Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Land Rover is for life, not for Christmas

“Never give a vehicle a name,” a wise man once said to me in Zimbabwe. “When you name them they take on a personality, a life of their own. And then you start to worry about them.”

Legion of Fans (LOF), let me tell you, never a truer word has been spoken.

Our baby, Tonka, is still in hospital, but is due out tomorrow (Friday), hopefully. In other words, the mechanic at the local garage reckons he will be finished with the repairs to the engine of our ageing 1984 Series III Land Rover tomorrow.

Apparently some teeth have broken off the cam shaft (or is that crank shaft, I’m not sure?) and he needs a new timing belt. According to the doctor the problem was serious, but fixable.

When I was younger I was cruel to my cars. I went through a succession of vehicles and not one of them had a name. I used to treat ‘em mean, LOF, though I can honestly say they were never very keen to have me as their driver.

First there was the magnificent 1968 XR Falcon station wagon that my parents gave to me when they bought a newer model. It went from lovingly-cared-for family car to rusted out barely-mobile wreck in the space of a few short years.

I had a two-door Volvo (yes, a Volvo, but it was quite sporty) which was totalled in an accident, but even if it hadn’t been run off the road it would have died within a year of my constant abuse.

When I scraped the side of my 1984 XE Falcon (at eight years old, the closest I ever came to owning a new vehicle) I didn’t even bother getting the bodywork fixed and it, too, began to corrode. I barely made a tenth of the purchase price back when I sold it.

I rarely looked under their bonnets; never checked the tyre pressures; wouldn’t have had a clue how to change the oil or a filter; and never took them to a garage for servicing.

They were nameless, faceless machines. Hunks of metal. There was an unspoken compact between my cars and me. We both knew it would be a short, sharp relationship, and a very one-sided one at that. I knew each of my cars would be worth nothing by the time I came to sell it, and that’s the way I drove and treated them. They responded in kind.

What an awful person I was.

It wasn’t even Mrs Blog who brought about a change in me. We owned a Metro in the UK, which we left a crumpled wreck after I skidded on ice on the way to work one morning and rear-ended a Peugeot. We didn’t shed a tear for it or even spare it a moment’s thought. It was a three-hundred quid car that had lasted a year, and on that basis it was probably the best value for money car I’d ever owned.

And it didn’t have a name.

Then, one blustery London day in 1998, after perusing three Land Rover Magazines and making about two phone calls, we travelled to the charming suburb of Watford and met Andy, a backyard Land Rover nut, who had put together ‘Dodgy’ out of a collection of wrecks and second hand parts.

‘Dodgy’ had been christened by Andy’s family, who found him to be, in the parlance of Arthur Daily, a very dodgy motor indeed. Looking back on it, you would have thought that even two unsuspecting Australian tourists might have had second thoughts about buying a vehicle called ‘Dodgy’. I recall Andy’s glance at his son when he told us the vehicle’s name – it was the unspoken version of a clap about the ear-hole.

Yet Mrs Blog and I were smitten. From that first rattle of the engine and that first belch of choking black smoke, we knew that this vehicle needed to be ours. To the amazement of our friend Ray, who drove us to Watford, we bought it. Him, I mean.

Certainly, there was no way we were going to ship a vehicle half way around the world to Africa and then criss-cross the continent in something named ‘Dodgy’.

“He needs an animal name,” Mrs B decided, as he was soon to start life anew as a safari truck.

“He’s yellow underneath,” I said, scratching away at Andy’s shoddy (there is no other word for it) green re-spray of Dodgy. Apparently Dodgy (or, at least, selected parts of him) had started life as a bright yellow short wheelbase Land Rover, owned either by British Telecom or the AA, which both used canary-coloured cars. “He’s like a Tonka Toy,” I added.

“Tatonka!” Mrs P announced with an air of finality.

We had watched and enjoyed one of Mr Kevin Costner’s few successful movies, Dances with Wolves, and remembered the Native American word for buffalo – Tatonka – and Kevin’s ludicrous impersonation of one around the camp fire as he seeks to charm his Indian maiden.

So Dodgy was born again, as Tatonka, which subsequently proved too hard to explain to the many people we met on our travels in Africa. So he now goes by the name of Tonka, and it seems to fit him well.

And it became a he, with a sex as well as a name. We couldn’t call a Land Rover by a girl’s name, as that would be just cruel (though Tonka did once meet a very spic and span Series IIa pick-up with a girl’s name. We had high hopes that they might get on, but this particular vehicle, named Helga or Brunhilde or something like that, was as butch as the two ladies who were driving it).

Perhaps it’s because Mrs B and I are childless (Ag, shame, I hear all you mummies crying) that we have taken our little Land Rover so wholly into our hearts. Certainly, if Tonka has been a child substitute I’m not complaining, because even with a new gearbox and overhauled engine he is still a good deal cheaper than private school fees.

In 10 years he has taken us from the icy waters and biting winds of the Skelton Coast to the white sandy beaches of Lake Malawi and the Indian Ocean coast of Mozambique. He has survived charges by black rhinos and elephants, been crapped on by monkeys and even stabbed once, in the foot (not tyre) by a would-be car thief in Harare, who Mrs Blog and I foiled.

He has rescued Land Cruisers from muddy bogs in the Zambezi Valley and saved an African family of five from being marooned on the shores of Lake Kariba.

I know now, with the benefit of a decade’s driving experience in Africa in Tonka, that the only times he has been stuck in the mud and sand it was my fault. With better driving and lower tyre pressures these instances would not happen again.

I know Tonka like no other vehicle I have ever owned. I have changed his oil and his oil and fuel filters. Mrs B (who has an excellent mind for diagnosis) and I have fixed problems with the fuel system and the alternator on the road. I remain blissfully unaware of the white man’s magic that occurs inside the actual engine, but Mrs B and I have made it our business to find out how some of the easily accessible bits of him work.

When he goes into hospital (as he tends to, about once a year), Mrs B and I become worried and depressed. It’s not even about the doctors’ bills – we accept those as part of life – it’s about being separated from him. He is our life support system in the African bush, every bit as much as our Visa card is his.

We know he is getting old, even for a Land Rover, and we must think about his future. Selling him is certainly out of the question. We have discussed, quite seriously, the idea of buying property in Africa to have somewhere where Tonka can see out his days in peace and dignity, perhaps as a game viewer or farm runabout.

The other day, while Tonka was in intensive care, minus his engine, Mrs B and I snuck away to a Land Rover dealership in the Lowveld to become acquainted with some newborn Land Rovers and some slightly older orphans.

“We won’t be getting rid of our bab… I mean, Series III,” I said to the salesman. He smiled. “But we’re thinking of getting another one, to take the load off our current Land Rover.”

“I understand,” he said, and I think he really did.

Driving back to the car hospital in our rented VW Polo, Mrs Blog and I discussed the merits of the brand new Defender Puma 110 Hard Top, versus a low-mileage Defender with a robust 200Tdi.

I knew that if we bought a new vehicle we should be prepared to harden our hearts. Life would be so much easier, I thought, if I could go back to treating my cars like shit – as machines designed with planned obsolescence in mind. When it reached the end of its usefulness I would sell it and buy another one. Simple.

Then, in the way that old married couples do, Mrs Blog read my very next thought out loud.

“If we got a new one, what would we call it?”


dozycow said...

Tinka ?

Anonymous said...

surely its time to become landfill!

tonypark said...

Oh Anonymous, brave as ever.

Land Rovers never end up in landfill. In the unlikely event that one is permanently taken off the road it usually ends up as a perfectly serviceable chicken coop.

Unlike the Japanese vehicle you probably drive, which came from dust and to orange dust it will eventually return.