Phil Hanson spends some time with the rare Trekka - the only Kiwi-built ute
Classic racing enthusiast Neil Tolich isn't lacking choice should he want to drive around just to attract attention. His lock-up houses, among others, a couple of Porsches, including a James Dean-esque red 356 convertible, a Lamborghini and a Ferrari.
But he'd walk past all of those, and even a 65 Mustang, and choose the Trekka.
"Nothing generates the stares, smiles and waves like the Trekka," he says of the New Zealand-designed and-built utility vehicle that's, well, pig ugly.
And he's right. Almost everyone looked, some in disbelief to be sure, when the cream-coloured Trekka chugged by as Driven's road test programme slipped back more than 40 years to sample a prime example of the vehicle that was supposed to be a lower-cost Land Rover.
It's one of fewer than 20 survivors said to be registered and running.
"I didn't expect it to be so much fun when I bought it six or seven years ago," says Aucklander Tolich. "Everybody loves it, including me. My grandson thinks it's Postman Pat's van."
The only New Zealand-designed vehicle to be built in quantity, if you can call 2500 vehicles quantity - and even exported - the Trekka was a product of bygone regulations that among other things made it hard to buy a new vehicle without reasonably substantial overseas funds.
Despite looking like a 4WD the Trekka was really just a Kiwi body on a rear-wheel-drive Skoda Octavia chassis, using the Czech car's powertrain and suspension.
Fortunately, the chassis was reasonably suitable, the suspension (swing-axle at the rear) had good articulation and the body was relatively light, all key ingredients for passable off-road performance.
Skoda's 1221cc, 35kW four-cylinder engine had good torque, the gearbox ratios reasonably low. With decent mud tyres a Trekka could do quite well in the dirt and handled steep climbs with ease.
Those wanting more could get an optional limited-slip type of differential, called balanced traction, also developed in New Zealand.
Tolich says this device was not particularly dependable. "There were stories of people collecting a new Trekka and having the diff go before they got home."
Often, owners just gave up and fitted a standard differential.
The thing about the 1968 model we're driving, whose odo is still on the right side of 40,000 miles (64,370km), is that it still feels relatively modern and is easy to drive once you've learned the clutch's unusual point of engagement.
Oh, and one other wee thing; the four-speed gearbox is "back to front" in that first and second are closest to the driver's leg, third and fourth near the passenger. So the temptation is to take off in third.
That aside, the gearbox is smooth, positive and every bit as pleasant to use as one of today's best manuals.
Despite lacking power assist, the steering's quite good, although a little vague by today's standards. Because of its low gearing, the Trekka doesn't easily get out of anybody's way and I can't think it would be much fun on a long trip. Where it excels today is exactly the role it serves in the Tolich fleet - as a nimble, useful runabout.
Tolich has a second Trekka, a 1970 model with 52,000 miles and the balanced traction differential, but it's not currently roadworthy. It would, he muses, make a nice restoration project.
That would put him in a small group of good keen enthusiasts with more than one Trekka. Maybe in his case it's a flashback to his youth in Te Awamutu, when his father, who had a soft spot for Skodas, sold a perfectly good Valiant and bought a Trekka.
"It didn't last long," recalls Tolich, adding diplomatically, "we found it quite fragile". Who'd have thought that, decades later and after owning many exotic classics, he'd own two?
"Not me, for sure," he says, reversing the cream machine into its lockup after Driven's retro day out.
When a heater cost extra
Trekka came from the days when almost everything in a car cost extra.
Among the things on the options list that buyers might have wanted were a body top,
upholstered rear seats, windscreen washer, a heater, a radio, power brakes, a passenger's sun visor, an exterior mirror on the passenger's side, and any colour that wasn't Trekka
Green or Autumn Gold.
Tyre chains, for grip in mud and snow, were an optional factory extra.