Drive: Mean machine

2010-09-17 13:13

Two things come to mind at the mention of “Casspir”: a symbol of oppression and the friendly ghost.

While some might remember being chased by these beasts during the 1980s and in the early 1990s, my only recollection of the Casspir was seeing them in TV documentaries about South Africa’s ugly past and in the Oscar-nominated movie District 9. Not to be confused, Casper was nothing more than the friendly ghost cartoon character.

I was born in the 1980s and though the heavy-duty Casspirs were used by the then apartheid-era SAP, they don’t dredge up ­awful feelings in me.

So I had a blast driving one ­recently at the launch of the Casspir Mk IV at the Gerotek testing facility in Pretoria.

It’s massive, slow and ugly but perfect for pushing ill-mannered minibus taxis out of the way. Sadly the R2 million-behemoth is not for sale to individuals.

The vehicle was phased out of use in South Africa because of its symbolic status of oppression, according to its maker, Mechem. But it has since been updated to be stronger, faster and safer.

These days Casspirs are used mostly for environmental security as the United Nation’s preferred mine protection vehicle and ­armoured personnel carrier.

Mechem, a division of South African military conglomerate Denel, recently relaunched the Casspir Mk II – 31 years after it first came off the production line.

Mechem chief executive Ashley Williams said his company decided to build this model again due to market demand. Its relaunch coincides with the African Aerospace and Defence expo scheduled for Ysterplaat in Cape Town later this month. And it remains the vehicle of choice for military or police ­operations.

The technicians and engineers displayed just how versatile the vehicle is by driving us through soft sand, going up and down steep 40º inclines and also along the suspension test tracks.

Known as the toughest vehicle in the world, the Casspir weighs 11 tonnes. Yet, impressively, its stopping ability is astoundingly quick.

A handful of journalists got the opportunity to get behind the wheels of an Mk II and an Mk IV. The Mk IV spurts out 220kW of power and an incredible 1 100Nm of torque.

Still, I managed to disprove this “toughest vehicle” myth along with two fellow journalists who also broke something in the vehicle.

First to go was one of the small windows used to allow some air into the vehicle. Then another journo smarty-pants broke the air vent which ­distributes cool air through the air conditioner.

None of the above was as bad as what I managed to do. After driving the automatic model, I tried my chance with the old lady. Depressing the clutch takes almost all of your strength and you have to rev the accelerator pedal at the same time. No problem right?

Wrong. I accidently hit the exhaust brake which is a button on the floor between the driver’s seat and clutch. I had no idea I was depressing that while trying to give the beast some life. So, some cords under the bonnet got tangled preventing it from starting, thus promptly ended the driving experience for everyone else. Ouch!

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