Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Ultimate Car Makeover in the Back Streets of Skeldon

Does anyone remember the days of Datsun cars in Guyana? Today, much to my surprise the Wall Street Journal carried this article announcing Nissan’s intention of reviving the old car brand. Back in the 70s, growing up in rural Guyana my father’s first car that he owned was a Datsun Bluebird. Later my grandfather performed what everyone I recalled said was totally crazy. He merged a Datsun Bluebird, Japanese made car with a Vanguard, English made car. Impossible? No, I was there. I helped build it.

My dad was a graduate of Guyana Sugar Corporation Apprentice Training School in Port Mourant, Berbice. He worked at the Skeldon Sugar Estate’s Field Mechanical Work Shop. Since he was a mechanic he must have seen something in this mashed up Datsun. The Datsun sat in the yard of a beer garden. A beer garden in those days and probably still is the same today, is a place where people mostly men gather to drink beer or rum. Most beer gardens were little “bottom house” shops, but as progression took a hold of the drinking public beer gardens evolved into major establishments. This beer garden was owned by a “red bone” man named Sammy. I can’t quite remember if Sammy worked with my father or he just owned the beer garden. Red bone was the name given to any person of mixed race with Portuguese and any of Guyana’s five other races. The beer garden was located in Kingston, off the main Kingston Rd. first right hand turn, second house on the right. There was an up ramp since the house sat on stilts. The car was buried in mud and grim with a mashed up front right side. I clearly remembered my grandfather who was a taxi driver, saying, “That rass would never run.” What do you know, first kick the engine caught life.

Around 1975, convinced that this was a great car, my father bought it. Over the next couple of months he worked on bringing the car back to it’s original glory. The interior remained blue, while the exterior sported a bright fire engine red color. It had a unique horn that carried a song like sound. This was a sexy little car. My grandfather even got to liking this little car and he used it in his taxi service. In 1977 my father passed. My grandfather continued to use the car. However, the car’s body started to rot in several places. All this time the mechanics of the car excelled. It was small, fast, nimble, and burnt minimal fuel. But the amount of money spent on patching the body was huge. Not to mention how ugly it started to look with patches. People did not want to ride in a car that appeared to fall apart. My grandfather’s taxi business was taking a little beating.
Back in those days up until the Berbice River Bridge was built in 2008, there was and still is a vibrant taxi service from Skeldon to Georgetown. Before the bridge there was a ferry service that crossed from New Amsterdam to Rosignol, ever so frequently or infrequently, depends if you missed the boat or the boat was inoperable. If you wanted to traverse to Georgetown from Skeldon, you would have to reserve a seat in a taxi the night before you wished to travel. The taxi would pick you up at 3:30 am and make the trek to wait for the 5:00 am ferry crossing. If you missed that boat, there was an alternative pontoon crossing from Blairmount. Either way if you had morning business to conduct in Georgetown, you were already late. Most of these taxis are packed with people and luggage. So it is very important to have a strong, sizeable, and stable car.

Since the Datsun was just running well but too small and falling apart, my grandfather, Uncle Phil was on the look out for something bigger. He kept passing a Ensign van type car without tires on No. 19 Public Road. According to him, that car was sitting there for ages and the body was still in great shape. So one day we stopped and talked to the people who owned it. They agreed to sell. We put four tires on the car and towed it to Skeldon. My grandfather was a mechanic through necessity. I don’t think he was ever formally trained, he just picked up from driving cars all his adult working life. He did have a brief stint of driving an estate truck when he first left his home village of No. 35. to settle in Skeldon. Over his long career as a taxi driver he acquired most of the tools required to work on cars. For as far back as  I can remember we had a car. There was a semi work shop with car parts littering our yard. I remembered at one time we dug a fish pond in the back yard and I am convinced that we retrieved an entire car parts catalog of relics from various eras. Needless to say we revived the Ensign to a blue whale of a van. It was huge, spacious, with a huge trunk for carrying luggage and a huge engine. That huge engine drank an enormous amount of fuel. For a good couple of years this van did it’s job. As time passed, the engine started to go. Another car caught my grandfather’s eye. A Vanguard sitting under Mr. Scott’s house. Mr. Scott was a onetime mayor of Skeldon and a good friend of my grandfather. The good old boys network. We acquired the Vanguard.

Most of the Vanguard’s parts were interchangeable with the Ensign. As we phased the Ensign out, the Vanguard did the heavy lifting. As a car the Vanguard was spacious, functioned well, but still had the thirst for fuel and was sluggish. During all of these years as a child growing up from Primary to Secondary School, many of my out of school hours were spent messing with these cars. My very first memory was a good trashing from stuffing grease in my mouth. I would crawl and hang out with whoever was working under whichever car we had at the time. I was the unofficial shop helper. Child labor laws did not exactly exist. I can’t quite remember the exact moment, but one day my grandfather called me over to the Datsun. Remember, the Datsun was sitting at rest again. Brush, vines, mud, grime, and small animals had taken residence once again. He asked me, “Do you think this car can start again?”

I knew the car could start. Because when he wasn’t home, I would start the car and prepend I was driving. I was only 9 or 10 yrs old. He probably knew also. Maybe I kept starting the car in remembrance of my dad. Who knows. So I replied, “Yes it can.” He said, “Start it.” When my grandmother over heard the conversation she came over. Uncle Phil had a huge personality and intimidating voice. But he was a gentleman. She was wondering if he was going to give me a good trashing for messing with the old car. I was shaking in my slippers. I got in the car brushes and all, inserted the keys and turned. The engine turned over. Nothing. He started to laugh. “Meh think, yuh seh dis old shit can wuk.” I tried again. Nothing. He walked away with his wife, Eva, still laughing. I tried again. The engine fired. The car jerked and did what it had done so many times when he wasn’t around, started! He came back over and leaned in the window. “So eh a wuk. Turn it off.” I did as I was told. He beckoned me out. We sat on a wooden bench in our semi work shop. He looked at me straight in the eyes and ask; “This July when school close do you want to work on a project with me?” You think I was going to say no to him. Never. I loved this old man. He went on, “We are going to take all of the mechanical parts of that Datsun and put it in the Vanguard’s body.”

What? Did I hear him right? We were going to take a Japanese made car with everything in metric measurements and put it in an English made car with everything in Imperial measurements. Was this ever done in Skeldon before? Was it ever done anywhere? I would never know these answers. But can he pull this off? However, I know that we were going forward with putting together the solid English body with a stellar Japanese machine. Uncle Phil recruited two of his on again off again apprentices Steve and Chico. I rounded up my little friends Sean, Intikalb, Tariq and anyone else who lived on the street and wanted to get dirty with me. We were set when the doors of school closed that summer. Steve and Chico were both accomplished wielders and Chico was a good mechanic. My friends and I did everything else, from clean up, wash parts, run to the store, buy cigarettes, take love letters to these guys girlfriends while they worked and whatever else needed to be done. Uncle Phil was the brains. Like every boss he talked more than worked. Slowly we stripped the Vanguard and cut it’s chassis out. Since not a whole lot can go wrong with taking things apart. I was tasked to strip the Datsun with my underage gang.

After making the necessary adjustments we transferred the Datsun’s chassis under the Vanguard. Then Uncle Phil took to rewiring the Vanguard. With wiring in place we started to transfer part by part often times having to fabricate the mounting. It was odd when we transferred the dashboard. There was space on both sides since the Vanguard is much wider than the Datsun. But we made it work. Same goes for everything under the hood. We had to fabricate a longer drive shaft. Which was a piece of cake for Uncle Jamna, another one of Uncle Phil’s long time friends. Uncle Jamna’s Metal Work Shop was our “go to” place for anything we could not handle. We kept the gas tank of the Vanguard for more fuel capacity. After everything was completed which took most of summer vacation, it was time to test our creation. First time out the car was sluggish as if the engine was straining to carry the heavier body. With minor adjustments the Ultimate Car Makeover was a complete success.

This car ran until Uncle Phil retired from the taxi business. Since I was still too young to drive, the car just sat parked. After we all immigrated to the states I am not sure what happened to the car. I was told several years later that we sold the house and everything in it. When I went back to Guyana in March 2010, our entire house was gone and so was everything in the yard. It is a clear vacant yard. No car in sight. I asked around the neighbors, no one remembered what happened to the car.

If after so many times the little Datsun, that a mechanic thought was a good car, still roared to life. I believe the revival of the Datsun brand will certainly be a success. Maybe, as the company is focused on developing countries we may not see this car in the United States. But, some day I will meet a Datsun again.