Friday, 20 February 2015

AFRICAR - By Anthony Howarth

Last October I rode my motorcycle down to Mortagne Sur Gironde to help car designer, photographer, film-maker & author Anthony Howarth saw his 30ft sailing boat in half and extend it by 5 metres. I wrote a blog about it:
Friends I told about it said Tony was crazy, but this project is nothing in comparison with his designing of a revolutionary off-road car with a plan to have it built all over the developing world. The following guest blog is a fascinating excerpt about the proving of the concept on a journey between the Arctic in Lapland and the equator in Africa. Anyone thinking of travelling overland through a developing country would do well to read this first!  Over to you Tony.

Thank you for the invitation to post something on your blog.

The Long Boat is proceeding, nothing special, just as planned. I expect it to be fit to go in the water toward the end of next summer. A return visit in the spring by Mark Swain will help it along, that is if you need the exercise? Somehow it is too early to write an interesting story about stretching a boat by five metres. You already wrote a good blog. Don’t want to compete. Anyway I am frail, although less frail than I was...

However! I noticed that you published a picture or two including the Africar station wagon, “The Wagon”, used on the 1984 Arctic to Equator trip while filming the TV series A Car for Africa. In my spare time, when not working on the Long Boat or writing Boat, People and Me Book 3,  I am slowly but steadily writing the three book series The Africar Affair. As you are one of the few people in the world privileged enough to have been driven in an Africar proof of concept vehicle, I thought perhaps, if you agree, an excerpt from The Africar Affair might be suitable?  

The Africar Affair – Excerpt from opening of Book 1

1. Desert Change.

Banging and swishing? Wheels through muddy potholes?

 “Will it never stop?” Asks People.
 “It’s a big continent.” I reply.  “It is the rainy season. We’re lucky the road is open at all!”

The walkie-talkie crackles.

 “I’m shtuck.”  Poor reception on the narrow track between huge jungle trees doesn’t mask Jan’s Dutch accent. 
“Again?” Exclaims People. “How come?”
 “It’s what happens driving a stylist’s idea of a four-by-four on real roads. Okay for discovering the route to a country supermarket in Dorset; in Africa it’s a joke. That Land Rover of his is a piece of shit. We’d better go get him. He’s been jacking himself up and digging himself out for six months, all the way from Egypt, through the Sudan and Central African Republic, poor bastard.”

I pick up the hand-set but don’t much like using it. Apart from the radios being illegal locally, it was here, in Eastern Zaire, in the 1960s that the walkie-talkie became the symbol of the mercenary. I rein in the other Africar. We turn round on the muddy narrow potholed jungle track. Not a manoeuvre I would choose to do with a Land Rover. We drive back a few kilometres to find John thoroughly stuck on an uneven water logged stretch of road which we had passed without noticing half an hour before.

It is all a question of ground clearance and axle articulation. That is the ability of the axles and suspension system to allow the wheels to conform to the road surface and so maintain drive. John has one front and one rear wheel rotating free of the road and the rear differential is resting in the Laterite.

All five of us try pushing to no effect. We try pulling with the Africar Wagon. Nothing happens apart from a lot of wheel spin. John jacks up the rear axle and puts a tall thin block of wood under it. Removing the jack leaves the axle free of the Laterite and precariously balanced.

We try pulling again with the Africar. This time the Land Rover lurches forwards, the axle falls off the piece of wood and finds grip. The Africar keeps pulling, maintaining a taught tow rope. The Land Rover, wheels spinning and griping and spinning, edges forwards until it is off the deformed section and all four wheels are back on the ground.

These conditions, unpaved roads in the equatorial and tropical rainy seasons, are precisely the conditions the Africar test vehicles were designed to cope with. Even in 2-wheel drive and fully loaded they were proving the concept every day and every hour of every day. Now that we are thousands of miles away from the prejudices and silliness of European 4x4 enthusiasts the Africars are truly proving their concept. It's what proof of concept vehicles are for!

We are late arriving at the mission station where we hope to make our camp. With the rain and the mud, a mission compound is preferable to camping under the dripping roadside jungle trees. They are Protestants; Norwegian, Belgian and British. They invite us to share their dinner. During the meal I reminisce about travelling these roads in the 1960s. The mission director puts a finger to his lips.

“You were here in the troubles?” He whispers.
 “Yes,” I say, not getting the message. “As a photographer, I worked a lot in Africa.  Wind of Change and all that. I was here in 1960 after the first elections and briefly in ‘64.  Mercenaries, Lumumba and Thsombe.” 
 “Shsh! You’d do well not to mention that here, in public, or at all.”  Assuming the worst, he is shocked. He looks around cautiously at the long-robed “house-boys” coming and going with our meal and standing about waiting for orders or tasks. 

I, in my turn, am shocked anew at the facility with which even Protestant missionaries take to a life with servants, almost the moment they set foot in Africa. There are several households within the mission compound. All have cooks, cleaners and “house boys” who wait on table. There are drivers and gardeners, doormen, guards and water carriers, nannies and washerwomen.

Academics speak of the Sea Change - The way in which European emigrants of varying backgrounds
and professions changed, perhaps regressed, in their outlook and habits, their very culture, as they progressed across the Atlantic to start a new life in the Americas.

I think one can equally talk of the Sahara Change or the Desert Change. For the most part completely reasonable people, missionaries, doctors, teachers, peace corps, and especially modern NGO staffers in the aid business, change, once south of the Sahara and regardless of  their colour, into people who resemble colonialists or white settlers more than modest church workers from Leeds or Haarlem, bent on good deeds. 

The missionaries graciously give us rooms, challenging my ungracious thoughts. The mosquitoes are fierce. I sleep under the net as I had done then. A net supported on a box of thin rods fixed to the legs of a canvas camp bed. Exhausted, sleeping deeply beside the river, the Congo, right in the centre of Stanleyville...

2. Fear Is In The Anticipation

They came for us at the mission station in the early morning. Two soldiers with AK 47s and a motor Chef of our group, that was me. They demanded our papers and our walkie-talkies.
bike. It was clear what they wanted. They demanded our papers, and our walkie-talkies.

“Oh, dear.” I said to People.
“Let’s hand them over.” She said. “I don’t think that gun’s got the safety on?” 

Embarrassed, I had to extract the radios from plastic bags hidden behind the head lamps of each vehicle. But that was not enough. They wanted all of us up, out of our beds and dressed. Waving their guns around, they demanded we get into our vehicles and follow them.

This was bad. They set off down the hill from the mission, one steering the motorbike the other sitting side-saddle on the pillion seat while erratically pointing both automatic rifles at our windscreen.

“We could run them off the road.” I mused aloud. “I doubt he can hit us with either of those guns.” 
“You serious?” asked People.
“You don’t mess about in Eastern Zaire,” I replied. “You don’t tangle with the Zaire army. These are Mobutu’s boys. I have no idea what they want but I know they’re dangerous.”
 “No way!” Said People, “We would never get away on these roads. Probably just want to check our radio licences.”
 “That’s the problem, we haven’t got any.”
 “Yes, but they don’t issue them either, so we couldn’t have any.”
“That logic’s a bit circular, People!”
 “Anyway the rest of our papers are good.”
 “Except Charles. Don’t forget Charley, his passport was stolen and that bit of paper from the Greek at the consulate in Niger is getting out of date.”
 “What do you mean, ‘getting out of date’?” People asked.
“Okay, it is out of date, it got out of date and it will never be in date again!” 

Irritable and gloomy and very nervous, I follow the motorcycle and the two gun toting pillion passenger out of town. At first we travel along the narrow and broken main road and then we turn off, to the left, onto a tiny jungle track. I, once again, get that ‘mass-grave lost in the jungle’ feeling. I begin to anticipate every possibility.

We arrive at a small clearing and a long low brick building. There are more soldiers, hanging about, smoking, listless. Dead eyes glance our way. We park the vehicles and stay in our seats. 

There is a conference on the steps of the building. Soldiers turn out their pockets. Various keys are tried in the large rusty padlock securing the chain through the slide bolt on the steel doors.

“They’ve locked themselves out of prison.” I say.

People doesn’t reply. She is concentrating on the situation. People tries to always be ready, prepared for anything one might call a situation. I, too, watch. I study the demeanour of the soldiers. You can tell a lot from how someone puts out a cigarette. And a fair amount from how they open a door!

They find a steel bar to break off the padlock. The doors swing open. There is no light inside. I am certain we are to be incarcerated in that building. To what end, I have no idea.

I have little hope. There are six of us including two women, there are now about ten of them, a ‘section’, all armed with automatic rifles. Whatever chance we had, was behind us, back there on the road. But People said, “No” and I trusted People’s sixth sense more than my own.

The highest rank present is the corporal who had ridden pillion. He walks languidly over to my window, props the barrel of his gun on the window frame, 

Si vous voulez, descendre?. Nous attendons un officier.”

So that’s the next move. We are waiting for an officer. My mind goes into overdrive as, with this new fragment of information I re-assess our position. In general, I know it’s better to be in the hands of an officer than a group of soldiers of uncertain discipline, without a command. 

There are three likely possibilities. The worst is an Idi Amin type, a bully holding his position by terrorising those around him. There are plenty of those in this army and this region. Come to think of it there are plenty in the British or American armies.

The best would be a trained officer, perhaps educated in Brussels, to whom I could explain that we are just passing through and are in no way involved with local disputes or rebels. He might believe me, he might even want to believe.

In between would be a career soldier who would probably not want to make any decision without higher authority. He would detain us until a ruling could be obtained from Kinshasa. That could take days, weeks or, more probably, months.

The last time something like that had happened to me, I had been imprisoned on the Tanzania – Zambia border. It had taken seven long days to get a clearance to enter Zambia by radio and those are relatively friendly, organised and disciplined countries when compared to the later out of control status of eastern Zaire.

We waited in the heat and the humidity. We had little to say to each other. Everyone knew the
danger. The body language of the soldiers who so casually surrounded us said it all.

I try to divert my thoughts to Africar. To my ideas of local manufacture of appropriate vehicles throughout the euphemistically called developing countries. Mostly the fourth world, I think, as I look around me. Our proof of concept vehicles which have brought us safely from Lapland in northern Sweden to the jungles of the Congo basin, are indicators of what makes an appropriate car. But local manufacture? Here?

I jump as I wake myself from my reverie. Of course here, why not. They bottle Coca Cola. Building cars may be a much larger enterprise but hardly more complicated. Just needs a well designed factory, training and corporate discipline. The last had been hard to establish at our development workshop in Coalville in England. My earlier experiences travelling south of the Sahara had suggested that it might be easier in Africa than in Leicestershire.

After four long nervous hours the officer arrived. He strode briskly into the building.

Bingo! I would put my money on Brussels. A few minutes later People and I are escorted inside.

3. Recklessness

The Major sat behind a large desk in an inner room at the back of the building. There was electric light and the faint hum of a generator nearby. The interior was not a prison, it was a sophisticated command centre in miniature.

He had our four walkie-talkies lying on the desk in front of him. Beside them were our passports and car papers. He held my passport and glancing at it, said,

Bonjour, monsieur...’Owarth. C’est vrai, ‘Owarth?
Non, pas exact. Howarth.” I replied as firmly as I could. He nodded.
Qu’est-ce que vous faites ici en Za├»re?
Nous sommes, we are passing through from Centre-Afrique to Uganda. That is all.  Our carnets will confirm that.”

“Yes?” He looked at me, a long practised look. Then, putting down my passport, he took a cigarette
from a polished hardwood cigarette box on the desk. He tapped it firm on the nail of his left thumb and leaning back in the leather executive armchair he took a gold lighter from a top pocket, just above his medals. Before he lit the cigarette he said,
“And what are these?” Pointing at the radios.

I was ready, at least I hoped I was ready. “Ils sont rien important - they are nothing important, just toys. They help us keep in touch between our vehicles on the road but they have no range. Seulement un kilometre, one kilometre, not far.”
“Is that so?” He said, smiling. He lit his cigarette and then leaning towards the door he called,
Jean Claude.”

The pillion corporal came into the room. The officer gave him one of the radios and picked up another for himself. They were familiar with the on/off buttons, the frequency selector and the squelch. Pressing the transmit button, the officer said,

Jean Claude, I want you to get Philippe and his moto.  You ride on the back and you talk to me every few seconds. The bridge is just a kilometre away, I want you to go that way continuing on until we lose contact. Then return. Understand, Over”
Oui? Mon commandant. Over.” Jean Claude, curious, looked questioningly at the major who nodded, indicating the door. The Corporal left. The Officer put his radio on the desk and turned up the volume.

“‘Ello, ‘ello, ici c’est Jean Claude, we are starting.”
“‘Ello we are climbing the first ‘ill.”
“‘Ello, we are passing the stream.”

Each time the officer responded by clicking the transmit button twice, rapidly.

“‘Ello ‘ello, I can see the bridge, a hundred metres...”

That was the last we heard. 

I waited, nervous. The officer watched me closely, then looked at the radios,
 “It seems you are honest Mr. ‘Owarth. You can go. Take your toys with you. But, I suggest you don’t use them anymore, in Zaire.”
“Thank you,” I said and smiled. Then I added, “Sir.”

He smiled back. 

The whole incident, which in anticipation threatened mortal danger and which had seriously scared me, had lasted almost a day. Everything had been propre.  Our treatment had been lenient. After all, we had broken the law of the land. It was a lesson. I wondered if he wanted a job managing a car factory when peace came to Zaire.

We are back on the disintegrating main road, heading south towards Kisangani, banging through pot holes and swishing through the deep mud and standing water, when People asks,
“How did you do that?”
“Those things are quite powerful, the range is easily three to five kilometres and in the desert sometimes a lot more.”
“Really?” I leave it hanging a while in the steamy Congo basin air. “It was what you might call an
un-calculated risk. In these trees and hills the range can be much reduced.”

People frowned for a moment.
“Hell of a way to make a movie!” She said.

I smiled and after a few minutes asked,
People, are we not supposed to be testing cars? Making a movie is peripheral, just an inconvenient side issue.”
 “As I said,” she said, “hell of a way to make a movie or cars, or the universe or everything. Thank you Douglas Adams, you are always there to rescue me when I need you. Was it 42?”

People says things like that.

Thanks Tony.
Books by Anthony Howarth are available on Amazon:


  1. I am one of the few people to have ridden in an Africar. When I was about 18 my dad and I visited the factory and we were treated to a trip around the rough ground in the industrial estate.

  2. Hi, can you remember where the factory was?

    1. I can't, sorry. You could try contacting Tony to ask. Look up Anthony Howarth author.
      Regards Mark

  3. It was in Lancaster, Caton Rd

  4. I had the pleasure of meeting Tony a few times in 2012 ish , I retrofitted electric power steering to one of his Africars he was trying to modernize, what a nice dude �� I hope he's still doing well