x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

New members took all my attention away from old faithful Chariot

Journalist Joanna Langley still has fond memories of her 1995 Suzuki Vitara JLX, which a friend dubbed 'The Chariot'.

Turning on a sixpence, super-reliable and with shabby-chic style, there are many days (particularly when my latest car goes wrong yet again) that I lament the sale of my much-loved first car. A 1995 midnight blue Suzuki Vitara JLX with a soft top, it was third-hand when I bought it on a whim during my first few months in Dubai. The year was 2000, and I purchased the smart little 4X4 before I'd even passed my driving test - as an incentive.

It paid off, as just weeks later I found myself nervously manoeuvring through traffic, terrified of getting lost, and even more petrified of other road users. True to the statistics, I had my first prang the day after I passed my test. I crashed into the car in front of me, who crashed into the one in front of them, and so on. Four cars were damaged that day - and not one of them was mine. Much to the other motorists' disgust, the Vitara escaped with nothing more than a bent registration plate.

From then on, it was all uphill. In my job as a newspaper reporter, the Vitara proved to be an invaluable companion. Cheap to fill and able to handle most of the country's rough terrain, we drove from one rollicking adventure to the next. We investigated water shortages in remote villages in the Hatta mountains and drove across oil-damaged beaches in Fujairah. There was the time I found myself sunk low in the seats with a photographer, as we foolishly staked out a dogfighting ring in Ajman, not to mention the time we trailed illegal chimpanzee traders in Sharjah. The car rose to every occasion.

One day, a contact asked me for a lift. A member of the Afghan royal family and a politician who once ran against the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, he was used to more comfortable modes of transport. But Prince Ali was certainly no snob. Despite the fact that he was more than 180cm tall and weighed more than 100kg, he gamely squeezed himself into my car, chuckling at its boneshaker style. "I love it. It suits you perfectly," he laughed as I apologised for the lack of legroom. "In fact, from now on," he declared, "I'm going to call it The Chariot."

The name stuck. But Prince Ali was not the only celebrity to have graced The Chariot's saggy seats. After I interviewed Kate Adie, the former BBC journalist and author, she politely asked if I could drive her from her hotel to the nearest mall. It was on my way, so I wasn't about to refuse. Soon after this, my first baby arrived and The Chariot was driven by my husband while I used his child-friendlier motor. Unfortunately, the Vitara suffered from the same neglect a family pet endures when children come along. Stray cats began to sneak under the roof flap and sleep on the back seat, while the midnight blue paintwork became a dusty grey.

There was the time I left the roof down overnight during a rainstorm and woke up to find The Chariot full of water. Late for an interview, I bailed it out, sat on a couple of black rubbish bags and drove damply to work. On my way, I was set upon by an intimidating tailgater. The white Mercedes with blacked-out windows pursued me bumper to bumper, flashing aggressively. I was getting jittery, when suddenly, a rubbish bag came loose, flew out of the back of the car and stuck to the road hog's windscreen. It was as though The Chariot had gallantly actioned the "release garbage bag" function to rid me of my foe.

Months later though, my husband bought me a bigger car and The Chariot became a spare. A little while down the road, its registration ran out without us noticing, and finally, one day I looked at my once beloved motor and realised a year had passed since I'd taken it for a spin. I could have hosed it down, driven it to Tasjeel and made it a legal citizen again. But I didn't. We needed the money and we had two other cars we drove all the time. There was no room for sentiment.

As the morning ad went in the paper, the phone began to ring at 6am. That should have been reason enough for me to switch off my mobile and declare that I'd changed my mind. But within days, I'd sold The Chariot for half the price I'd bought it, after nine years of faithful service. It was a bittersweet day. But it went to a good home. A nice Emirati policeman bought it as an off-road run-around. He liked these cars, he told me. They were reliable, cheap to run and fix - and they had character too. I wasn't about to let The Chariot go to just anyone. It had to be someone who'd appreciate it. I'd already turned down several brutes who said they wanted it for spares.

I hope it's enjoying a new lease of life far more befitting of its character than being neglected on our dusty driveway. Sometimes I imagine it chugging merrily up precarious mountain roads and down winding wadis - having finally found its way home.