It ain't what you got, it's where you go with it


For some time now I have wondered whether, given enough exposure and shared adventure, any car could crawl its way into your affections however unlovely upon first acquaintance it might be. I need wonder no more.

I have just returned from a fortnight in Zambia, a sizeable chunk of which I spent roaming around the African bush in a thing called a Nissan NP300 Hardbody. It’s a pick-up truck about which I could find not one nice thing to say other than that it was clearly fairly rugged, as anything expecting to survive more than a matter of minutes out here must be.

It had no performance and even less handling. The ride was atrocious and to say the refinement was a joke would be to imply there was some refinement about which to joke. There was not. Despite its vast dimensions it was miserably cramped inside, my backside still aches from the utterly inadequate seating and the wound inflicted on my hand by the appallingly assembled hardtop over the load area should have been stitched in a hospital, were such a thing less than several hours drive away at the time.

Its sole concession to comfort was air conditioning, so we consoled ourselves with the knowledge we’d at least not cook in the sub-Saharan heat. Fat chance. The first time I pressed the button the car started shrieking sufficiently loudly for a succession of helpful but grave-faced locals to diagnose terminal pulley failure or some such – don’t ask me, I just drive ‘em. What was clear given our schedule was that the air would remain determinedly unconditioned for the duration.

So we set off on our big adventure, me nervous because it seemed likely we’d get so lost our sun-bleached bones would not be found until the turn of the next century, my children fractious because they were tired, hot, and teenaged and my wife wracked with guilt because we’d spent more money than we had on a holiday we could not afford and all because she grew up in this neck of the woods but had not been back since she was little older than the two scowling sisters in the back.

We were tentative at first because there is nothing that 30 years of driving in Europe, America and the Far East can do to prepare you driving around a corner and finding a large bull elephant in a clearly filthy mood blocking your path. But soon we got braver, venturing further into the unknown, as I immersed myself in this entirely new driving experience. Even Mrs Frankel ended up wanting to drive it and before we left, I’d have bet the house that would happen.

In remarkably little time it became clear that it didn’t actually matter a damn that the car was slow, cumbersome, uncomfortable and noisy. What mattered was that it kept going, because if it didn’t and without wishing to sound overly dramatic, the potential consequences were a little more serious than a few hours on the hard shoulder waiting for the AA to turn up. And while the air con might have packed up early, I never doubted either the gravel voiced cement mixer under the bonnet, nor the ability of the chassis to cross all terrains and absorb potholes big enough to hide a hyena.

The man came to collect it from the car park of the hotel in Lusaka and like everyone else we dealt with in Zambia, was punctual, polite and gently humorous; when it turned out we’d booked the truck for one more day than we needed, he insisted on handing over the difference in a gaily coloured wad of dollars, sterling, euros and kwacha. Try getting a zero notice refund with a big European hire company and see how you get on.

As I left I promised myself I’d not look over my shoulder, for to gaze fondly upon such a terrible machine would have been ridiculous. And I managed it. But as I was walking back to the lobby, it drove past me and out into the road beyond and I couldn’t help letting my eyes linger just an instant longer than necessary on its hideous rear end, despite the catastrophic damage it had wrought upon my hand.

Truth is, the Nissan had kept me and my family safe in an at times less-than-safe environment, and I defy anyone to go through an experience like that and emerge not feeling at least some warmth towards your protector. It’s why the Terminator movies are so popular: Arnie may be old, ugly and a serving short of social skills, but when the going gets tough there really is no-one else you’d rather have at your side.

So forgive the long answer to the short question, but now I know: so long as you share an adventure – any adventure – and presuming it has a happy ending, any car fit for the purpose of that adventure will find a way into your heart. Even a Nissan NP300 Hardbody.

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