EVERYONE loves a road trip. Even more so when someone possessing the talent, passion and appreciation of prose as when former Wheels editor Bill Tuckey was moved to take up the quill. Part Hunter S Thompson, part Kerouac, but so uniquely Tuckey, sit back and re-live Romsey Quints's classic piece of longform motoring journalism from 1977 – Long Day’s Journey into Johtown.
He had been whining and snivelling for too long so we put him in a Jaguar XJ-S and headed him away from Sydney in the faint hope that he would get lost, somewhere in another State, never to be seen again.
And he did get lost for a time and finally found his way home and he had many adventures and this is the fairy tale about those adventures. ROMSEY QUINTS will never be the same again.
THIS IS A fairy tale.
There is no such place as Keyspem, or Noicas, or Raftgon-Clarrie.
There is no Little-Bagdhad-On-The-Sarong, or Johtown, or the Rutty Road.
It is all a story. Mind you, a beautiful story, full of all the bright, beautiful new truths, not the mouldy old stale ones. There are dragons, and there are elves; and there are gormless wandwavers, and in some places, if you look hard, you will find one or even three bind-mogglers, although do not look too hard; for they can be fearsome, and even frightening.
This is really a story of The-Land-That-Which-Was-Once, the place where not too many grownups have ever been, because the terrible and terrifying radarwolves lie in wait around every Ieith and ken and warp and troth.
But do not be frightened, my children, because I have been there for you. I have challenged the radarwolves in their smeltches, and slashed them thip and high ... even the poor silly triffids, who are immortal and who live in old Morris Minors have been met and bested in my trip to Johtown and return.
The Land-That-Which-Was-Once lies just beyond the border of the shire of The-Things-That-Which-Might-Have-Been, in the county of Mandatory, where the River Ordinary rum into the sea, and the people do not really care if the Big People outside make more laws, because the Big People are always making more laws, very few of which make much commonsense anyway. For the People of Mandatory are very ordinary folk, who profess a liking for milk straight from the cow, and potatoes that you dig from the ground with dirt on them, not in sealed plastic bags, and a particularly fiery and spirituous fermented liquor called Takeyabreffaway, the secret of which has been handed down from father to son.
If you do not believe in elves and dragons and bind-mogglers and triffids, then you should not read any more; rather, you should put this down and go and watch the other people doing things in a small square of light, because people who do not believe in things like that are not terribly real themselves.
Of course, beyond the County of Mandatory in the terrible Hills of Darkness, there are even more dreadful things; like mandrills and celaphopods and shibboleths; but those are for another telling. Enough is enough: You shall hear the tale of the trip to Johtown; because it is one of those stories that has to be told, otherwise it would be lost to us as the years drift by like dead matchsticks down a flooded gutter, and your children would know nothing of how it really was in The-Land-That-Which-Was-Once.
It is time.
ONCE UPON A TIME – which is how all good stories start - Peter Robinson and I had to go to Johtown, and then come back. I must tell you that Peter is properly known as Peter-The-Thin, because he is very, tall, and very thin. He is not Peter Rabbit (who also lives in our town of Steak-And-Kidney) even though Peter Rabbit is the town crier and it was he who said that a Jaguar makes a good pet. Everyone listens to the town crier, so Peter-The-Thin said we should take one to Johtown. I wanted to take a German Teutonic, or at least an Italian Pizza, which are very good pets, but the thin man insisted.
So we went to the village of Ley-Land and asked if we could borrow their pet Jaguar; even if only for a short time, and they said Yes and Be Careful For It Is Very Fast and Here Is A Cassette Of Rule Britannia and It Takes A Lot Of Feeding. Peter Robinson is not related to Christopher Robin and does not like Pooh Bear (and l don't think he thinks much of Peter Rabbit). But he is very good at Feeding Jaguars. Some of the time ...
* * *
"This is going to be an uneventful trip", I said. . . Robinson mumbled. He was having a great deal of trouble: We had just given the XJ-S its first drink after leaving a petrol-starved Steak, and he was trying to work out the fuel consumption. His trouble was simply that he has been spoiled; he has fallen into the foul habit of calculating the performance figures with an electronic calculator, and this time he didn't have one. He got lost at the second level of abstract calculus and gave up, cursing. I reminded him that in the old days we did braking stops by smashing an egg on the road to mark the start of braking, and worked out acceleration times by counting slowly and carefully, but he just chewed his stringy beard mournfully and re-tuned the Snooper.
He had fitted the Snooper because we were headed for Johtown and back, out of the County of Mandatory and through the Hills of Darkness, whence the radarolves were lurking and the triffids were abroad. The Snooper was a feeble defence against the forces of evil marshalled before us, but it was all we had. . .
The Jaguar XJ-S is a fine animal. It is expensive to keep; being expensive to buy at (then) $30,000-odd, but at least it has hair-conditioning, lots of grace, space, and pace, and some of the other things that most cars have; like 12 cylinders, seats and four round black rubber things that sometimes stop the exhaust system dragging on the ground.
Robinson said it was suited to my present stage of male menopaws, being a Jaguar and all that. He said that when he was at the wheel, which was a big mistake.
When my turn came, we were the other side of Oldgunyah. The Snooper . had bleeped briefly at low-flying Sopwith Camels (I think they were Sopwith Camels; you know, the ones that make that whistling-whooshing sound) old dogs, Pioneer coaches, little old ladies wearing copper bracelets on bicycles (or is it little old ladies on bicycles wearing copper bracelets? I never can remember) and a load of yippies in a chartreuse Microbus. But no radarolves. There were none. Somebody had told them that Quints was headed for the Hills of Darkness, and the filthy grumions and quorgaggas had fled shrieking for the safety of the jungles of Steak, fondling their loathsome black boxes, to prey on the inoffensive gentlemen sporting motorists reeling out into the car parks of the RSL clubs.
Oldgunyah was behind us. Depress right foot . Lift right foot and quickly depress brake. You have just covered three kilometres and arrived at a 35 km/h corner at 185 km/h. Do not pass Go; do not collect $200. I have said it before, but I will (God, here goes the old git again, they groan) say it again. There are few carriages eminently suitable for blowing picnics up grass banks, but the Jaguar is one of them. In answer to the bleating cringeworts who whimper that Power Can Kill, I can assure you that the ability of the XJ-8 to pass five gravel trucks, three caravans, nine private cars, one furniture pantechnicon and an AAT coach in the space one normally allocates to an old lady on a Malvern Star makes you feel Awfully Bloody Safe.
We get at it. Robinson: "You have grounded the exhaust system twice in the last 15 kilometres." Me: "Say bloody miles, otherwise I will not understand you. Besides, I don't make the roads. How's the differential calculus going?"
(I have to say at this stage that the ride is incredible. The XJ-S is a heavy-ish car, and the roads of the State of Ordinary are awfully brillig, and more often than not the slithy toves gyre and gimble in the wabe. Yet it wafts daintily across the most agonising graunches and ripples without a murmur; the exhaust system has grounded because I am driving it as hard as you would on the billiard-table autostrada down to Milan.)
Robinson: "You old bugger; you still remember how it's done."
Me: "Give the car some credit. Make sure that Snooper's working."
The radarolves have not yet emerged from the dank and dripping undergrowth, but the gormless wandwavers are appearing. Over a blind brow at 170 km/h and the first of them - the bright Orange-Vested male of the species - is there. His gormless wand is waved, then frantically bobbed up and down. He starts to jump about a bit - as the species is wont to do when approached by one of the Jaguar species - and he is obviously considering dropping his wand (they grow another one later) and vanishing into the shrubbery when he realises we will, after all, slow down. He then nonchalantly proceeds to fiddle with his Ready Rubbed, a type of self-abuse practised by this common species at times of stress.
At Taree, Robinson shrieks to a stop and hurtles out of the car, yelling and waving his arms. He has spied a Czechoslovakian Tatra, rear-engined air-cooled V8 and all, and is totally overcome. Me, I can take it or leave it. We find it has been sold to a Sydney dealer. I hope the Czech doesn't bounce.
On, on. We have miles to go before we sleep (alright, Robinson, kilometres).
(Robinson says the car is very nimble, very agile, despite its bulk, and I have to agree with him. We whistle into some really good uphill stuff beyond Cowdahlia and find that you can tweak it across under brakes, getting off them in time to slide the back a little bit further, because they are the kind of brakes you ·can squeeze on after you get over the initial titchy deadness ... you want another centimetre of stop, you squeeze another centimetre - that kind of thing.)
We roll gently into Keyspem, the Snooper silent, because we have still not seen any of the terrible radarolves. At the service station we fillerup and check the tyre pressures. Robinson is aghast, because I had earlier told him I thought the left front was 2psi down - and it was. He pulls at his beard, mumbles. The service station owner's wife, 10 months pregnant, cleans the windscreen and peers at the underbonnet maze, a hieroglyph of electrics, castings, oobligahs and froffledamps. "Under all that", she says, "is undoubtedly a V12 engine". Robinson chokes, trips over the air hose and straightens up to hit his head on the paper dispenser.
Rolling out, Robinson driving.
"Did you hear that?" (The kid is still young, gets emotional about some things; I've seen it all before.)
Me: "Yes. Do you know what she owns?"
Robinson (breathlessly, expecting at the very least an Alvis, at the best an original Morgan): "No. No … what?"
Me: "A Toyota Crown. Do you want a Mintie? It's moments like these ... “
At that moment we both notice the grumbling from the rear (those bloody slithy toves again) and we stop. It sounds like a flat, but all those round black things are still round, so we U-turn back to the garage.
Up on the jack it goes. The main bracket for the offside exhaust system, perched over the uprights, has come away, and the front muffler is sagging and graunching on the driveshaft. The elves have struck. On a Jaguar, to fix this, you probably need Special Tool Number 2311, but we are at Keyspem near the Hills of Darkness and Ley-Land is another country.'
Thump. Grunt. Heave. She should be okay now.
Off goes Robinson. The noise has gone. We did not need Special Tool Whatever Number. Faith heals all. Just keep the offside section offa dem slithy toves.
As we refill at Raftgon-Clarrie, I suggest we should try to break the record for the 102 km (64 miles) from Raftgon-Clarrie to Noicas, a fine piece of bitumen ifested with wobblies but known to be clean of radarolves, triffids and dragons. I last covered it in 48 minutes, but my good friend The Chocolate Frog (who shall be nameless on account of the fact that the fuzz in three States are looking for him) put a P76 V8 across it in 47 minutes.
Robinson climbs out from behind the wheel.
Greater love hath no man.
Of course, he hadn't been across this delectable bit of road (mainly because this is all a fairy tale, and he doesn't believe in fairy tales either). For those of you who have been in The-Land -That-Which-Was-Once, the distance is measured from the Big Street Bridge to the 60 km/h sign at Noicas; neither has Robinson yet been across the other delectable bit of road from Raftgon-Clarrie to Innes-Ireland, one of the few places in this benighted country where a Porsche Turbo or an XJ-S or a Fazzazz or a Porkpuccini will turn your brain to mush and your knees to water and pucker the upholstery irreparably.
But we were off to Noicas. Drop the hanky.
You run out of Raftgon-Clarrle through winding rows of trees bordering mixed farms and you hold the automatic in second and just keep lying on the longish push of the accelerator as the V12 builds and builds and builds until you nudge the little neat black pointed T-bar into Drive and count one-two and it goes in clunk because the gearbox is still Jaguar-clumsy but the tacho has gone by four· and a half and is winding and you have to lift your line of sight up and up again to as far as you can see, watching for farm gates and tractors and anything moving because they don't expect anything to be going that quickly ... but within minutes there is nothing up front except scrub and a long, black, smooth road with long, easy, fat bends and thick white lines either side and nothing up front except for the now-and-then squashed cat or wallaby body or a quiet dun grey FB Holden that you go past at three times its speed and pop the ears of the inoffensive triffids inside who never saw you coming anyway ... just saw the strange rear end of the silver car going away with that characteristic rocking motion Jaguars have had since the first 3.4 ...
(We are running between 180 and 225 km/h, letting the contours of the land decide the absolute speed, easing up as we arrive at the tops of slight rises because beyond is unseen, hardly lifting off for the big, gentle bends; it's then that you write on the scratch pad of your brain the analysis of the Jaguar's Bishop-designed power steering. It's a little light, a little fine; it needs to be sharper, to have more load information; you find yourself in bends just squeezing on a poofteenth too much steering so you can feel the front tyres bite more, then backing off that same amount to keep the line. It will wear out front tyres, so that's an expensive way of getting information, but the steering's absolutely way out front of the V12 E-type, which was downright bloody terrifying over 140 km/h.)
Robinson is talking, relaxed. When we indicate 230 km/h I say so, briefly, trying not to sound like a pilot calling Mach One in a Mirage. He nods. "Doesn't feel like it. You really knew about it in a Phase Three GTHO."
Robinson believes only in GTHOs and Morgans, but is still the best motoring writer in the country, so I am flattered that he sits so quietly. About then I back off quickly for a utility treating the road like the track to his lumber camp and the air behind fills with grey smoke. Robinson: "All the V12s do that, but they don't use oil like you'd think". But at the same time I am checking the marvellous vertical-drum instruments and the temperature gauge is right up into perspiration level and I decide to back it off. We run the last 15 kilometres into Noicas at around 100 km/h, and as I pass the 60 km/h sign Robinson says : "Forty-three minutes". Oh well. Eat your heart out, Chocolate Frog, wherever you are.
At the service station we pull up with the XJ-S going click-hiss-zizz and pop the bonnet. It starts to haemorrhage blue coolant down the driveway from the overflow. The young garage owner stands there smiling; a crowd begins to gather. I say to Robinson: "You know, they've never seen a car like this before. Off the beaten track. Back on the highway they get blase about the Porsches and Bee-Emms fanging it up to Little-Bagdhad-On-The-Sarong". We get the usual conversation: "Wotsit cost?" "Thirty". "That's not a car for the workin' man". "No, I guess it's not."
Robinson removes the header tank cap and a whole lot more blue coolant spews out . Reflectively, I say to the owner that there are only a half dozen of these in the country, and we will need the special coolant to refill. He says Yes, I Saw You Down Town About Four Hours Ago. And I say that we have just flown (sic) in from mumblemumble and how could he? To which he retorts that this is an XJ-S isn't it and it is silver isn't it and oh I see the number plate is different but it's the same car.
God save me. We are miles (alright, Robinson, alright - kilometres) from anywhere, and I've bragged to Robbo about how I know the country and they'll be totally freaked out by this car and we find not one but TWO XJ-S Jaguars in this shitfight country town on the same day. This shitfight country town with no special Jaguar coolant.
Robinson: "You said it would be an uneventful trip".
Me: (To the service station owner): "What's considered to be the outright record from here to Raftgon-Clarrie?"
Service station owner: "Well-lll-ll, you can believe it if yer like, but a traveller comes through here regular and he reckons he's done it in his V8 Facon in 48 minutes, but, Jesus Christ, you wouldn't believe that".
Me: "Robinson; don't you ever again call me an old bugger."
Robinson: "Terrific. Now tell me how we get the special coolant that your record has helped to distribute all over this nice clean driveway."
He has a point there. We ponder, and look up the manual, and find that on no account can you use water in the system, but we try a bit and it seems to mix all right, so we top up and set off.
Robinson is driving because I am exhausted. I have been quicker between Raftgon-Clarrie and Noicas than Stirling Moss was in the C-type Jaguar down Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans and Robinson still expects me to sort out his cooling problems.
After some distance, with the engine temperature still up in the sweaty zone and the aircon switched off to help it run cooler, I suggest we pop the forward-hinged bonnet to help it cool. This helps a little, as does the aftermath of a hailstorm we run into. A Holden Sandman gives us two fingers as he passes in a 60 km/h zone and Robbo blows his doors off a few minutes later, which doesn't help the temp gauge, but we manage to hobble into Little-Bagdhad-On-The-Sarong only nine hours out of Steak despite the hassles.
In three fills our pet Jaguar has drunk at the rate of 12.4 mpg (4.4 km/L), 12.1 mpg (4.3 km/L) and 10.7 mpg ( 3.5 km/L), thus frustrating Robinson's lifelong ambition to return less than 10 mpg (3.5 km/L) from a test car. Cost of petrol ranged from 14.3 to 18.3 cents a litre, which is all a little hard to understand for a tiny brain like mine.
One of the things we have come to do is attend a Saab conference to unveil the 1977 models of that unusual, effective Swedish device - and to talk to the huge and appropriately overpowering Erik Carlsson, who drove Saab into more rally wins than I can think about and on the way married Stirling Moss' sister Pat. Saab regard the Jaguar with some sadness, and offer us an EMS to drive back to Steak.
The local embassy of Ley-Land the next morning tells us that the exhaust system needs a few bits that they may or may not have and one thermostat is out to lunch and a smidgin of re-timing might help but would take some time.
We decide on the Saab. The Jag stays.
And so, hey nonni·no to Johtown, except the Snooper is left in the Jaguar so I am proceeding carefully along the left-hand side of the carriageway yeronner at 100 km/h no more no less when we come across a bind-moggler. Actually it's probably a triffid, and we have a brief argument about the nature of the beast as I perform what is best described as a Phenomenal Avoidance Successful Mainly Because Of My Incredible Skill And Daring, through an atmosphere thick with bouncing play pens, cots, mattresses and assorted bric-a-brac that has just fallen off the trailer in front of us. Robinson says it's a bind-moggler, but I know a triffid when I see one. He says: "It's going to be an uneventful trip," and smirks and chuckles. May all his chooks turn into emus and kick his fowl house down.
The Saab soon heads out of Johtown towards Steak down a road different to the ones we used on the way up, in case the grumions and quorgaggas have set up road blocks through the Hills of Darkness to wreak their revenge on us for escaping them before. But it soon becomes apparent that it will be hard to escape from Johtown because there may be not only radarolves - all the signs say so - but also local county grumions may be lurking in what looks increasingly like Deliverance jungle.
Like America's Deep South, they might pull you over for chewing gum in the wrong side of the mouth while in motion and haul you in front of a friendly quorgagga who fines you $93,000 or seven years, or $50 if you drop it in the Grumion Gratuity Fund collection plate there at your left elbow, sah. Johtown gives you funny feelings like that. At least it did me until Robinson, patting my shoulder gently to calm the great wracking tormented sobs of anguish, pointed out that we were wearing Transylvanian number plates and Johtown grumions only attacked those wearing Newtrout number plates, because they were generally regarded as loathsome carrion, bearers of vile diseases and strange philosophies. Some of them had even been known to think that Our Queen meant the friendly neighbourhood poofta.
We stop at the inspection gates and I ask the large, red-faced man if we are now in Newtrout, and he says You Have Been For Half A Mile and I kiss him on both cheeks and he smashes me over the ear with a confiscated hydrangea. A triffid in disguise, no less. Robinson takes the wheel. I relax.
But we have some 900 or so kilometres to go and are still running-in the new Swedish pet. It is really a lovely tricky car, with things like mudflaps in front and behind the rear wheels, seat cushions adjustable for height, a left-hand corner light for dark driveways, and two litres of fuel injection under the bonnet.
(The long road unwinds. As we get quicker, the more the Saab feels like a bigger, taut Mini-Cooper S, minus the kidney massage and sonic -boom. The steering is heavy at 3.4 turns, but it only has a little of the familiar fwd gyroscopic kickback and no transmitted road thump. Sure, it understeers, but only on slow, tight stuff; on anything else, it's pin-sharp and tracks truly. It is awfully easy to drive, and after a while we settle at a comfortable 140-150 km/h and the little metallic maroon metre-muncher loves it. It feels like it's carved out of one solid piece of steel - not a hint of body noise, disc squeal, door creak, wind, or rattle or rumble. You just sit in it and point it there and it goes there. No fuss, no drama, no hysterics. Easy).
Still no radarolves in sight, Nor Are There Grumions. And it stays that way, despite a rather silly affair with Fred in a Mazda RX4 who tailgates the Saab at 160 km/h in the straight bits but goes all cross-eyed trying to keep up in the bent bits when I don't even lift off. That little car just gobbles up the distance until Dingletown, where we stop for petrol. That's when Robinson points out that the seats must be good because we haven't noticed them. And we have averaged 25 mpg (8.9 km/L).
(The seats are better than good - they 're brilliant. They cuddle you around the side of the rib cage and finish exactly where they should under the thigh; only a hard headrest spoils them. They sit you at exactly the right angle - once you have adjusted them every which way - behind the little canted padded wheel and as you may well expect that the gearlever FETH - Falls Easily To Hand, as we motor noters are wont to say. The instruments are all totally clear and beautifully lit, and it's hard to find anything wrong with the car except that the wipers aren 't set for right-hand drive, the clutch rest is still in front of the passenger, and there's some reflection from the wide, flat dashboard cowl into the windscreen. But things like a windscren angled so far from you that you don't find insect blotches until you look for them and a superbly simple seat belt comprising a single continuous strap that locks under a central bar between the seats make this car so sensible it makes most other cars look and feel clumsy.)
From Dingletown it is down the Rutty Road, through the Dark Forest as dusk closes in, and Robinson is in his element. I am tired, and headachy, for I am old and tetchy, but Peter-The-Thin settles down behind that little wheel and the great white lights and flies down 150 km/h of very difficult road to home. The last five kilometres are his brake fade test route, where everything has ended without stoppers except a Peugeot 504 - and now the Saab, not even breathing hard after it all.
The only things that have gone wrong are a failed offside rear trafficator globe and the five tenths decimal in the odometer that occasionally hiccuped as it rolled over. It's a great, great car.
There never were any radarolves and we didn't even see, a single gormless wandwaver on the way down and our only bind moggler was back near Johtown (I still say it was a triffid .)
It was an uneventful trip, really.
And like all the best fairy stories, it ends well.
The Jaguar was returned shortly after to Ley-Land, and the Saab proved to be beautifully run in and married a happy owner. And I hold the new record from Raftgon-Clarrie to Keyspem. The Jaguar appreciated by something like $7000 while it sat in Bagdhad, for that was the weekend that First Light Fraser announced a 17.5 percent devaluation.
Jeepers, now I've done it. I forgot that Robinson was a mate of First Light Fraser. What's that rustling in the hedge. No - it couldn't be! It is! It's the Commonwealth Grumions!
Now I've really done it!
Run for the hills! Run!
Too late - too late ...
Long Day's Journey Into Johtown originally appeared in the April 1977 edition of Wheels.