A midlife crisis, in a 1968 Land Rover Serie IIA
A friend of mine claims there’s no such thing as a midlife crisis. Having survived more than a dozen, I beg to differ.
My fourth, like the Fourth Crusade, was one of the most memorable. It started out like all the rest. I quit my job and my wife freaked out.
I reread Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse and On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I watched The Motorcycle Diaries, the story about Che Guevara’s inspirational trek across South America. I contemplated living in a cabin on a pond like Henry David Thoreau or buying a farm in Oaxaca to raise agave (for mescal of course), avocados, pistachios and goats.
In my quest for direction, I also surfed the web. At one point, late at night and after several glasses of wine, I ended up on Ebay in the Motors section.
Note: Most guys of a certain age covet cars like Corvettes, Porsches, and Camaros. Not me. I have an affinity for 1960’s vintage British vehicles. I like Sunbeams, Spitfires and MG’s. But, my all-time favorite is the Land Rover.
The Landy, as it’s known to aficionados, was the British answer to the American Jeep. Featured in films like The Gods Must Be Crazy and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, it has become emblematic of the African safari. The car could be taken apart and put back together (while driving) with only a screwdriver and a pair of pliers. It was made out of aluminum, its roof could be used as a boat, and it could be started with a crank like a Model T. It was the epitome of utilitarian simplicity. There were no frilly bells and whistles like power steering or seatbelts.
Back on Ebay, bored and in need of a “cheap” thrill, I placed a bid on a cute 40-year-old Series IIA, knowing it would quickly be overturned. I shut down the browser and went to sleep.
The next morning, I found my wife sobbing in front of the computer screen. She was staring at a message that read, “Congratulation! You are the proud owner of a 1968 Land Rover!”
My midlife crisis had become a “test of the marriage!”
To make matter worse, the car I needed like another hole in the head was in Georgia, about an hour and a half outside of Atlanta. I had to pick it up. My good friend, Graham Gibby, always up for an adventure, generously agreed to drive me there and follow me back. (It has been years, but I’m still repaying the favor!)
When we arrived and saw the diminutive Tonka Toy-like vehicle, we immediately dubbed it, “The Hobbit.”
"I got good news and bad news,” said the owner. “The good news is I'm throwin in a custom-made rack. The bad news is the radio I installed just stopped working."
“Thanks, and no problem,” I said. “More importantly, do you think it can make it to New Orleans?”
He hesitated and then said, "Probably." Sizing me up, he added, "Not sure about you though?"
I didn't think much about the previous owner’s good and bad news until I got on the road. The tall metal rack rattled like a huge steal maraca; and there was no other “music” to drown out the noise. As in the mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap, the decibel level in the cab was a deafening 11!
Speaking of spines, The Hobbit’s short wheelbase and lack of suspension had chiropractors drooling. Over the accelerated course of my crisis, I slipped a disk, pinched a nerve and cracked my tailbone.
The next thing I noticed on the road was the heat. It was July and my Flintstone car had no AC. (Note: Having been designed in Solihull, England, it did have a killer heater though.) Inside the aluminum shell, it was a glassblowing furnace.
While the British may have built an empire “on which the sun never sets,” they were less adept at making car windows. Instead of rolling up and down, the Rover’s slid from side to side, only opening halfway. As I drove, a thin shaft of warm air blew gently across the back of my neck – while the rest of my body burned in eternal hellfire.
Whenever I stopped at a light for more than a minute, I'd spontaneously combust. Fortunately, I was able to douse the flames with my own sweat!
Every two hours, I’d pull off to the side of the road and collapse in the aptly titled, emergency lane.
The Landy drove like a tractor.** And, it wasn’t exactly a speedster. Going downhill with a tailwind, it topped out at about 50 miles an hour. Cars that passed me, basically every car (and a few bicycles) on the Interstate, honked in appreciation for the silly car and its brave (and foolish) driver.
Somewhere around Montgomery, Alabama, The Hobbit started hemorrhaging oil like BP.
Fortunately, Gibby and I were able to fix it with only a screwdriver and a pair of pliers.
The eight-hour trip took us 14 hours. When we finally arrived in New Orleans and my wife saw our “new” car up close, she cried again.
In many ways The Hobbit was ideal for the Trail Rated® roads of New Orleans. It could ford a pothole like a Higgins landing craft, and it could fit into the tightest French Quarter parking space. Its aluminum chassis was rustproof; and, it almost goes without saying, having a roof that doubles as a boat is lagniappe for the bayous, canals and streets of the Crescent City.
To pay for the midlife crisis, I got a new job working with schools. When I’d pull up in The Hobbit, kids would run out screaming as though I were the Good Humor Man. Then, when they saw me, defeated, sweaty and humorless, they’d run back to class - screaming.
The love even poured over into my wife's soul, and she once tried to drive The Hobbit. After fighting with the gears for three rounds, she gave up. She never got behind the wheel again.
A friend of mine who’s a doctor in North Carolina came down to visit, and I took him for a spin in my Amish car. When we got back, a bit frazzled, he turned to me and said, “That things a deathtrap! It (or your wife) is gonna kill ya!”
The next day I put it back on Ebay.
* Scores of Land Rovers were destroyed in the Jim Carrie film. Even though it was a comedy, I wept like a child.
** Modeled after a tractor, the first Land Rover in 1948 had a steering wheel in the middle.
Over the years, The Hobbit has changed hands a number of times. Undoubtedly, it was purchased by men in the midst of a midlife crisis. Its current owner calls it “The Mule.”
For my next midlife crisis, which, by the way, started about an hour ago, I’m gonna take a millennial approach. I’ll buy an electric bicycle, study circus arts and grow a beard…
Folwell Dunbar is an educator, artist and midlife crisis survivor. His green Fiat 500’s name is Pistachio Nut. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Folwell Dunbar is a New Orleans educator, artist and survivor of many things, from roaches to German U-boats and heartbreak. He is putting together a collection of these short stories and survival tales called He Falls Well (his name is pronounced “fall well”). NolaVie is honored to preview some of those stories here. Email him at email@example.com.