After many years spent driving comfortable and sublimely safe 700 & 900-Series Volvo saloons, I found myself in a position where I was no longer able to choose the car I wanted. I had to suck it up and settle for what we 'needed' - as a family. I was damned if I was going to buy a people-carrier though. In my eyes, those were simply hideous van-like creations, based on saloon car platforms but transformed into soulless utilitarian boxes.
The Chrysler Voyager almost cut the mustard. But, by all accounts, it was more a people-murderer than a people-carrier. Unbelievably, such a leviathan (and you'd need the LWB Grand Voyager) was deemed to be one of the least safe cars on the road. It scored precisely NIL in UK Government sponsored crash tests. It was concluded that the Voyager's safety attributes were actually “appalling”. In a 40-mph frontal collision, the steering column was thrust into the cabin, directly at the driver's head! If that wasn't enough, the footwell also had a nasty habit of splitting open. Nice!
Oddly, the Voyager was the choice carriage of the then uber-progressive Prime Minister Tony Blair & family. But the Voyager was hardly an environmentally-friendly choice. It was a gas-guzzling yank-tank. But despite the negativities, the Voyager became a very popular car.
90's people-carrier lunacy became endemic. Goodness only knows why they became so popular. The seats were often awful and they weren't generally deemed very safe. They were ungainly, unappealing and depreciated like the proverbial stone. Who wanted a used car that had spent its entire career having baby puke and drool mopped off its carpets?
Of course, those who did buy people carriers would say that there was no obvious alternative. In some ways, I concur. Having tried a Volvo 940 estate with optional rearward-facing child seats bolted to the load bay floor, I appreciated the benefits of seven factory-fitted forward-facing seats. The novelty factor that kids had from traveling in an estate car boot (making numerous rude gestures at the occupants of the cars behind) soon wore thin. Sitting in the boot became particularly unpleasant at night, when our precious cargo were forced to stare helplessly at gigawatt juggernaut headlamps beaming directly into their faces. Suddenly, a big Volvo estate wasn't quite as synonymous with sublime comfort or cutting-edge safety.
So, what to do? It was clear that the family planning regime hadn't gone entirely to plan and we'd soon have three whole humans to nurture as well as to ferry about. My saloon days were history because plonking three clumsy child seats into a five-seater car wasn't very practical.
Well, I found a solution. I bought a seven-seat beasty that could not only ferry kids around on one of seven forward-facing seats but could also traverse rivers, climb steep gradients, survive the rigors of the savage Australian outback before returning back to Blighty via the Great Rift Valley having run over entire herds of wild elephant, wildebeest and zebra. The occupants of my latest car would be blissfully unaware of all the carnage as they lounge in air-conditioned, leather-clad luxury. Hakuna Matata!
So what did I buy? Well, I bought a Toyota Landcruiser Amazon (nothing to do with Jeff Bezos). This big Toyota was so vast that we needed walkie-talkies just to communicate with fellow passengers. I've heard many people argue that such a car isn't really all that safe and guess what, I agree. A Landcruiser Amazon is very dangerous for elephants, wildebeest as well as for other road users driving standard cars; whilst everyone inside my Landcruiser would be as safe as houses. When you consider that most serious accidents happen within people's houses, statistically a house isn't as safe as a Landcruiser.
Despite there being a wave of anti-4x4 sentiment sweeping the UK during the 90's with various green lobbyists vilifying "yummy-mummies", their oversized Chelsea tractors, pilchard lips and boob jobs - I couldn't have cared-less. That's because I live in the countryside and could almost justify the outrageous excesses of my Landcruiser. It would have been utterly pointless for me to buy anything remotely P.C. or sensible, otherwise I may as well have just stuck with my beloved Volvos. Nope, I wanted the biggest, chunkiest off-roader that money could buy and to-hell with the consequences.
Admittedly, there were plenty of downsides that went way beyond the antisocial element of running such a beast. For example, Landcruisers weren't exactly cheap. In 1996, a new one would have set me back over £45,000. However, I got around that by going to an official Toyota franchise and buying a decent used example with just 17.000 miles on the clock. It cost just over £21,000 complete with a 12-month warranty. Not that a warranty was needed because Landcruisers came with reliability built-in. They were designed to cross continents, punishing desert terrain, frozen tundras and cover vast distances. A bit of incessant Welsh rain, mud and lots and lots of sheep poo would surely prove to be a cinch for a big mud plugger like the Amazon.
I mitigated my selfish automotive decadence with the happy thought that I'd done it all to shield my young family from all the perils of the open road. I was possibly only one step short of actually buying a tank. I'd purchased the very safest vehicle to ferry around our kids as well as their bulky 'infant-structure'. This selfless act should have won me much praise and admiration from my wife but I'm very sorry to say that the big Cruiser didn't impress her one iota. She referred to it as my ugly, oversized 'box wagon'. Charmed.
OK, there was the small matter of hefty running costs. Despite having a diesel lump, it was hardly the kind of engine that sipped its drinkies in a genteel or frugal manner. This thing supped fuel with gusto, gluttony and greed! That's because it was a huge 4.5-litre, in-line six TURBO diesel with enough oomph to power a small city. Not only could this car pull things, it could also show many fancy saloon cars a clean pair of heels.
Landcruisers had solid English oak suspension systems. I remember being driven to A&E in mine, having broken my elbow. I felt every last chipping for the duration of the 30-minute ride to the X-ray department. Plush leather seats and air-conditioning simply lulled people into believing that these cars provided a smooth ride. Not a chance! Whilst it was great on motorways and fabulous off-road where you'd tend to grab the "Jesus" handles in anticipation of any big bumps, on normal roads it felt like the tyres had been fashioned from cast iron.
But I did love that car and it didn't put me off 4x4's. After I sold it, some five years later, I bought the first of three new Land Rover Discoveries. Anything was preferable to buying a people-carrier!
Douglas Hughes is a UK-based writer producing general interest articles ranging from travel pieces to classic motoring.
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