They are both loved and hated, hundreds of thousands have been taken for a ride in them — and never owned one — and they have ferried legends from Paris Hilton to Nelson Mandela. This is the enigma of the South African cop car.
Now there is just nothing quite as exhilarating as hurtling down a highway in a police van — the screeching tyres, the blinding neon blue lights and the ear-piercing siren effortlessly carving a path through the thickest traffic.
You simply can’t ignore it — it’s the long-wheel base of the law.
And they’ve got those neat reflective racing stripes going nearly all-round and these days you can get the body in reds, blacks, blues or white — and sometimes even in that dangerously retro canary yellow.
You can ask just about any kid that isn’t running, cop vans just scream action and adventure.
Comfort barometer: Single vs double cab
Now, not to be overly critical here, but if it came down to it if I really had a choice, I would still go old-school, with the single cab van — hands down over the new double cabs — any day.
See, it’s all fine and well to look all flash in the double cab, but it’s really tighter than solitary confinement there in the back and there are no proper seats like in the front.
Also, the cuffs hurt like hell and kids should know that they pinch you a lot more than they show on TV — especially over potholes, speed bumps and around the corners.
And then you’re spending half the ride airborne and the other half very roughly divided between the roof and that extremely vindictive corrugated flooring they have got going on in there.
It gets worse when the cops kindly leave that unsecured spare rim and tyre in the back to give you a little extra on-board entertainment.
And I feel they have over-reached a little with the security welds on the double cabs, you can hardly see through the bars on a single cab window as it is.
I have even begun to suspect this is why you never see any test drive write-ups or reviews of cop vans in the magazines and newspapers.
Growing up with the squad
Now throughout the years, and even now, most of my mates still swear by the police Flying Squad — hatchback or sedan — for reliability and a dash of style.
A lot of them grew up with the squad, having spent hours crying for their moms in the back of those legendary XR6s, then the completely awesome Golf GTIs, and later, the Opel “Superbosses”.
Seriously slick and quick
They were seriously slick, quick and dependable — need a ride, just trip the alarm and they will arrive to fetch you within seven minutes or less.
And with the Beemers and Audis they take from taxpayers these days, Police Minister Bheki Cele could probably still reach you and take you down on a lockdown violation – anywhere in Jo’burg – even before you can produce a till slip for your cigarette.
Romeo and Juliet
There are of course some suspicious and rather unsettling things you get to hear inside the cars.
There will be this heavy, gruff cop voice on those fancy radios going: “Romeo, Romeo, it’s Juliet, where are you? Romeo, Romeo, please come in?”
We have a lot more social liberties these days, so it’s not something you really want to risk asking the cops about.
And of course nowadays, law enforcement as a whole enjoys a smorgasbord of vehicles in the government fleet — everything from Volkswagens, Nissans, Toyotas and BMWs to Mitsubishis — making it difficult to know whether there is any particular brand or preference for the long steering arm of the law.
Mess with a cop’s castle, and you mess with the cavalry
But one thing is clear, whatever the make, a cop’s car is his castle and when you mess with a castle, you mess with the whole cavalry.
Live pub entertainment
I learnt this valuable information a while back from a rather refreshing go-getter and connoisseur of law enforcement vehicles whom I’ll call Andy.
Andy was very regular at our local, very especially on Friday afternoons when he would sit in the packed pub with his closest mate, Johnny Walker, and look out over the four-way stop directly in front of the building.
But Andy was not the only one in the pub struggling to stay focused on the intersection most Fridays.
In fact and for very good reason, come Friday most of the eyes in the local were trained intensely on the street, through the open double doors and the pub’s massive bay windows.
This, because equally regularly at the time, a particular traffic officer had taken to spending the same Friday afternoons all clandestine in his strategically positioned car, from where he would stake out that same four-way stop.
His mission: To observe the operational area and then ambush and apprehend all stop sign jumpers — through any means necessary.
Now because physical exercise is largely a foreign concept to the considerable bulk of South African law enforcement officers, this necessitated that the traffic cop execute this important mission from the comfort of his car.
This in turn — and to high-stakes bets, loud cheers, jeers and Mexican waves from the pub — naturally necessitated intermittent but regular high-speed car chases over at least 20m for the duration of the afternoon.
Sirens screaming every time, the cop would inevitably corner highly dangerous offenders, like 90-year-old pensioners, in a hail of pink slips at various ends of the intersection.
Beer group pressure
Now Andy, no doubt under the heavy influence of his trusted mate Johnny, finally also succumbed to the significant beer group pressure from other patrons at the pub.
The smell of hot tyre rubber was still thick in the air when Andy spotted the gap and made his move.
It’s still unclear whether it was due to the massive crowd support, or simply because he had reached his daily fine quota, but that cop had started to get sloppy.
He started leaving his parked car door open after each chase, keys in the ignition – while he threw the book at his next victim. This was clearly far too much for Andy who, it seems, so desperately also wanted to have a turn of his own.
Having reached the cop car unnoticed, Andy slipped behind the wheel and proceeded to make his very own high-speed dash across the intersection — in the direction of the pub.
All hell, pandemonium and lots of chaos then broke loose. The cop, having been caught with his proverbial pants down, immediately drew his firearm and opened fire on his own vehicle.
Andy, having raced a bullet across the intersection, came to a screeching halt directly in front of the pub’s entrance, where the gun-shy patrons were still scrambling for cover.
Testimony to the gravity of the situation was at least one neat bullet hole which had swiftly materialised just about an inch from the vehicle’s petrol cap.
Cuffed but chuffed
The SAPS and traffic department cavalry, in almost every shape and size, descended en masse on the intersection within minutes, providing a rare glimpse of the depth and breadth of the country’s law enforcement fleet laid out over the entire intersection in front of the pub.
A sight to behold, there were sedans, small and big, BMWs and Toyotas and there were vans — double and single cabs — all gleaming with their reflective stripes and flashing lights.
Cuffed, but chuffed, Andy then got to sample a number of vehicles in the intersection while the authorities debated his fate. Andy had finally earned his stripes, scoring a personal best — his third trip in a different law enforcement vehicle in just one day.
In fact, to cement this rare achievement, Andy was at pains to use his free phone call from the police station to call the pub and gauge the mood of his fans — many of whom were already collecting bail money — when the call came through.
And in a very rare fairy tale ending, the upshot for both Andy and the cop, was that true justice prevailed in the end.
The law, it turns out, discourages joy rides in government vehicles just as much as it discourages firing bullets in the direction of a packed pub. The odds had been evened out.