From a Volvo test car to a Volvo Police car – it didn’t quite go to plan
I’ve been writing about cars and the car industry for nearly 30 years and exactly 29 years ago, on 30 August 1989, my first ever car review was published in The Saudi Gazette. And only now am I revealing that it nearly got me jailed!
I’d already been writing a motoring column in The Saudi Gazette for a while, but a motoring journalist was a rare species in the Kingdom at the time. So rare, I believe I was the only one in fact.
As such there was no infrastructure for any kind of press and PR activity when it came to the automotive business there. Indeed there was little comprehension of what a car journalist actually was or did.
‘You saying you will take one of my cars and write article in newspaper?’
‘Yes! That’s right.’
‘So how much I have to pay for this?’
‘Er, no, you don’t pay anything. You just lend me the car for a few days to test and review.’
‘Why I do this? And why you do this?’
‘Well the newspaper pays me…’
‘The newspaper pays you to write advert for me?’
‘Er… no… er… this is not an advert’
‘So you write bad things about my car?!’
And thus went a lot of conversations I had back then with dealerships.
Considering I was a fresh-faced kid at the time asking these guys to give me their precious demo cars (and not all of them even had demo cars), it remains somewhat of a surprise to me that I was not at the very least laughed at, and the worst beaten with a cane and chased off the premises, or even reported to the police. Ah the police, they’ll come in a bit later in this recount – hold onto your sirens!
Nonetheless eventually a breakthrough! A fellow Brit was a senior executive at Zahid Tractors (official dealers for Volvo cars then), and somehow I managed to get hold of his number. He went out on a hell of a limb and lent me a brand new Volvo 740 GLE ‘Whitehouse’ limited edition (1 of 50 on sale in the country).
It had a 2.3-litre 131bhp engine, managed a 0-100kph acceleration time of a sauntering 11 seconds and an underwhelming top speed of 174kph. It cost 75,000 Saudi Riyals and was a bit of a tank with heavy steering and rock hard ride. But it was big, fancy, classy, had a kicking cassette-player sound system and, more importantly, was my first ever review car.
This was the first major milestone in my career as a car journalist. I had actually convinced someone to give the keys to a brand new car to a teenager to take away! I was gonna drive this thing to Cloud 9, I was gonna whip up my own sandstorm, I was gonna… go to prison! Eek!
I grabbed a mate and a photographer from the newspaper and we had a hell of a day doing completely irrelevant performance tests on a executive barge, and perfecting our handbrake turn skills whilst doing so. We thrashed the pants off this car and established only one thing – that Volvos were indeed as indestructible as their reputation foretold.
We had a blast, got some spectacular images and would get a big spread in the second biggest English-language newspaper in KSA. In fact we even got our picture in the paper – another first for me. The day it came out me and my friend spent the evening walking around a local mall trying to get recognised! And yes I’m deliberately not naming him here (even the name in the article was made up, so let’s just continue to call him Jibran).
Anyway, here’s the story that wasn’t told at the time or indeed since then till now. Cruising around in the car over the next few days, we were near the Corniche area when ‘Jibran’ was hounding me to take over the wheel.
Stupidly at the next set of lights, we jumped out and swapped places. When the light went green, Jibran deployed all 131bhp and kept his foot in as the car heaved itself up to illegal speeds. Sure enough, we got pulled over. The cop car was also a Volvo, a 240 in green and white traffic police colours.
In those days, speeding wasn’t really that big a deal, so the officer checked my Arabic-speaking friend’s driving licence and merely waved a stern finger at him, warning him not to drive so fast in future. Then he asked for my licence.
‘But I’m not driving,’ I protested.
‘Yes, but we saw you driving before and you changed places,’ he replied in not such accurate English, but I got the gist of it.
It was not the speeding that had attracted their attention, it was the sudden driver change at the lights. So I reached into my wallet and handed him my British paper licence, which left him a little perplexed. Then my big mistake, he asked if I had an Eqama – a resident visa. So I eagerly handed him the mini passport that represented my residency.
At that point I was hauled out of the car and taken into custody, stuck in the back of that police Volvo and driven to yet another parked police Volvo. This was a kind of holding station as this car (with no A/C) was slowly being packed with traffic offenders, to eventually make a trip to deposit us to a jail, where an overnight stay as well as a fine was compulsory for certain traffic offences.
Most of the perspiring guys being caught and crammed in along with me, were getting done for jumping the lights. My crime? Driving without a licence. Yes, I know, I did have a licence, but being a resident, I was required to have a local driving licence – which in fact was a straight-forward conversion, but I just never got around to it.
Jibran brought all of his considerable linguistic charm to bear in pleading with the officers but they weren’t having any of it. A couple of hours later we were finally the prison. To say I was shitting bricks and thought my thus-far short life was over would be a massive understatement.
So did I do time then?
Thankfully no! Jibran had raced to my father’s office, who had alerted his boss, who had called a friend, who knew a cop, who accompanied my dad to the police station, who all arrived there before I did and had, let’s just say, sorted things out. Though a fine had to be paid, I was saved from having to spend the night behind bars. Phew!
And that my dear reader is the previously untold story to the dramatic start of my car review career. Fortunately it didn’t put me off, as you can well see!