Recently I was taking pictures of a test bike in a public car park when I was approached by a group of teenage boys who seemed as fascinated by this big, powerful machine as I would have been at their age.
Yet their first question wasn't, as mine would have been, "How fast does it go?" but instead, "How much are you selling it for?" To the wired generation, nobody in their right mind would take carefully-posed photographs of a motor vehicle other than for advertising purposes.
They showed little or no interest in performance figures, especially after the tallest leaned over the instruments to check the highest number on the speedometer dial, only to find that the liquid crystal display was blank when the bike was switched off.
Then two of them asked almost in unison: "Is it imported?"
All bikes in this country are imported, I replied; there are no motorcycle manufacturers in South Africa. They knew that, they said, but was it imported?
By now I was aware that we were talking at cross purposes, so I asked the kids to define "imported" - and suddenly these 13 and 14-year-olds knew exactly what they were talking about. An imported vehicle, they explained, was a model that was not usually available in South Africa or wasn't roadworthy under local regulations, that had been modified beyond street-legal before it got here or that had entered the country illegally.
Describe a typical such car, I challenged, and a gap-toothed grin about as high as my elbow launched into a detailed specification of a left hand-drive, turbocharged, Honda Prelude VTEC coupé with open pipes, frenched headlights, lowered suspension, layback seats and sub-woofers the size of dustbin lids in the boot.
"You're not making this up," I accused him. "This car really exists."
Embarrassed, he admitted that the Prelude belonged to a cousin of his. It had come into Durban - already comprehensively modified - from Japan, with papers for Mozambique, and had promptly been driven to Cape Town where the cousin had bought it through a connection of a connection.
His cousin, he said, had added chromed rims and a nitrous oxide canister (lying loose on the back seat!) and only drove it to sound-off competitions and late at night to illegal street-race meetings - not to race it but because that was where it would be seen by people who knew just how "imported" it was.
But imported is also, to some extent, a matter of perception. My most treasured possession is a 1981 Laverda Jota triple that came with a ground-shaking 101dB exhaust note and a sternly-worded warning in the owner's manual that "use of any grade of petrol of less than 98 octane will cause engine damage which will not be covered by warranty".
When I bought it in 1984 it sailed through roadworthy inspection without a hitch. Today it would definitely qualify as imported.
Just how many of these ilegal "imported" cars are there running about in South Africa? How many NEW left hand drive cars are driving around with SA plates?
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