My clothes smelled of diesel, my stomach was churning and my knuckles were white. For the first time, I’d heard the roar of The Beast, our new truck.
I’d had a sleepless night. Storm Alex had raged and pounded us with torrential rain. Worry Number 1 was that our van, Big Blue, would be so bogged down on the already sodden grass by the caravan that we wouldn’t even be able to go to collect The Beast to drive to her MOT.
Worry Number 2 was that the weather was hardly ideal for Mark’s first outing in months at the wheel of an unfamiliar LGV (Large Goods Vehicle – the standardised terminology for a Heavy Goods Vehicle or HGV since 1992).
Our mate Wayne was converting The Beast, so she was parked in his yard ten miles away. He’d forgotten to put her battery on charge, so the day before, Mark had been unable to start her up. Although we had covered it with a bin liner, Worry Number 3 was that beneath the Biblical deluge, the battery charger would have failed in its duties overnight.
To our relief, on the first turn of the key, The Beast thundered into life.
“We need to get some air in the brake system,” Mark explained as she ticked over, filling the yard with her muscular growl and a cloud of blue smoke. I gave voice to Worry Number 4,
“You won’t run out of fuel?” I asked, well aware of her hefty usage even as she idled. When Mark brought her back from Rotterdam, €100 of diesel had not even cajoled her gauge out of the red – and that was a good few miles ago.
With 24V electrics in the cab, Worry Number 5 was that the 12V satnav was useless. This left me and Big Blue with the job of escort, to lead The Beast’s 24.5 tonne majesty to one of the few garages in the area able to service an LGV. There, she was in for a week of mechanical pampering and pre-MOT checks. We hoped this would coax her through her first MOT, so we could get her registered before coronavirus closed down public services once again. But first, we needed fuel.
Wayne gave us directions to escape the narrow warren of farm tracks from his yard.
“Agricultural vehicles go down there. It will be fine!” he assured us. I was less confident.
At the end of the lane, I encountered a ninety-degree left turn with a width restriction. I panicked. I don’t think she’ll get through, I thought, and set off right, with butterflies in my stomach, no idea where I was or where I was going, and with a huge army truck in pursuit.
Although I had plugged in The Beast’s weight and dimensions, the satnav disagreed vociferously with my re-route. It tried to lure me back on track via a housing estate, obstructed on both sides by parked cars. Luckily, Mark was some way behind. Before he rounded the bend, he spotted me in the process of a hasty U-turn and had the sense not to follow. Eventually, I emerged on a back road that I recognised and stuck to it. With my windows down, I heard the rumble of nine-point-six litres of power behind me. I also overheard many a “WOW!” as our strange motorcade passed through the winding lanes and thatched villages of Dorset.
My target was a petrol station on the main road. It was not the cheapest, but I knew The Beast’s 3.9 metre elevation would fit beneath the canopy without needing to duck.
My frayed nerves needed a Snickers bar to boost my blood sugar and a hug from Mark. The Beast needed two £100 injections of diesel to get out of the red, which was the maximum the pump would allow.
We continued on to Blandford at around 40 mph, to the accompaniment of enraged hoots from ill-tempered motorists on the dual carriageway. One bloke, who sliced in front of me as the road narrowed from two lanes to one failed to see the irony in shaking his fist at me as he mouthed something slightly ruder than, “Bloody women drivers.”
The truck garage was in the middle of nowhere. Although we had done reconnaissance a few days before, I missed it on my first pass and had to proceed two miles on the country lane to a roundabout for The Beast to turn around. All I could think on those four miles was, my mistake has cost half a gallon of fuel!
Although I felt totally drained, it was a relief to reach the garage safely, but that wasn’t the end of the story.
“Where’s the paperwork?” Phil asked cheerily.
“What paperwork…?” Mark replied.
We had thought it strange when, eight months previously, the DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licencing Agency) returned our registration application and told us we needed to MOT The Beast before we could register her.
“We’ve imported a truck and you’re saying you don’t need to have the vehicle on record for us to get an MOT? I would have thought it was logical to register the truck first, before the MOT.”
The DVLA assured Mark this was not the case and said there was nothing more he needed to do.
This was entirely wrong, of course. In a sentence that caused our blood pressures to soar and our morale to plummet, Phil told us,
“You need a VTG1 to get the MOT, mate!”
The MOT was just a week away. How would we do that? At the best of times, public services are notoriously slow, and government departments seemed not to share the country’s enthusiasm for remote working to keep business ticking over during lockdown. When our glorious Prime Minister started to encourage furloughed staff and home-workers back into the office, DVLA remained resolutely closed. The only way I could contact them was via Facebook. When I asked when they might re-open, they replied helpfully, “We cannot provide a timescale.”
The insurance to even drive The Beast to the garage had cost us £200 and, with the post-lockdown backlog of MOTs, the likelihood of getting another date any time soon was slim.
Phil raised a few more potential issues that might scupper The Beast’s chances of passing her MOT. Although she was incapable of speeds above 50mph, she should have a speed limiter fitted; a feat nigh on impossible on a truck of her vintage. Planned new legislation demanded truck tyres to be under ten years old, and the MOT required a brake test laden. Phil assured us the test centre had concrete blocks to simulate a load, but loading was not an option because The Beast was full of spruce ply and other building materials.
Demoralised, we left her there and were even more dejected a few days later when Mark took Big Blue for her MOT. Although we had done all we could to ensure she would pass; burnished her cloudy headlight lenses with toothpaste, checked all her bulbs, and replaced her sagging leaf springs, we still had some reservations about whether she would make the grade. Mark sat for an hour inside the Hyundai garage before the engineer came out and announced,
“We don’t do van MOTs. Bye!”
Mark was not taking that one lying down.
“What?! We’ve had the MOT booked in for eight months. You’ve serviced and MOT’d this vehicle before. You’re a Hyundai garage and you’re telling me now you didn’t know this Hyundai iLoad is a van?!”
They were unapologetic and unsympathetic. Big Blue was our only transport and, in a few days, when her MOT ran out, would be illegal to drive. Our campsite was in the sticks, with no mobile signal or internet connection, so from reception at the Hyundai garage, Mark made frantic phone calls around the counties of Hampshire and Dorset, trying to get a short-notice van MOT.
“Sorry mate, can’t do anything for at least three weeks!” was among the best answers.
Thankfully, persistence and pleading secured a test on the day the MOT expired; the day we had to move our caravan off the campsite because it was full; so all we could do was hope and pray she would pass.
Against all expectations, she did, and a week later, after moving Caravan Kismet to Calshot Spit, we were even more jubilant. I said to Mark,
“Is our run of terrible luck changing?”
In our wildest dreams, we didn’t imagine that The Beast would pass her MOT first time!
Without the VTG1, we hadn’t even believed we could enter her for an MOT. Much telephone wizardry and some string pulling by Phil’s contacts squeezed out an emergency VTG1 in a matter of days.
Surfing our wave of success, we tried once again to register the truck. Our paperwork arrived at DVLA in Swansea just as Wales went into a second lockdown, although they found just enough time to reject it.
Despite a metal plate spot-welded onto the truck, plus certificates of conformity from Volvo, DVLA cited insufficient evidence of the year of manufacture.
We wondered whether The Beast was to become a white elephant for the second time in her life.
The Belgian army bought her in 1990, at the end of the Cold War. With fewer than 5,000 km on the clock, she’d clearly spent her life in strategic storage, before being decommissioned without distinguished service or honours at the tender age of thirty.
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs was swift to come out of covid hibernation to note her low mileage. They told us that with fewer than 6,000 km on the clock, she was a new vehicle and therefore subject to VAT (Value Added Tax) at 20 per cent, even though we’d paid VAT in Holland when we bought her.
Not only did we face a hefty tax bill and fail to get her road registered, the world was an entirely different place from when we bought her in January, with Mongolia in our sights.
The earth was in the throes of a global pandemic during which domestic and international travel had become illegal. Countries we planned to visit were in turmoil; with riots in Georgia, conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Ngorno Karabach, and Belarus declining into a Russian-backed dictatorship to name a few. Combined with the devastating economic impact of coronavirus on the poorest, the most optimistic prognosis was that the world order could only get more unstable.
Then, on 1st January 2021, as we roared into the Roaring Twenties with our Beast, the ‘Oven Ready Deal’ promised by PM Boris Johnson morphed into an impending ‘No Deal’ then to the hardest of hard Brexits. The UK entered the sunlit uplands of independence from Europe, meaning a Romanian ferret with a pet passport has greater freedom of movement than a British Citizen. Britain’s newly regained sovereignty not only limits travel in the 26 countries that currently comprise the expanding Schengen visa free zone, but also affects places such as Russia, for which Brits can no longer get an ‘E’ visa because it’s agreed through the EU.
Still, just before that auspicious date, we got the best Christmas present ever. Not only did HMRC surprise us by conceding that a thirty year old vehicle was not new, on Christmas Eve, after Volvo in Gothenburg intervened with yet another small but significant piece of paper, we got a letter from DVLA.
The Beast, a Belgian army lorry that had never been road registered, finally gained British Citizenship as a private LGV.
Now, all we had to do was make her habitable!
Thanks to Patricia and Neil Hay, who have been very generous with advice to help guide us through this process. They suggested we register The Beast initially as an LGV rather than a motor caravan.
Motor caravans have to comply with modern standards, which a vehicle of The Beast’s age would not. They told us about a friend who registered their vehicle as a motor caravan before converting it. When it failed on over 100 points, they had to abandon the conversion. Registering as a private LGV then changing to motor caravan would bypass this, although lorries are not one of the recognised body types for conversion and are notoriously difficult to register as motor caravans. We have decided to live with The Beast as a private LGV and suck up the 10-year tyre rule; a whole other saga of which we were blissfully unaware…!
Note that, since the Brexit Transition Period ended on 31st December 2020, Import Taxes and VAT definitely apply to vehicles imported to the UK from the EU.