IIn the late 1980s as India was inching towards globalisation and the economy was slowly opening, Bajaj Auto tried to dip one toe in the vast ocean of the export market. The company that already had a stronghold in the scooter segment developed Chetak with a 175 cc engine to export abroad.
Armed with government permits, international dealers and a stylish design, the company made 500 such scooters. However, they didn’t get international clearance. Meanwhile, the ones made for Indians had a waiting period of 10 years. So people had two options — either book and wait or purchase it with foreign exchange via an approved government scheme. Those with relatives or postings abroad managed to purchase the Chetak.
Due to this move, the scooter came to be fondly known as the ‘Dollar waali scooter’.
Almost 30 years later, the scooter that once turned heads on roads is now extinct. There will be a handful of people, if not more, with Chetak in their possession. One of them is Pune-based Vinit Kenjale.
He has around eight original ‘Dollar waali scooters’ in his vintage collection of 500 two-wheelers. And just like Chetak, each scooter, bike and moped has a story to tell.
Vinit is an entrepreneur by profession and this massive collection is his hobby that began 40 years ago in 1986. What makes his collection more interesting is that he goes the extra mile to repair old scooters. Today, close to 250 of them are fully functioning.
To help the young and future generations cherish the old charm of two-wheelers, Vinit plans to open a Museum in Mahabaleshwar, Maharashtra, in December this year. He has already received the required government permits.
“This will be a one-of-its-kind museum where visitors will be allowed to touch the items. It will offer short rides to every visitor on vintage scooters from brands like Bajaj, Lambretta, Vespa and more,” Vinit (55) tells The Better India.
He adds if the museum will be an immersive and information-filled experience for youth, it will certainly evoke nostalgia for the older generations as well.
“Owning a scooter in the 1980s-90s was a huge deal for the common man given that it was affordable and a convenient travelling mode. Dropping children to school, taking your beloved on long rides or giving lifts to strangers, there are several emotional stories associated with scooters. I want to give the older generation that happiness again,” says Vinit.
We speak to Vinit about how he developed the hobby, how he ensures that the vintage scooters remain in their original shape and lesser-known tales behind the two-wheelers.
Two-Wheelers That Move The Soul
Vinit’s fascination for scooters started when he spotted a bright yellow Lambretta on the streets in Pune.
“I was barely 10 when I saw a scooter with an open frame parked in my area. I found it funny and fascinating. I had never seen anything like this. The owner saw me laughing and explained why it was shaped like that. From then on, I wanted to know the features about every two-wheeler,” says Vinit.
In an era when Bajaj, Vijai Super and Jawa motorcycles were famous, Vinit’s first bike was the Kinetic Honda. He predicted these scooters will eventually be replaced by upcoming ones like Kinetic and Suzuki.
“The ’80s was a very interesting period for bikes in India. I saw people moving from one bike to another and discarding old models. I wondered what would happen with those bikes. That’s when I got an idea of collecting them,” says Vinit.
Around 1988, he spread the word among friends, family and local garages of his hobby. His first bike was a 1940 model of Matchless, a white-coloured kinetic moped. Next, he purchased a Lambretta 59 for Rs 700.
While most of the bikes in his collections are donated, some of them are brought.
Vinit accepts all kinds of vintage bikes irrespective of their condition. For instance, Hind Cycle and Rajdoot motorcycles were completely damaged and there was no way to revive them. However, he kept polishing them.
Every two-wheeler that comes in is studied for a couple of days. Vinit and his team of 12 people analyse the parts, engine, seat covers, headlights, suspension, etc, and find an appropriate replacement. When Vinit had started collecting, he had purchased extra spare parts of famous models, anticipating their discontinuity in the future.
For the ones not in their stock, the team comprising mechanics make it. Sometimes, they even talk to retired mechanics for expertise. This exercise has helped him learn the evolution of two-wheelers in India.
“Until 1995, there were metallic colours used for bikes so we were careful while choosing the paint. Sometimes we have to make our own paints to match the original colour. Seeing the old colour palettes, our visitors get very happy. So much has changed over the years — rear suspension is extinct, bikes don’t have springs, the mono suspension was replaced. Even the mileage, weight, brake system and the engine have evolved,” says Vinit.
From the green-coloured Matchless that was used in World War II, Lambretta Cento that was designed for women in 1964 to the lightweight Mofa Moped, whose chassis is its petrol tank, Vinit has all kinds of mopeds, scooters and bikes, each having a tale of its own. He also has a 1950s model of a Royal Enfield that was probably India’s first self-start bike.
There have been several occasions when Vinit learnt about the history of India while interacting with the donors or sellers of old models. For instance, he discovered how Maharashtra Scooters Ltd was started in 1965 in Satara to create employment.
“They were manufacturing the Bajaj Priya, a three-geared scooter under a license agreement with Bajaj Auto as the design was similar to the Bajaj 150 model. Priya was fitted with a round speedometer and had an open bottom for easy access to cables. The taillight was of chromed plastic,” says Vinit.
Similarly, he says that Gujarat Narmada Auto Ltd had obtained a licence from Bajaj to manufacture ‘Girnar Leo’, a 150 cc scooter. However, the company had to pull down the curtains as people preferred Bajaj.
He also came across the story of the Kelvinator company that is known for making fridges and electronic items.
“Very few people know that Kelvinator used to make mopeds and sleek scooters like the Lambretta. It weighed around 50 kilos and could store less than 5 litres of petrol. The best part was if you ran out of petrol, you could peddle it too. It was a two-seater bike with a small rack for the luggage. It had drum brakes on both ends and a tall set handlebar. I got that bike via a friend from Varanasi,” he says.
Rajdoot GTS 175 is another favourite of Vinit. He recollects how older boys in his colony wanted this Escort’s Rajdoot soon after the release of Bobby in 1973.
“The company was trying to break into the Indian market and the process was slow. Their earlier models were hardly making sales. This movie turned out to be their biggest marketing gimmick. I was so happy to get my hands on the iconic Bobby scooter,” he adds.
Some of the other iconic two-wheelers include Kinetic India, Lambretta 59, LML PL 170, Sun-Villers 1950 motorcycle, Avanti, Fantabulous scooter (Royal Enfield), BSA 1945, Atlasolex, Ramona 1960, NSU moped 1955, BSA Bond — India’s first mono-shock suspension bike, Hercules Moped 1967, among others.
Vinit is looking for people who want to donate or sell their vintage two-wheelers. You can reach Vinit at 98220 32561
Images are sourced from Vinit Kenjale
Edited by Yoshita Rao