Thanks to Lord Jo Grimond, I was once in a car with no floor, trundling unevenly around the single track roads of Yell, the unsilenced exhaust roaring. The late Orkney and Shetland MP accomplished many things, but for generations of drivers in the outer islands of Scotland, his amendment to the Road Traffic Act remains a Triumph. Or a Citroen. And very often a Toyota.
For as long as you are on an island which does not possess an official testing station, you do not require an MOT (standing for the now- redundant in all other circumstances term ‘Ministry of Transport’; these days it’s Department FOR Transport). You do need road tax, and your car must be, ahem ‘roadworthy’. That term, as I discovered during frequent visits to Shetland islands like Yell and Unst, is somewhat flexible. I mean, who really needs a floor? And don’t tyres work better when completely smooth?
This has given rise, in the Greater Zetlandics, to the phenomenon of the ‘isles car’. A vehicle reaching the end of its working life in an environment where such things as emissions are checked for pungency, where brakes have to work without showers of sparks appearing from the wheels. Shetland’s main island, imaginatively called Mainland, has MOT testing stations. But Yell, Unst, Bressay and Whalsay, all equipped with functioning, if sheep-ravaged roads, do not, and thus welcome the diseased-but-mobile among motors.
Extremely popular in the Zetlandics as a mode of transport is the pick-up truck, with or without Ifor Williams, Brahma or Truckman rear canopy. It’s ideal for the crofter with dogs, grandmothers or hay bales to transport, and as most have four wheel drive, it can cope with the roughest of tracks and the most virulent of weather. For years, you were no-one without a Toyota Hi-Lux, the reliability of which has now been mythologised by Clarkson and Co on Top Gear. Of late, though, young upstarts from Nissan, Mitsubishi, Mazda and even Ford have made an appearance. Land Rover Defenders still abound among traditionalists, though they lack the comfort and, i can testify from personal experience, such modern safety features such as airbags, or the ability to remain stable when going round corners in slippy conditions. Or, for that matter, in straight lines.
The “Double Cab” pick-up means that a working vehicle can be used as a family car as well as a miniature lorry, and there are murky areas of VAT, income tax and insurance where it also provides advantages. I wouldn’t know anything about that. All I can say is that my X-reg Isuzu twin-cab, Brahma-topped 2.8 turbo diesel pickup saved our bacon, our peats supply, access to offspring’s music lessons and my employment, time and time again over the winter. Solid, battered but apparently sound, I was proud of its rattling, roaring capacity to tackle the deepest snow without flinching. Even if it did smell of roofing bitumen and fish.
But its MOT was looming, and so I took it to see Peter, local garagiste. I was confident it would need very little work. After all, it ran well, everything seemed to function. The subsequent telephone conversation went like this:
“Hallo Peter” (there followed a lengthy, polite, preliminary discussion of weather, council scandals and the like) “How’s the Isuzu?”
“Done? You mean you’ve finished working on it?”
“No, I mean it’s done. It’s had it, Tom. Those things have the same chassis as the old Vauxhall Brava and it’s needing some serious welding. We were scared to stand underneath it when we put it up on the lift.”
“Oh. Is it worth replacing the fuel filter?”
I took the rumbling old beast down to Shetland’s informal car sales lot, the car park at North Lochside in Lerwick, and put a notice in the windscreen: “MOT and Tax April. Great runner. Needs welding. Spares, repair or isles. £400” Within 40 minutes of parking it, it had been sold. For isles use? No, to a man with his own welding torch, and the perennial Zetlandic need to tow a boat. I told him what Peter had said. In a small island community, you don’t want any comebacks, especially when it comes to a potentially collapsing chassis. But all was fine. We both knew that, if all else failed, a second life awaited in the outer isles. He handed over the £400 in cash, we signed off the documentation.
And it was only then I remembered about this thing called a ‘scrappage scheme’. What the hell was that all about?