This is a story about very fast vehicles, handlebar moustaches and peeing in your pants.
But let us start at the beginning. Which in the case of this story happens to be a giant, red, inflatable arch, covered in the logos of motor racing sponsors.
I am standing on the icy-cold and rock-hard rugby field of Tarkastad, a small farming town in the Eastern Cape, and have just pulled on the cream overalls of Boy Stone, South Africa’s current off-road racing co-driving champion. His name is embroidered over my heart in red logo type and my boxer shorts and a GQ T-shirt are all else that stand between me and the minus something winds whistling through the air.
It is just minutes from the start of the time-trial of the Tarkastad 400, the 5th Round of the South African National Off-Road Championship. And I am about to become a co-driver for Greg Harvey, who, along with the man whose overalls I am wearing, won the SA championship in the Special Vehicles category last year (They also won together in 1998, and Harvey with another co-driver, Lionel Acton, in 1995).
Harvey has not raced since picking up the championship trophy for the third time, six months ago but has invited me to join him for his ‘last’ race, here in in his home area. He is chairman of Settlers, the off-road club which organises the race; his company, Queen Motor Spares, are the sponsors; and his wife, Ronell, is the race meeting secretary; so you could say he’s pretty closely involved with the weekend’s event.
A mud-splattered truck inches its way along the first few metres of the start line, spraying water into the ground to keep down the dust for when the vehicles eventually screech away. The spectators, who are hanging around the ‘pits’ chatting to drivers and peering into engines, as if a genie will appear when the mechanics rub something next time, don’t seem the type that would be bothered by a bit of dust.
But the ground-wetting ceremony has another useful function to my mind: it creates a cartoon-like start, with each vehicle battling to get grip on the newly greased surface, then shooting off as if they’d been held back by elastic when the first few, wet metres have been successfully negotiated. Dust is replaced by mud. It makes for great TV.
It is is my extensive off-road experience from TV (I saw it on Supersport once), that must have been the attraction for Harvey in picking up the phone and asking me to join him as co-driver. Either that or he’s heard of my co-driving skills from my wife.
‘Left, left, I told you left. Oh, yes, sorry, I didn’t see that. No, you carry on while I check the map again.’
And, it seems, news of my talents has spread far and wide. For when I arrive at Tarkastad to register for the race I see that we have inexplicably been seeded 10th out of 51 starters (a lineup which includes Giniel de Villiers who raced in the Dakar rally earlier this year). Our seeding is presumably down to Harvey’s three-time champion driver status and my co-driving skills in equal measure.
As we queue with the other vehicles, waiting our turn behind the start line for the time trial, two racers in matching shiny-blue overalls approach me and ask if there is a one-minute delay between the start of each vehicle.
‘No, it’s two minutes’, Harvey tells them. ‘Where are you starting?’
‘Oh, we’re 10th,’ I respond with a self-satisfied smile, then nod, hoping they’ll go away and not watch my attempt at getting into the car for the first time. I don’t think I’ve got in a car through its roof before.
Around us there are many racing ‘couples’ in matching overalls, all doing their best to look macho in the slightly homo-erotic stretch outfits, tightened with the little elastic waistband, which I avoid doing up. Every second racer or mechanic seems to have a handlebar moustache. Stretch outfits. Handlebar facial hair. It looks like the platteland’s annual audition for the Village People.
But they could be all be dressed as Mary Poppins and singing children’s nursery rhymes as far as I’m concerned. I’ve got the matter of peeing in my pants to consider.
‘When was the last time you wet yourself?’ Harvey had asked me. ‘Because we don’t stop; it wastes time. If you want to go, you have to do it in your overalls.’
But before I have time to consider my options, it’s ‘Go, go, go’ of a different sort and we are off across ridiculously rough terrain at ridiculously fast speeds. Human-sized sharp rocks, and inhuman-sized holes blur past while my body bounces around in the cab like a newly burst piece of popcorn.
‘What’s the odo reading?’ Harvey asks through the radio that links our crash helmets.
‘Eighteen,’ (the time trial is over 36km).
‘We’ve got a puncture. But I’ll drive on,’ he adds, realising it’ll be quicker to continue than wait for me to get out and ‘help’ him to change it.
Soon afterwards a back tyre goes as well and we slip and slide our way through the rest of the trial, arriving back with seriously shredded rubber to a few ironic cheers.
Later I discover that, remarkably, even with the double blow, we qualified 15th for the start of the race, just eight and a half minutes behind the leader.
During my time in Tarkastad I notice two things in particular. One is the number of genuinely friendly people who ask if I am/was scared and two, the number of people who say; ‘I drove with Greg once…’
There is a real interest among locals as to why I am doing this and what the experience is like, but I am more concerned by those people who leave the word ‘once’ hanging in the air when they say they drove with Harvey. Why once? Does no-one go again? And why do they smile when they wish me good luck?
Maybe it’s because doing up to 180km/h on dirt tracks with no windscreen is a seriously exhilarating, seriously-worth-smiling-about experience. For that is the speed we were apparently doing at times. That, and the other extreme of creeping along as slowly as is necessary to avoid slipping off rocky paths and over the edge into some nasty looking drops.
The only time we touch tar is to cross a road, points at which marshalls and spectators wave us across safely while performing a variety of finger gestures to let us know how we are doing.
It’s like being trapped in a PlayStation game that you can’t turn off. And the other guy has got the controls.
Greg Harvey has been racing since he was 16, but got into this type of racing in 1990 when he bought a rolled Nissan bakkie at a police auction. ‘I just patched it up and decided to have some fun,’ he says.
Three years later the fun had turned serious and Harvey flew to America to import his first car. ‘I raced in all the nationals from ’94 to the end of last year.’
Which is not a cheap thing to do, it has to be said. A new Jimco, the type of car Harvey races, costs around R1,2 million. A back tyre, of which you need many, is R2,500, while a rim is about R5,000. I remember these figures because my lack of tyre-changing speed led to us buggering up two perfectly good tyres and rims in the trial. Ahem.
Overall, Harvey estimates that it costs about R120,000 a year to race competitively. ‘Travel is the expensive part,’ he says. ‘Costs of getting to the venue, accommodation and food, is not just for yourself. There is the co-driver, the pit crew; you need about five, sometimes more.’
Harvey then launches into the pros and cons of a manual/automatic gearbox, a subject close to his heart, because ‘after switching to a manual I won my first championship.’
It’s obviously a favourite theme as hours later I hear him telling another racer in the bar: ‘You have to change to a manual; you’ll never win that championship until you get rid of that automatic.’
As we line up for the start of the race I am comforted to see that it is a manual gearstick by my right knee, although how Harvey sees it in the first few kays, let alone the road ahead, is a mystery thanks to the dust kicked up by the 14 vehicles that start ahead of us.
Early on I miss a left and we overshoot into the driveway of a house, and are forced to turn just metres from the front door. One of the staff, who is cleaning the pool, looks up in bemusement. I resist the urge to wave.
Despite this hiccup we make steady progress through the field, passing other vehicles with regularity. The finger-waving spectators are getting increasing excited as they require fewer fingers to tell us our position. Harvey is back.
As we come up behind each vehicle, my job is to press the horn so they’ll (hopefully) move out of the way. The first time I send down a couple of polite ‘beeps’ and nothing happens, so Harvey tells me down the radio, ‘Right, when I say so, just sit on that hooter.’ He moves to within millimetres of the bumper of the bakkie in front, I do my horn job and they move out of the way. Nice.
On the couple of occasions when the vehicle in front won’t budge, Harvey gives them a not-too-gentle nudge in the back while apologising to me for his language. Being linked to someone by radio for the duration of such a physically demanding event is the closest you’ll ever get to thinking what they think. Every cough, splutter, and ‘fuck off out the way’ is there. And if breathing expresses emotion then Harvey is breathing pure determination.
We carve our way though the field, moving up to fourth overall and second in Special Vehicles.
My job is simple enough: shout left or right when I see an orange marker, press the horn hard, and pass Harvey rags when mud spins off the wheels and sprays his visor.
The pink plastic bracelet I am required wear (like the one they give you in hospital as you are wheeled in surgery) is a reminder of the potential dangers, as are our blood types painted onto the sides of the vehicle.
But quite frankly, peeing in my pants has been top of my agenda for quite some time. Let’s just say ‘going’ in a moving vehicle – even if you want to – is not as easy as you’d think.
I might not be the best co-driver in the world but I now hold the record for running from the posts to the toilet at Tarkastad Rugby Club.
GQ (South Africa) September 2001
It’s in the final scene of Bridget Jones’s Diary. Where the smokin’, drinkin’, swearin’ real-life heroine finally gets together with the stuffy and traditional Mark Darcy. It’s cold and she’s standing there in the snow in her skimpy ‘I want sex’ tiger-print knickers. He’s all suited up and looking a bit bemused after just coming out of a shop. So there they are, deciding whether to lock tongues, and he hands her a present – a Montblanc diary.
Now you won’t have been too interested in this while watching the film because it was near the end and you’ll have been waiting for the kissing bit, but the gift was symbolic not only for the movie but also for what is happening at Montblanc itself.In the movie it’s the token which brings together two very different characters (and opens the door to a sequel).In Montblanc’s Hamburg HQ (no, it’s not a Swiss company) the 96-year-old makers of quality pens also looking to combine the qualities of tradition (Mark Darcy) with a modern twist of fun (that’ll be Bridget) as it evolves into a fully fledged luxury goods company.
As CEO Norbert Platt says, ‘We have run a tight ship in recent years in making this brand a bear in terms of its power and respect. I think now we can let the bear dance a bit.’And the latest step to making this bear shake his thing is the launch of the men’s fragrance Presence, which arrived in South Africa in July (it was the best selling male fragrance in Europe in June). The fragrance is significant because the brand is taking a step outside the boardroom, and moving along from pens, paper, breifcases and cufflinks. It may not be the Full Bridget just yet but at least Darcy is starting tap his feet to the music.So have they succeeded?
Well, the fragrance is masculine, powerful and elegant (in line with existing characteristics) but it also adds a spark of sex. Just take a look at the woman featured in the adverts…The product is also significant because it is a rare licence agreement (with Cosmopolitan Cosmetics). In general Montblanc makes its own products because as Platt says ‘It is truth towards your brand. The customer complains and some other brands simply say “we do not make it”’.
Despite agreeing that the fragrance is a big move Platt still believes it is firmly a Montblanc product because of the message it sends out.‘We argued about the name. The licensee wanted to call it Mont Blanc Homme but what does it stand for? We needed a name that stands for what our customer wants to be. And people want to come into a room and have an aura. Which is why we called it Presence. It’s what the brand represents.’
So can the brand become more important than the product then?‘Yes. It is the carrier of the message and the carrier of a value system.’It’s something Naomi Klein’s recognises in her book No Logo (Flamingo) ‘The effect…of advanced branding is to nudge the hosting culture into the background and make the brand the star. And why shouldn’t it be? If brands are not products but ideas, attitudes, values and expriences, why can’t they be the culture too?’
It’s fair to say Montblanc has become a part of our culture? After years of producing top-notch pens who doesn’t associate them with intelligence, learning and self-expression? Pick up one of their pens or pencils and, you too my boy can be all these things.
Platt, of course, knows more than anyone that the famous white star which has been the company’s symbol from (almost) the beginning, offers more than just a way to put ink onto a piece of paper, however, smooth and comfortable the action may be. ‘Why do customers buy the key product? Not for functional reasons. You can buy a Bic for a couple of rands and still draw lines. It’s for expression – love, appreciation, gratitude, fidelity, power.’
Platt joined Montblanc in 1987 after 15 years with Rollei in both Singapore and Germany and was at the head as the company forged ahead with diversification. First it was with ‘safe’ associated products like paper and diaries, but watches, cufflinks and wallets followed, even more fashion-led products such as sunglasses and women’s bags.So is fragrance the first step into the fashion world? After all, it’s common knowledge that fragrance is the financial cornerstone of many a fashion label so why not the launch pad of a new one?
Apparently these are not the plans in Platt’s management generation.‘We would not become an extremely fashionable couture label. We would not get into fashion in the next five, not even ten years. We could do classic, stylish masculine lines, but not female. Of course we have had requests for licences. We could do that tomorrow. I don’t rule out making a few ties but the pillar of our communication is hard goods.’
Anyway, to a degree Montblanc are already in the fashion world through their accessories, and recent growth – leather goods were up 50 per cent last year and watches 40 per cent, albeit off a small base – show they are not afraid to encroach into other areas aggressively. But the steady careful approach built up over nearly a century appears to still be the cornerstone.‘We are the Lion King in our jungle,’ Platt says, ‘but when you move outside of your part of the jungle you have to be careful because there are other animals.’So not scraps between Montblanc and the king’s of the fashion jungle to look forward to then.
But there is one product that reveals Platt is serious about putting a smile onto that famous whitestar. It’s a 5.5 x 4.5cm, leather folder (R380) to hold those precious Post-It notes you carry around.Now all we need to do is wait for Bridget Jones II: the Montblanc Diary.