DRIVING: West Vancouver man’s ability to fix cars took him across continents

Published: December 30, 2013

Joginder Singh and Chander Bali with the rally-winning Volvo during early shakedown testing. Submitted photo

BRENDAN McALEER
POSTMEDIA NEWS

On a lonely, rutted road in Kenya in 1965, a battered Volvo lies dead.

Insects buzz in the silence, and there’s a rustling in the thorny underbrush – perhaps a warthog rooting for its supper. In the distance, a hyena cackles and heat waves blur the acacia trees. There are two men standing by the car, eating sardines and bread. They are two days’ walk from any outpost, and no one else will be along this road for at least a week.

Both men are of Indian descent, the first wearing a pure-white turban that identifies him as a member of the Sikh religion. His name is Joginder Singh, and in a few short months he will drive this way again, battling the heavy, muddy clay of the rainy season to take his place in the history books. They will call him Simba, the Flying Sikh, the Lion of Kenya; he will be possibly the greatest African rally driver of all time, possessed of near superhuman empathy with the machinery he pilots.

The other man is taller, clean-shaven, with a rakish grin. Today, seated on the glassed-in balcony of his West Vancouver apartment as a pale, wintry Canadian sun sinks into the sea, he tells me how the sardine tin was cleaned, clipped, and shaped to repair the stricken Volvo’s cracked carburetor float.

Chander Bali with car-customize George Barris, as well as an early Citroën 2CV, a Mercedes-Benz 600 in the Bahamas, and his son.

His name is Chander Bali.

He was, and is, a proper bush mechanic.

Chander Bali was born in Kenya on Christmas Day in 1937. His father came from the north of India, the part that would become Pakistanafter the partition in 1947. Bali Sr. worked as a Marconi dealer. His son was a born mechanic, and by 15 was fixing and selling old Citroëns as a side business. The turmoil following the partition of India would throw Bali’s extended family into some confusion, but in the 1950s, a long-lost uncle would be discovered living in England. Chander travelled to London, where he received training as a Volvo and Mercedes-Benz mechanic. In Germany, Bali found work at a Ford dealership, but it was not for him. Reaching for a crescent wrench to loosen a drain-plug, he was berated by the shop foreman. “This is a German garage!” the man shouted, “We use only the correct tools!” He moved further into Europe, finding employment at a Volvo dealership in Malmo, Sweden. Here, his skills at repairing things on a shoestring found favour among the rally-obsessed Swedes.

Returning to Kenya, he worked for various garages before opening his own shop, repairing everything from Land Rovers to Humber Super Snipes. When a young Joginder Singh moved in next door as the very first patrolman for the Royal East African Automobile Association, the pair found a kinship. Bali helped Singh establish his own repair business, and began joining the nascent rally champion on his reconnaissance runs.

Joginder Singh in an early rally with a Volvo Amazon. Chander Bali is in the onlookers, second from right. Submitted photo.

As Singh began winning local rallies, Bali continued lending a hand as a mechanic, and eventually helped rebuild the history-making Volvo PV544. Left over from a hard season of rallying, the car was battered and bruised, with nearly 71,000 km of abuse on the chassis. It was a tired old horse, but in the hands of Singh and Bali, it would go on to beat the world’s best fully supported factory efforts.

However, Africa in the 1960s was not just a place where a pair of skilled hands could make history. In 1967, Bali found himself in Montreal. He felt an immediate affinity for Canada, and found an old Volvo 144, fixed it up and drove to Vancouver. He soon found himself ranging further up the province, heading for Alaska.

Alaska became a gateway to Seattle, as a result of the flooding in Fairbanks, and the subsequent evacuation, and Bali found himself heading south to Los Angeles. He found a place to work on Volvos and Benzes, and charmed his way into the Polo Club. There, the tall, handsome Indian would enchant his well-heeled clientele with tales of the African jungle, the savannah, the wildness of the landscape.

But Bali’s greatest adventure was still ahead. Feeling the urge to travel again, he walked into a travel agent and, seemingly at random, chose the Bahamas. Forty years later, he still spends a third of the year there.

He landed without friends or work prospects. By the end of the year, he was fixing rich tourists’ cars in their garages, making house calls with a briefcase filled with tools. As the tiny island had no proper servicing centres, Bali’s ability to repair almost anything with hardly any spare parts was indispensable.

His charm, too, had its effects, and soon he was caring for mansions while the owners were away, and was well known around town. He fixed Major Holt Renfrew’s limousines, took the squeaks and rattles out of millionaire financier Sir John Templeton’s old Lincolns.

Today, Bali is involved with several biofuel projects, including small-scale refining of cooking oil, as well as the growing of Jatropha seeds in the Philippines. He has started and sold a transmission servicing shop in North Vancouver and travelled around California in a self-serviced bus converted to an RV. He has been married three times, the third being the charm.

The picture of a gleaming white Volvo PV544 parked on the shoulder of an African road. Submitted photo.

Opening a cupboard, he shows me pictures of cars he has owned: a Ferrari 308 GTB, a stately Bentley Series III, a Lotus Esprit Turbo.

Finally, there’s a picture of a gleaming white Volvo PV544 parked on the shoulder of an African road. After Joginder’s David-vs.-Goliath win, Volvo shipped an entirely new body to Kenya, and the rally car was fully restored. When Bali returned to Kenya in the 1970s, Singh handed him the keys.

For a whole month, he drove around the country, the car’s well recognized KHT 184 licence plate drawing waves and cheers.

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