Yesterday, I loaded (with some help, I might add) two huge galvanised steel water containers, a couple of large copper planters and a 19th-century wooden steamer chair into the large open back of my new 2009 Toyota HiLux Invincible three-litre truck. It was an extremely satisfying experience. I could have fitted the same amount again.
It was a month ago that my friend James Henderson, whose company Greenside Cars specialises in classics, sent me a video of a truck with a message attached saying: “You need this in your life.” I was immediately interested. I had no idea what a Toyota HiLux was, but I lived in Australia for a while when I was young, and I’ve always had a soft spot for a ute. A utility vehicle, I thought, could be just the thing I need, and I immediately started compiling a truck playlist featuring Willie Nelson, Karen Dalton and Lucinda Williams. I once interviewed Renée Zellweger in LA, who drove me around the city in her bashed-up Ford pick-up: it was the perfect complement to her brand of easy Southern vigour – it suited her and her Texan twang. In a nod to her role in Jerry Maguire: James had me at “strong chassis”.
For the uninitiated, the HiLux is a ranch car – the kind of truck to get you across rivers or up a rocky mountain road. It has a massive engine – you can really feel its power. Living in south Cornwall, I rarely need to cross a mountain, but the labyrinthine roads around my area can be absolutely treacherous, especially after months of winter sleet and snow. Nothing says second home like the black Lexus we drive in London, but I’ve always enjoyed driving something fun that makes me more connected and authentic to the environment I’m living in down here. For a while, that car was a 1992 long-wheelbase Land Rover Defender TDI (a bespoke pick-up truck version of which the Duke of Edinburgh commissioned as the hearse for his funeral) whose rust-filled door swung open every time I took a corner, and in which I would nod to the next-door farmer with a confident camaraderie I would never have mustered in the Lexus. When the rust got too much, inspired by the opening credits on Antiques Roadshow I hooked up with a convertible 1962 Morris Minor, which looked adorable but felt like a tin can to drive. Although it went a long way to compensate for the endless trips to Tesco, we didn’t really fit together: it was too delicate for me.
The HiLux felt “right”. It was rougher, more unconventional. It also satisfied the country mantra that any vehicle should have capacity for carrying two sheep. James had owned it himself for the past few years and had “pimped” it with some all-terrain tyres, which he assured me gave it “a more rugged appearance”. Driving home with my haul of antique furniture, I felt more local. Just as the Ford pick-up worked for Zellweger, the HiLux was my look.
I’ve always been partial to a car that makes a statement. In my early 20s I bought a 1975 Mercedes 450 SE from a showroom on the Goldhawk Road for two grand. It was a big silver tank, and a million miles away from the Fiat something-or-other that was the ubiquitous car of the ’80s. To be honest, I’m not that interested in cars when it comes to make or model, but I do care about how they make me feel. “Silver”, I would reply when someone asked me what its make was, “with good speakers”. And I loved driving it, chain-smoking Marlboro Lights in vertiginous Bella Freud slingbacks and tiny Vivienne Westwood shorts.
Ten years later, when my two children were very small, we went for lunch in Richmond with some friends who were moving to America. My husband smoked his last ever joint, made an impulsive purchase and I drove home in a pale-gold 1964 Mercedes 220SE. With the roof down. That car went a long way towards banishing the shroud of post-baby blandness that had cloaked me: the golden Mercedes made me feel like me. And we were a great couple, gliding through the West End on balmy summer nights, and driving across the country on holidays where its metropolitan cool morphed into countryside classic. People would smile at us as we drove through tiny villages, and I would stretch my arm out of its open side and touch the flowers of the towering hedgerows with my tow-headed kids and boogie boards squished together with dogs in the back.
It’s now 25 years since that joint was smoked and I spend most of my time in the country. The Mercedes has spent the past 10 years sitting in a garage down the road, both of us a bit worse for wear. For a long time, I couldn’t bring myself to sell it. It represented a big chunk of my family life. But with the new truck’s arrival has begun what feels like a new chapter. Driving it has taken some getting used to – I have frequently humiliated myself trying to acclimatise to its nearly 18ft length – but when I drove it over Bodmin Moor to see the wild ponies in foal, it glided smooth as butter. And in case you were wondering, yes, it has nice speakers, although I might trade up on the CD player that still has James’s reggae album stuck in.
While I can’t claim that the car is 100 per cent environmentally ideal – it uses diesel – I am “upcycling”, and the truck is so well built that it will easily outlive me.
And I’m not alone in discovering the new freedoms of truck life. Accessories designer and creative consultant Katie Hillier and her husband, sculptor/artist Jeff West, have a Toyota 4x4 pick-up truck at their property in Hudson, New York, where they live full-time.
“It’s solid – we love it,” says Hillier. “We bought it and Jeff took it apart and redid the frame, and it sort of got customised and raised up by accident. While Jeff is always filling it with huge logs, I like to vacuum it and clean it and he gets cross with me for being too tidy.” Like any good trucker, Hillier also has a trucking uniform: a Filson shirt, Carhartt work pants and Red Wing hiking boots.
Catherine St Germans, former chatelaine of Port Eliot and co-founder of its festival, is a former fashion journalist with a mane of blonde tousled hair. Dividing her life between Cornwall and Waimea Bay in Hawaii, she confidently navigates the Cornish lanes in a red and silver Mitsubishi L200 double-cab truck wearing a vintage floral dress, socks and a pair of Blundstone boots. “I became friendly with Alex Florence, a longboard surfer and skateboarder who looks like a cross between Joni Mitchell and Brigitte Bardot. She drives a Toyota Tacoma truck and the first time she picked me up and I jumped up into it, I was a convert.”
For St Germans, trucks say you are “badass, strong and capable”. They represent freedom and adventure – “you ‘set off’ in a truck. To me, [my Toyota Tacoma] said, ‘I live in the country, I can take care of myself.’ The moment I swing up and into it I feel empowered. Now my life is very much about working with regenerative farmers, and I travel around the country visiting smallholdings. The truck announces me – I feel like a pioneer.”
For myself, I’m still easing myself into this new relationship, but I feel like my truck and I have a great future to enjoy. We fit. And when I went to the butcher this morning in my tiny local village, he handed me my order and said, “Nice tyres.” I felt complete!
Tough guys: Four of the best pick-me-up pick-ups
Designed by M-Sport, which makes Ford’s rally cars, the Ranger MS-RT is a “high-end, street-focused version” of Ford’s Wildtrak. It has a 2.0-litre diesel engine and a payload of 1,098kg. £57,295
With its luxurious interior and beefed up body shape, the V-Cross is the range-topping model in Isuzu’s All-New D-Max stable. It has a 1.9-litre diesel engine and a payload of 1,100kg. From £31,259
The Barbarian X is as smart as a luxury saloon in the cab, and tough as old boots underneath, with an off-road selector for gravel, mud/snow, sand or rock. It has a 2.2-litre diesel engine and a payload of 1,075kg. From £32,540
The latest, top-spec incarnation of the “unbreakable” pick-up carries a payload of 1,010kg and has a powerful 2.8 litre engine that shifts between Power and Eco modes at the mere flick of a switch. From £34,384
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