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If you really love off-roading one of the best vehicles you can buy is the Mahindra Thar for about Rs. 7 lakh. But wait? Would you really want to batter a Mahindra Thar off-road, when you can get even more capable vehicles custom built for just half the price?

There are pros and cons to both – a new Mahindra Thar and a custom-built secondhand jeep. Many old Jeeps are available at army auctions and land up at places like Mayapuri in Delhi or Avadi near Chennai. And then there are ready-made ex-army jeeps custom-built at places like Mandi Dabwali in Punjab, which are usually blinged-out posers and not really great off-road.

So for Rs. 7 lakh what is a better deal – a Mahindra Thar or a custom-built ex-army jeep?

custom build offroader suv india

Photo: Harjeev Chadha

Buying an ex-army jeep

Looking for an ex-army jeep is hard work and you really need to know your vehicles well. If not, befriend a competent mechanic and take him along when you go scouting for a jeep to places like Mayapuri in Delhi, else you risk being fleeced of your hard-earned money and land yourself a lemon. Also see: Essential off-roading gear to keep in your Jeep

The Mahindra 540, CJ3B and 550s, which land up in Mayapuri, have been bought from army scrap auctions and many are not in useable condition at all. Many of these are available for about Rs. 50,000 only, but are not likely to be in running condition. Just make sure that all the components are there – as in gearbox, engine and most definitely the 4×4 transfer case, propeller shafts and differentials.

Once you’ve got a good jeep body, the next thing to do is to get the engine into running condition or replace it with a reconditioned engine. The MM550 (predecessor to the Thar, with the same body), is a good bet for a competent off-roader. It had a 2112 cc Peugeot diesel engine that put out 62 bhp of power and 124 Nm of torque. In today’s world, that’s quite underpowered. Also see: Best performance SUVs in India below Rs. 15 lakh

custom build army jeep photo

Photo: Harjeev Chadha

Later year (year 1999-2000) models came with a 2.5 litre diesel that put out 72 bhp of power. Civilian versions had a five-speed gearbox, while the army version retained the four-speed manual transmission and 4×4 transfer case with high and low ratios.

Harjeev Chadha, an ex-army man himself and an off-road enthusiast has custom-built many such off-roaders from ex-army vehicles – which include MM540/550, CJ3B and Gypsy. One such build (pictured) was an MM550. The vehicle took nearly half a year to complete, but cost just about half of what a Mahindra Thar costs. It had custom-built power-steering and sand tyres. It proved very competent off-road, but the only issue it had was with long-term reliability. When custom-building jeeps, one needs to have the patience to spend long hours at the workshop, because there are a number of things that can go wrong.

Advantage of a custom-built jeep

–          Built to your specifications

–          Low purchase price

–          Simplicity of technology

–          Easy to fix

If you have the time and patience, the thrill of building your own off-roader is worth it. However, make sure you have the right mechanic and are prepared for delays in sourcing of parts. Refurbished diesel engines are available for about Rs. 70,000 in the market. Gearboxes too can be sourced. It’s the assembling that takes a lot of time. However, the total cost of building a jeep will come to under Rs. 3 lakh. Also see: Best off-roading tyres

Disadvantages of custom-built jeep

–          Problems with registering jeep

–          Long-term mechanical reliability

–          High maintenance costs in long-term

–          Low resale

One of the biggest drawbacks of these custom builds is in trying to get it legally registered. Metros are now all BSIV compliant and such jeeps cannot be registered in the metros. If you are lucky enough to come across a civilian jeep that has already been registered, it is a lot easier. However, re-registering an ex-army jeep for civilian use is a tough task – although if you do have contacts in smaller towns it can be registered there.

Why buy a new Thar?

mahindra thar photo

The biggest advantage of a new Thar is that it comes with a company-backed warranty and more modern mechanicals. It is a BSIV compliant vehicle and can be registered in all the metros without any hassles. It now also has air-conditioning on its feature list. The Thar has an independent front-suspension system which makes it more comfortable on-road, and hence it can be used for daily commutes to work and back as well. Also read: Mahindra Thar road test

What we think

If you are the kind of person who has the time and patience to spare, go ahead and custom-build a jeep (if you can work out the registration logistics). However, if you want peace of mind, reliability and a vehicle that’s ready to face the worst straight out of the showroom, pick a Mahindra Thar – although you’ll be spending twice as much on the purchase price.

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