Driven to distraction

They said it was a good, solid, reliable car. Only James Fuller knew the dark side of his veteran Cressida

Illustration by James Hackett

My first Caribbean car, a second-generation Toyota Cressida, celebrates its 25th birthday this year. I’m still not sure if that’s grounds for celebration or consternation.

Betsy, as she came to be known, had sat idle for a year before our arrival from the UK and had grown pleasantly accustomed to retirement. She resented those first faltering attempts to kick life back into her vintage frame, and ours was destined to be a love-hate relationship from that day forward.

For the next three years, the significance of this relationship was topped only by the one with my new wife. There were similarities: the cajoling, the bargaining, the dropping to your knees and pleading, and, of course, the overriding knowledge that you’re not holding the aces.

The Cressida, a long-bodied four-door sedan, still has an appreciable following in Trinidad. The opening exchanges of any Cressida conversation invariably include the phrase, “good, solid car” – an inference of unquestionable reliability which drove me to distraction. The Cressida was a prestige vehicle in its heyday, but 25 years is a long time. Things start to wear out, break down, take longer to get going, refuse to work smoothly, or simply don’t work at all. So it was with Betsy.

A little knowledge is often dangerous and especially so in Trinidad, where every man is genetically wired to “know ah lil ting about cars, nah”. Betsy’s frequent breakdowns guaranteed a plethora of diagnoses, all delivered with utter confidence and each at variance with the last. Home remedies exhausted, I would inevitably find myself at the local garage.

Now, mechanics can sense ignorance like dogs smell fear, and I blew in on a Force 8 gale of unenlightenment. Nicknamed “Sona”, my mechanic didn’t need radar to detect my naivety. Always suspiciously joyful to see me sputter into his yard, he delighted in drifting off into impenetrable automotive patter. One day the issue was the air filter, the next the gas filter, the manifold, the radiator fan, rust in the tank…and so it went on. Sona’s broadening grin revealed two gold teeth, one of which I’m sure I paid for.

The carburettor was an almost limitless purveyor of problems and marauder of my pockets. The day after one carburettor service, Betsy refused to start, proving more stubborn than a track mule. I rang Sona to complain and he listened attentively to my rising levels of frustration before enquiring:

“Yeah, but how it was runnin’ when yuh fuss get it back?”

“Does it matter? It’s not running now.”

“Yeah, but it was runnin’ good at fuss?”

“Mmmm…er…I believe we’re missing the point. It’s not running now, caput, conked out!”

We enjoyed many similarly rewarding exchanges over the ensuing months.

On one such occasion a newly-purchased battery had stopped working. Diagnosis: a faulty alternator wasn’t charging it. I was instructed to drive home as fast as I could, without using lights (as it would drain the battery), get a jump start in the morning, and return. It was 6.30 pm and getting darker by the second. Even in Trinidad, where maniacal driving is de rigueur, a fast-approaching “good, solid car” with no lights in the twilight appeared grounds for concern. I journeyed home to a backbeat of angrily honked horns and more flashing lights than a Jean-Michel Jarre concert.

The Betsy files run like War and Peace, with episodes including failing brakes; continuous overheating; prayers offered by Mormon missionaries; prayers offered by me; being towed 15 miles home to Arima; bounce starts; push starts; jumpstarts; flat tyres; broken windscreens; wheel rims flying off in transit…

And yet, for all that, there was still a discernible sadness the day, a year ago, when we sold her on. It was the sadness of shared never-to-be-repeated experiences, of challenges overcome and situations survived.

But there was, just as discernibly, a broadening grin, as her new owner wrestled that cantankerous frame out of my driveway and onwards towards his first Betsy adventure.