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Lanka's love for old British cars

When two decades of civil war ended in 2002, the only vehicles left on the Jaffna peninsula were old British cars.

india Updated: Mar 16, 2006 11:16 IST

If war returns to northern Sri Lanka, garage owner Raja Durai says it might be too much for the new Japanese-built cars he repairs.

He'd rather trust veteran British cars half-a-century old.

When two decades of civil war ended in 2002, the only vehicles left on the Jaffna peninsula were old British cars and Sri Lankan army vehicles and trucks.

"The British-made cars have been very strong," Durai, 53, told Reuters in his garage, wiping his hands on oil-soaked rags.

"The bodywork is very strong. The iron is genuine iron. When they break down, we can turn out a new part. The Japanese cars are not so good."

On the very northern tip of Sri Lanka and dominated by the island's minority Tamil population, Jaffna changed hands several times during the war, occupied by Tamil Tiger rebels, government forces and ill-fated Indian peacekeepers who ended up clashing with both sides.

Cut off from trade with the rest of the island, Jaffna was left with a unique collection of vintage cars from the 1940s, 50s and 60s. But since the 2002 ceasefire, new vehicles have begun to arrive.

Morris Minors, Morris Oxfords and Austin Cambridges -- almost rare now in Britain -- still drive past bombed-out buildings and mined lagoons, sharing the roads with white aid agency four-wheel drives and Sri Lankan army patrols.

Their upholstery has often been replaced and icons of Hindu gods or Christian saints sit on the dashboards. Often, they have been repainted several times and lost their original registration papers.

Yet they live on even as younger, glitzier competition threatens to run them off the road.

As across much of the developing world, the most common vehicle now on the Jaffna peninsula is the Toyota or Nissan minibus.

Usually they imported second-hand from Tokyo or elsewhere in Japan and still bear Japanese lettering along the side.

The newer vehicles might be more expensive and have more prestige but Durai, whose garage is 16 km from the landmine-infested no-man's land of burnt and bombed palm trees that marks the edge of Tiger territory, is not impressed.

If the British motor industry had not all but completely collapsed in the face of competition from Europe and Asia, he says, he would still aim to buy cars from the island's former colonial ruler.

Even the omnipresent Indian-made three-wheeled auto-rickshaws only tend to last five years or so before breaking down, he said. If war returned, they would probably have to be replaced with cycle rickshaws.

"More and more Japanese cars are being imported and so you see more of them," Durai said. "But they are too complicated and we do not know how to fix them. The Jaffna man has found the British cars more suitable."

In December and January, a string of attacks by suspected Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on the military pushed Sri Lanka back to the brink of war, leaving many in Jaffna fearing fuel and spare parts might become impossible to get.

Durai said he hoped direct talks between the two sides in Switzerland heralded a move back towards peace, but that if war came older British-built cars like his own 1960 Ford coupe would continue to run while their newer cousins failed.

When they ran Jaffna in the early 1990s, some senior Tiger officials used the colonial-era vehicles. Just like other drivers, the officials used their meagre reserves of petrol to start the engine and then kept them running with kerosene or paraffin.

But with peace, top rebels have gone Japanese, switching to powerful four-wheel drives with air conditioning and blacked-out windows, some spray-painted in camouflage colours and carrying heavily armed bodyguards.

It is rare to find old British-built cars for sale elsewhere in Sri Lanka outside Jaffna, although some can still be seen rotting by the side of the road in parts of the richer south.

But in the meantime, old Jaffna cars sell much cheaper than they would in Britain. An Austin A40 from the late 1950s—slightly rusted, but still in working order—might cost $2,000 while a Morris Minor in moderate condition around $3,000, perhaps 50 per cent to a third lower than in the United Kingdom.

Looking at two A40s parked near his garage as a South African built apartheid-era armoured vehicle patrolled up the main road and troops searched nearby shops, Durai said he believed they would last another half century even if war resumed.

"If there is war, there will be a shortage of petrol and again we will have to turn them back to parrafin," he said. "When one is condemned, we take it apart for spare parts. But they'll still be running in another 50 years' time."