Ask Robert Edwards about his 31-year-old FJ40 Toyota Land Cruiser, and he immediately beams with pride. The managing partner of Edwards Economic Research and long-term Gulf expatriate is more than a little sentimental about his classically registered four-wheel-drive. And no wonder, considering he and the 1978 4.2-litre vehicle, have shared over half a million kilometres of adventure together.
Originally from the UK, Edwards, who has been living in Dubai for 27 years, began his Gulf adventures in Riyadh. "It was January 1978 when I stepped off the plane and saw Saudi Arabia for the first time. I have to admit, my heart sank. All I could see was a small, unassuming airport, surrounded by sand-coloured buildings, a yellow sky and a dusty haze," he recalls. He was starting his new job with the Saudi Industrial Development Fund, and, perhaps, naively, had not realised his new home would be quite so basic. "Back in those days, Saudi Arabia was a very different country to the place it is today," says Edwards. "I was one of the few Westerners there and as I looked around me, I realised I would need a car that could drive in the desert." He and his new colleagues were offered the chance to buy Volvo 244s. "The Fund had an agreement with the dealership and said they would pay 50 per cent towards our new cars, and that we could borrow the other 50 per cent from them."
But although all his colleagues opted for the Volvo, Edwards held back. "Instead, I asked a couple of dealers about finding a car that would drive in the desert. They told me I needed a four-wheel-drive. I had no idea what that meant, so they showed me a couple of options. I had a choice between a GMC, a Dodge and a Land Cruiser." Both the GMC and the Dodge proved far too expensive at 60,000 Riyals, so Edwards decided on the Land Cruiser, which was a bargain at 28,000 Riyals.
He admits it was love at first sight. "When I first saw the Land Cruiser, I was quite surprised. It was very practical and looked like a cross between a jeep and a Land Rover. The steering wheel was enormous - it felt like I was driving a lorry. There was no power steering and it only has a three-speed gear box. When I sat in it for the first time, I realised this was a car that would make a man out of me."
From then on, Edwards proceeded to explore his new desert home with enthusiasm, taking road and desert trips which often lasted several days, whenever he could. "Back then, you could drive freely all over Saudi Arabia as there were no restrictions," he says. "I took the car to the Empty Quarter and beyond, using Riyadh as my base, and driving wherever the terrain and roads would permit. I followed the routes that Wilfrid Thesiger took - to Jabrin and Sulayyil."
Indeed, the freedom he experienced is an enduring memory. "In the evenings, I would just pull over onto a good patch of sand, build a campfire with camel droppings and sleep under the stars. The sense of peace was indescribable. During those trips I often thought about Thesiger and realised he must have done exactly the same thing." But after four years of what he describes as "magical explorations" in Saudi, Edwards was offered a job in Dubai. Instead of selling his Land Cruiser, he packed up all his possessions in the back, fixed his hang-glider to a makeshift roof-rack and drove all the way to the UAE. The journey took several days and was not without its problems. "I ran out of petrol at Salwa on the Saudi border with Qatar," he recalls. "Luckily I found a vendor - but he could see how desperate I was and so charged me double the price to fill the tank."
And to this day, the Land Cruiser is still going strong, having gone an astonishing five times around the clock. "I have had trouble getting parts for it, but it's always been remarkably reliable," says Edwards, who recently found himself scouring six different scrapyards in search of a replacement brake booster. The car has also just achieved classic status, adding to its overall charm. "I'm forever finding notes left on the windscreen, or am approached directly. I even get asked at traffic lights. People will shout across several lanes, asking if I'll sell it. But I never could. It's far too full of memories.
"I intend to keep the Land Cruiser for as long as it lives. I've had so many wonderful adventures in it that it's practically part of me." firstname.lastname@example.org