“Most people used to think I was mad to spend money on cars that will never be used regularly, but sometimes it pays to listen to your heart,” says Pickloo Deka, chewing on the only indulgence he allows himself – tamul – Assamese for raw betel nut with paan and a dash of lime.
He can afford to look back with pride on his impressive collection of vintage and classic cars and bikes in his picturesque landscaped hill top open air museum that he calls Treasured Wheels. Located off the National Highway 37 just over 20 km southeast of Guwahati, it transports a visitor to a different world, very unlike any modern automobile museum.
Deka’s is an inspiring story of a common man’s determination to chase a millionaire’s passion of collecting classic vehicles and making a success of it. A junior engineer with the Assam State Electricity Board, he has scrounged and scraped for the past quarter century to shape his dream that warms the heart of any visitor.
The hillock at Sonapur was a gift from a local club called Tepesia. Deka acquired the land after forming the Northeast Heritage Foundation. A small wooden bridge built over a trench that keeps out elephants from nearby forests leads the visitor to the gate of the 10-acre compound that houses 55-odd cars and around 40 bikes.
Two ancient fuel pumps that form part of his museum he opened nearly three years ago, adds to the ambience. At Rs 100 per head, a visit to Treasured Wheels is worth every second of it.
Deka’s passion for old automobiles started early in his life. “As a schoolboy in Dibrugarh, I was bowled over by a Renault 4CV. Determined to own it, I began to pursue the car’s owner to sell it to him as soon as I began to earn,” he says. Deka did eventually buy it in 1993 for a princely sum of Rs 3,000 which was almost his month’s salary.
He spent a minor fortune restoring the vehicle in Dibrugarh and drove half the distance to Guwahati before transporting it in a truck. The car is now one of the star attractions in the museum.
Deka has a nose for locating old vehicles. Many of them were cars rusting in households in Assam’s remote areas. He would convince their inheritors that the best way to pay tribute to the original owners of the vehicles would be to restore them instead of letting them rust.
At Treasured Wheels, most of the cars, including the Renault 4 CV, are in running condition. Some of them await a paint job.
Deka has quite a few of the A-listers of the auto world in his museum that formally opened in 2013. Among them is an Oldsmobile of 1919 vintage and of the early cars imported to India. He acquired it from a zamindar family near Nagaon in central Assam sometime in the early 2000s, paying a nominal amount to someone who didn’t really need money.
There’s a Citroen, a model of the world’s first front-wheel drive car. A jeep, a Morris, a few Fiats, a convertible Sunbeam, a 1945 model Buick, a couple of Fords from the 1930s and 1940s and a Volkswagen Beetle are some of the other cars.
The only exception in the collection is a Toyota Land Cruiser of the 1980s that late Rajiv Gandhi once drove during a visit to Mizoram as the prime minister. It doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb, probably because it is much smaller than the current model.
Necessity has taught Deka a few tricks. For instance, to cut costs of transporting the cars, he keeps tabs on truckers’ schedules. “If a truck is headed to make a delivery to a place from where a car has to be transporter, I would strike a deal with the truck owner—usually at half the normal rate to pick up the vehicle,” he says. While he gets his discount, the truck owner is happy to make some money on the return trip which would have otherwise yielded no income.
With money always in short supply, Deka doesn’t outsource the restoration work like a high-profile collector would. He gets to work himself, taking apart an engine to see what needs to be replaced. With a handful of trusted mechanics, he often ends up cannibalizing some other vehicle so that a vintage or a classic car can live again. “If I were to engage a restoration specialist, my costs would go up at least 30-40%,” he says. When it is unavoidable, genuine parts have to be sourced. That is a costly affair.
Deka’s collection of motor bikes is no less impressive. British legends like a Norton 650 of 1932, a BSA 500 of 1938, a Royal Enfield of 1940, a Sunbeam 500 of 1942, a Triumph 350 of 1934 and a US-made Paradrop Scooter of 1933 are among the exhibits.
Funds crunch has been a recurring problem. A Rs 2-lakh one-time aid by the state government a few years ago has been Deka’s biggest pay day so far. He has borrowed from family and friends and has taken every type of loan a bank could possibly give to pursue his dream.
“Most of my salary goes into repaying the loans. If my wife wasn’t employed, my dream would have died a long time ago,” he acknowledges.
While the acquisitions cost comparatively less mainly because the cars were in terrible shape, the restoration job has bled him financially. He claims he has lost track of the money spent so far, but restoring 30 of the old beauties to running condition would certainly have cost him more than a small fortune.
“I am perpetually in debt,” he says. “But the only time I wanted to give it up when money was really tight, my wife and daughter warned me not to quit after doing so much.”
While cars and bikes are the major draws at Treasured Wheels, Deka simply loves any piece of machinery that’s older than him. The museum also boasts of a collection of wall-clocks, watches, cameras, telephones, gramophones and a grand piano.
And if it is not a piece of machinery, Deka has an uncanny knack of knowing what blends with the surroundings at Treasured Wheels. Which is why, a visitor will find a Spiderman dummy sitting on a park bench and looking down the slope of the hill. Deka picked up the dummy from a restaurant that was closing down.
He is also very sensitive to history. Perhaps that explains why Deka also has one of the country’s earliest versions of the tricolour with a spinning wheel instead of the Ashok chakra, INA leaflets urging Indians to fight the British, a copy of The Statesman announcing India’s independence and a bunch of World War II helmets of Allied soldiers.
Deka often spends weekends at the museum’s living quarters. He has managed to convince a few locals to work with him for the museum’s upkeep as volunteers for a nominal payment. They start working early in the morning to keep the massive property spic and span. He has also planted around 22,000 saplings of litchis, guavas, bay leaves and neem.
So what is it that fuels his passion as a collector?
“I feel it is a way of paying tribute to the generations before ours who made sacrifices to produce these things that have given us a springboard to advance further,” he says.
Deka knows he is sitting on a gold mine. But he is simply not interested to cash in on his treasure. He has turned down lucrative offers to sell his collection that could make him a millionaire many times over.
“I did not become a collector to become rich. I only wanted to showcase them in a museum,” he says. “I respect history and they have become so much a part of me that it is inconceivable to sell them.”