If FORD is an acronym for First On Rubbish Dump, Datsun would be the last. I should know, I’ve driven two (actually three) absolute car Legends (yes, with a capital ‘L’). I suppose I should start with the first Datsun I ever drove, which I crashed, and the only reason I drove that one was because a friend crashed my Escort. Fasten your seatbelts, and call your attorney, because you’re about to read an affidavit on reckless endangerment.
It is 21 years ago, the sun is setting on Apartheid, but nowhere near rising on a toe-pinchingly cold morning in Bloem. Corne and I are in Air Force uniform, filling up at College Motors, which is an Engen garage beside Pick ‘n Pay opposite Grey College. It’s Monday, 3am, and we need to get to Swartkop air force base near Pretoria by 8am. The blue Escort is mine, but Corne’s driving. I turned 18 six months earlier, a few days into my military service. But after two curb mounting, skin crawling, teeth chewing attempts in the past few weeks, I still haven’t passed my driver’s license. With the car packed and fueled, I go into the shop to buy something warm to eat and cold to drink, and when I step onto the petrol stations patio, I see Corne taking the car for a spin around the parking lot. Corne is from Fort Beautfort, a bustling Eastern Cape settlement most South Africans have never even heard about, and obviously a place without:
a) parking lots, or
b) parking lots with long narrow traffic islands, parking partitions comprised of back to back paving slabs.
When Corne turns the nose of the Escort towards me, he pulls off a move most people probably last saw in Knight Rider or James Bond. The Escort hits a traffic island producing an impressive shower of sparks, and for a few moments Corne is driving my car on its right-side wheels only. The only thing wrong with Corne’s stunt driving is the:
a) sickening crunch of underbelly chassis metal
b) absence of a functioning gearbox.
c) failure to turn on the lights whilst driving at night
I ask Corne in Afrikaans if he is ‘mal’, but he reassures me that he simply didn’t see the pavements. In the wide open parking lot he simply didn’t see them. I suggest turning the lights on in future.
I rudely kick Corne off the front seat and drive my car the 2-odd kilometers home. None of the gears work, except first. We say nothing as the car moans through Bloem’s dark, early morning streets at 15km/h.
It’s about 3:30am when I wake up my father. Since his construction business is closing – it’s had a decent run – he has a small fleet of vehicles sitting around, including a beautiful white, Datsun 1400.
He says, “Look after it. It’s a dream delivery vehicle. That car never uses any oil.”
He hands me the keys, which I give, with just a moment’s hesitation, to Corne.
After transferring our things to the bakkie, we hit the N1 north. The Datsun is very responsive, and even though its seats are torn and the dashboard has sun damage, the engine purrs and the fuel gauge only shifts with great reluctance. It has a marvelous smell inside. Leather, and tobacco and hard work. Driving this car feels like being in the company of a war veteran. You feel like some of that heroism is rubbing off. Even the logo, has the blue word DATSUN superimposed over the red sun of Japan’s flag. And why not, these tough little bakkies have warmed hearts and minds the world over.
In this neck of the woods, now, the sun is rising, and it’s getting warmer. Of course, while Corne is doing all the driving, I am secretly plotting to make absolutely damned sure I get my driver’s license – third time lucky – on my next weekend pass to Bloemfontein.
We arrive at the base in good time, and during the rest of that week, the Datsun goes through a heavy workload: each day it’s loaded up with more ‘Roofs’ (raw, untrained troops) who prefer its quick, simple, civilian functionality to the dark, hard, heavy, clumsy and canvassy interior of the alternative transport, the SAMIL.
Now although it’s true at the time that Datsun had become Nissan, and Nissan were flighting ads about their indestructible engines being used to pump water day and night on someone’s farm, a vehicle can only survive so much abuse. Many vehicles can handle mounting a curb, or the odd fender-bender, or driving through a veld fire, or a season with Evel Knievil behind the wheel. Some are just fine with being driven everyday, for years. Some vehicles can survive an endless succession of women-only drivers. No vehicle, though, has been designed to withstand Corne.
The end of that week in Pretoria was a long Easter weekend, and Corne volunteered to chauffeur me back to Bloem (and my secret, scheduled driving test). Before hitting the N1, we dropped off a few Roofs. The last was Jannie, at the Witbank intersection. At about 4pm, the roads getting very busy, Corne turns the nose of the Datsun towards the N1, and Bloemfontein. I remember we are going at about 90km/h and approaching one particular intersection with a very long line of traffic all waiting, wanting to turn left. About 30 metres from the intersection the traffic light changes to amber. It is one of those 50/50 scenarios where you can stop, but you’re also going fast enough to continue through. Corne, bless him, continues, and the front car in the infinite traffic jam, bless him, sees the traffic light change and nothing else, and barges forward. As head-on collisions go this one is pretty unspectacular. I don’t remember a squeal of brakes. In fact Corne, who doesn’t like to wear glasses, probably would not have noticed a small elephant standing in the road. There is no swerving to avoid impact. There is simply a car approaching an intersection, another car moving in its way, and the two vehicles having a metal kiss fest, open mouth, tongue, radiator, the works. So I imagine we hit the other vehicle (I forget what make it was, but it was a long, heavy, copper-colored station wagon) at 70-80km/h.
While the Escort stunt was impressive, it was difficult to appreciate from the outside of the vehicle. You had no way of experiencing the acrobatic lift as the car was flung on its side. But being Corne’s passenger meant I could share the full experience with him, and without silly distractions like air bags or retractable seat belts. In fact my seatbelt is positively useless in that it is much too big; it allows me an impressive range of motion, so much so that I am able to fly a long way forward before being caught by the belt.
When you’re inside a vehicle about to hit another the vehicle, it feels a bit like a horror movie that you can’t escape from. I mean even if you close your eyes it’s still going to happen and you’re still going to experience it. You know when a collision is absolutely certain, because time starts to stand still, and you know you can’t go anywhere. Whether you are tense or relaxed, no matter what you do, a crunch is imminent, it’s going to happen, and it feels obvious that there’s probably going to be painful damage. To the vehicles, and to you. And then the inevitable happens. By the way did I say that I crashed the Datsun bakkie? No, within the space of a week Corne has managed to put two cars that aren’t his, out of business, the first in a practice run, the second will be put out of business permanently.
And that was the end of my dad’s favorite miracle worker.
Corne hits the steering wheel hard enough to bend it, I head butt the windscreen, turning it silver, and break the rearview mirror into three separate pieces of plastic. The metal portion under the plastic dashboard bites into my knee, slicing open an impressive volcano, which resembles the loss of a knee cap. The occupants of the other car were fine, of course, Corne is winded and confused, and I am bleeding in my head, knee and upper leg. There was also the matter of a small flame licking out of the gearshift, and its tongue biting pain into my elbow.
Don’t ask me why, but I have the urge to run, to get out of the vehicle, more to get away from Corne than anything else. When I push the door open, brake fluid becomes a green oily snake slithering over the tar. I unbuckle my safety belt, and begin contemplating whether the lower half of my right leg will work (or fall off) when the paramedics arrive. About 9 minutes have gone by since the impact, 9 minutes of pain that feel like a fire burning my knee.
Meanwhile Corne is running around collecting our balsakke and other possessions that went AWOL (and airborne) after impact, and I am taken to hospital to have glass splinters taken out of my forehead and my knee stitched back together.
Not long after that, my father’s dream delivery vehicle was classified an ‘economic write off’. As far as I know he lost the entire vehicle, including its wheels and tyres. That same night I hitchhike (I’m not kidding, via a drunk driver looking for directions to Pretoria) to the airport, I sleep there, and catch the earliest flight to Bloem. Passengers around me think I’ve walked off the set of Rambo; despite my leg being stitched up, my lower leg is caked in thick, almost black ooze.
But I am back in Bloem later that morning, and a few weeks later, I have my license. South Africa has just inherited a new teenager to wreak havoc on its roads. I would go on to drive the Escort a few more years, testing my ability to drive the Paris-Vredefort section at night with the lights off, and overtaking a bus on the far right hand side whilst an oncoming vehicle came through on the inside, and also losing electrical power on the N1 approaching Johannesburg, so that the car stalled in the middle lane….before chance brought me to Datsun number II. Now that vehicle, which I had through richer and poorer (but mostly poorer) and through sickness and in health (fortunately mostly health) can and did survive everything mother nature through at it. Well, barring Corne, who either started organic farming in Fort Beaufort, or went on to opening his own, and very successful scrapyard in Benoni.