I get so many comments about my big yellow Jeep that sometimes I think it’s more the star of my television series than I am. Watch this episode and you’ll see me driving it out to my neighbour’s hazelnut orchard, where I cook up Rib-Sticking Pea and Ham soup on the flatbed – my new favourite outdoor kitchen.
American Motors Corporation produced the Jeep J20 pickup truck from 1974 to 1987. Ours is a 1978 model; right-hand drive, black leather bench seat, power steering.
The reason I know it has power steering is that quite often it stalls – either when it’s cold, or when the engine overheats. Without any warning you can find yourself on a big, wide corner out in the countryside, whopping along at a good old rate with no steering whatsoever.
Coming up to her 35th birthday, the old girl gets a bit recalcitrant about starting through the winter, so we have a little heater that we have to plug in at night so she’ll get going in the mornings.
The cab rusted out last year and it was going to fail its WOF, but Ted had another one put aside (would a girl ever think about that? You have to love husbands!). However they went through two broken windscreens before they could get the new windscreen in.
Towards the end of filming the series, actually on the day we all headed up the lake for the Minaret Station shoot, the starter motor, which had been a bit jippy and not wanting to engage now and then, failed completely. Everyone else had already left by chopper to the location and my job was to drive up there to meet the chopper for that all-important arrival wide shot.
The thing about being late for choppers and film crews is that it gets REALLY expensive, big dollars by the minute, and they were already up in the wops with no cellphone coverage.
So here I was back in Wanaka with a truck that simply would not start, knowing I had no time to spare and no one to help me. It called for a hair-raising James Bond type manoeuvre to jump-start the truck – a tight freewheeling turn on the hill, missing the wall by a fingerbreath, into a 90-degree turn for the narrowest of lanes in order to reach the bit that was steep enough to really get the old girl going – maybe 25 metres that ended wham at the main road with the early morning traffic.
I don’t know if you have ever driven an A20 Jeep but they are actually quite big and high and very unwieldy. There is nothing glamorous about doubling the clutch to change gear or having to hold the brake on with one foot while you rev the motor with your heel and then slowly release the clutch with the other while you release the hand brake.
At last the old girl fired, but then I had to navigate the 40-minute drive up the lake without stalling – never dropping the revs (as you might do when you stop at a stop sign, for example) or overheating the motor by going too fast. Years ago I would have done all this without a blink, but these days – well, I think adrenaline is overrated. It’s exhausting.
Whenever you drive an old vehicle like this, you don’t look for the carpark handiest to where you are headed. You look for somewhere you know you can get it started – facing down a hill, definitely not requiring reverse. You just never know.
When our kids were little, the old Jeep was the only vehicle we had that could get up Treble Cone during the ski season. They were mortified; all their friends were driving up in smart SUVs and they had to tolerate their dad with his ancient jeep chugging noisily up the hill in second gear.
I remember the feeling – my dad brought home a brand new magenta red, four-door finned Plymouth when he came back from his stint as a Fulbright Scholar in the States in the late 1950s. I wasn’t born when he bought it, but by the time I was a teenager and learning to drive he STILL had this car, CP9241. It had bench seats with plaid upholstery totally covered totally in – wait for it – hard, thick plastic. As kids it was a nightmare being in the back on long road trips, sticking like glue to this horrible hard plastic.
CP9241 didn’t have power steering and I still marvel at my mother’s ability to drive that car. She would snazzily whip into the smallest of carparks in Cuba Street in downtown Wellington, where she used to buy her meat at the butcher and cash her weekly housekeeping cheque. Learning to drive that car put me in good stead for the Jeep, and if I could just find the big red Plymouth again I’d love to take it for a spin.
But for all the hard work it takes to drive my old A20, life just wouldn’t be the same without it. There’s no chance of an early retirement!
To see behind-the-scenes photos from this week's episode of my TV show and preview my recipe for Artichokes with Vinaigrette, see my website.