeep
A poster in Retromoto symbolically showing the evolution of Jeep since 1941

When he started on this journey, Srivardhan’s family wondered as to why he was bringing in and restoring junk that no one cared about. But after the gallery opened, there was a continuous stream of enthusiasts who came and appreciated Srivardhan’s work. He was featured in a leading English daily and a popular TV show. He has also won many awards in the various rallies the has participated. His Mercedes 170V was invited to be displayed at the Max Mueller Bhavan, a few years back, to celebrate 125 years of German automotive history. With all the recognition, Srivardhan’s family now realises that their husband and dad is restoring and preserving a certain form of significant art from being lost. I consider Srivardhan as a curator of some of history’s remarkable pieces of engineering and art, and also a modest, inclusive person who is more than willing to share with true seekers, the experiences his wonderful collection has to offer.

— more information —

Willy’s MB and Ford GPW are the same designs manufactured by Willy’s and Ford respectively. Due to high demand during the second world war, the contract to manufacture Jeeps was additionally awarded to Ford to make use of their production capacities.

Srivardhan’s most recent acquisition is a General Motors WWII Half Track scale model. His collection includes some rare models such as the Danbury Mint Jeep, Delahaye 135 and a colourful Bedford Peshawar passenger bus.

Srivardhan’s advice to budding collectors: start when you have a real job and can set aside a portion of your income for this interest. Start small with a classic that is not very rare and for which you don’t have to struggle to find mechanics and spares. Based on how things work out for you during this first stage, you can either expand or find something more interesting. Don’t forget that it’s a long journey, be patient and stay dedicated.

Spare parts market for vintage cars is extinct in Chennai. Srivardhan recommends Chor Bazaar on Mutton Street and Opera House locality in Mumbai.

Retromoto is not open to public. You must call in advance and make an appointment if you wish to pay a visit. See retromoto.in for more details.

Follow the hyperlinks links to know more about SAS and LRDG.

Vintage and classic do not mean the same thing. Follow this hyperlink to know more.

Srivardhan is a member of the Madras Heritage Motoring Club. He exhibits his cars and two-wheelers in events and rallies that the club participates in.

Srivardhan has never sold a car or two-wheeler that he acquired. By the time the restoration is complete, there is so much love and effort invested in the relationship that it is hard to break the bond. An exception is his first 1946 Morris 8 Series E that he sold to acquire a convertible version of the same model in a far better condition.

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