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Caribbean 'Moke' Redefines the Getaway Car


BRIDGETOWN, BarbadosFlora. Fauna. Mechanica. — They are triple staples of vacation remembrances, and as sure as God willed pineapples on Hawaii and fish decided to fly around Jamaica, you will find odd vehicles indigenous to island rentals.

The pug-nosed Suzuki Samurai is self-drive ruler of the U.S. Virgin Islands. On Oahu, it used to be the Greater Fringed Pink Hawaiian Jeep.

The Philippines are populated by what look like 1945 Willys replicas. Rent a car on Cuba and you can still find the odd '52 De Soto. Guam is infamous for a fleet of rusted-out econobox rentals--most with cracked windshields and missing horn buttons--known as Guam Bombs.

Electric golf carts (U-Whines?) populate the streets of Catalina. The Volkswagen Thing has been spotted on several Mediterranean islands.

And in the Caribbean--particularly on Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Antigua--the Moke is mightier than the Cutlass as a rental favorite.

Moke is a generic reference. It first applied to what began life in Japan as a two-stroke mini-car called the Suzuki Fronte.

In a classic of niche marketing, it was decapitated by the factory, rebodied and reassigned to rental duties in tourist places where roads are narrow, driving distances are slight and nobody really cares if bits fall off.

From Australia came the Mini-Moke, another rebodied thing of consummate ugliness, built around the engine that brought immortality to British-built Minis.

Last, and probably least, is a Moke called the Cub, the product of a project to build a car industry on Antigua.

All Mokes are rattletraps that look like jury-rigged, angular afterthoughts left in the desert when Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was pushed out of North Africa. On Barbados, the primary reds, yellows, greens and blues of these Bajan Flivvers clutter every byway and parking lot.

"They are fun, tough and ideal for tourists because it is something new to them," said Barbados' Bibian Ballentyne, president of Ballentyne Rentals.

"The preference is the Australian Mini-Moke. That way, visitors go back home and say, 'I drove a Mini-Moke.' It doesn't mean much to say, 'I drove a Suzuki with the top cut off.' "

There isn't a rental company worth its weight in retreads that doesn't rent one or other of the Moke species on Barbados.

Competition keeps rental rates pretty even with an average of $200 a week, or $45 a day, including insurance. Full coverage should be considered essential on a vehicle that comes with no doors, no windows, no roof, no roll bar and no prayer of meeting U.S. federal safety requirements for wheelbarrows.

On the up side, 95% of the roads on Barbados are two-lane. Inland they shrink to the width of a brace of Mini-Mokes. Many surfaces are like riding over a sack of coconuts. None of the above encourages speeds above 17 m.p.h. Some older Mokes, in fact, are often overtaken by local 10K runners.

To drive on Barbados requires an island driving permit. They are issued to anyone with a current license, cost $5 and may be obtained from local police stations. Here, observant tourists will note that radio communications are by a 20-year-old Motorola base station, nobody carries guns, cell keys are on numbered hooks in the hallway and this clearly is not Parker Center.

But the desk officer is wearing Ray-Bans. He delivers a poker-faced litany on how we should drive as if we were back home (hardly the thing to request of lane-sweeping denizens of the Los Angeles freeway system), observe island speed limits--and that on Barbados, as a hangover of its days as part of the British Empire, everybody still drives on the left.

At that point, said Ballentyne, a few tourists have been known to turn in their Mokes in favor of chauffeured island tours.

We, of course, were made of sterner stuff.

Not that driving a Moke requires much more than recalling the basics of competent motoring before we were spoiled by such luxuries as automatic transmission and windshield wipers that work.

1. The Moke's gearshift is four-speed and manual (except on the Suzuki-Moke with automatic transmission, but that really isn't in the spirit of vacation adventure).

The clutch works best when booted almost through the floorboards. Brakes are definitely not power-assisted. Remember, this is basic transportation and the victim of assassination attempts by 1.3 million tourists before you.

Suggestion: Drive around the rental yard for a few moments until the Moke's jerky, gear-clashing, primal moves are no longer a surprise.

2. The steering wheel is on the right, so shifting gears will be a natural function only for the left-handed. Releasing the hand brake is another task for southpaws.

Suggestion: Trust me, initial awkwardness will fade in minutes. For the right-handed, switching dominance to the other fist is no more difficult than picking up a coffee cup with the left hand.

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