They look like stormtroopers, though the military analogy is misplaced. Endless ranks, tiers and rows of Toyotas, each a brilliant, pristine white. But these, although tucked away in a secret underground bunker, are equipped with simply incredible reliability and terrible durability.
Did you see that white Land Cruiser on the news last night? The possibility came through here. Every report on aid programs from war zones and disaster relief and third world development projects shows the back of the shot car? At one time they probably called this home. Around 650 vehicles – more specifically 650 white Toyotas – leave here every month for destinations worldwide. Welcome to Toyota Gibraltar Stockholdings (TGS), the world’s most significant car dealership.
“We don’t really think of them as cars,” TGS co-chief executive Jonathan Gourley told me. “We’re giving our customers a tool that does one job, whether it’s feeding babies or delivering medicine.” You might think, as I do, that the 70 Series Land Cruiser is just plain cool and badly wanted, but cool plays no role here – this is transportation at its most basic. Simplicity, affordability and reliability trump everything. “If you look back 25 years, there were few players in this market,” Gourlay continued. “There was Land Rover, there was Nissan and Mitsubishi, but gradually they focused on making ‘first world’ vehicles for Europe and North America. But Toyota still makes the 4.2-litre non-turbo diesel. You get a new registration in Europe because of its emissions. “Can’t, but it doesn’t go wrong and any mechanic can fix it in the field because there are no electronics around. You don’t need diagnostic tools, you just need to know how an engine works.”
Photography: Mark Riccioni
Economies of scale matter at every level of this story. Toyota can justify building simple, tough cars like the 70 series as long as a market exists (the UN alone doesn’t support this 40-year-old design – Australian outback farmers and African safari tours have their share). While others clean up, it increases Toyota’s footprint. And it’s the same for the Toyota Gib, as it’s fondly known. It has been in this market for more than 30 years, there were competitors. But over time this one dealership at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea has come to dominate. This is where the United Nations, NGOs, international aid agencies and governments come to buy their vehicles.
Geography plays a role. Gibraltar is a good central distribution point. I assumed tax, er, efficiency also played a role, but this is not an offshore company. Vehicles travel from their factory to a T1 transit dock, which allows them to travel within the bonded area, paying tax only when they reach their final destination. Toyota offers preferential pricing to the United Nations and others.
Why aren’t they sent there directly from the factory? Because a basic Land Cruiser, Hilux or Hiace is rarely needed – 90 per cent of vehicles passing through Gibraltar are modified. They arrive at the stormtrooper bunker, held 1,000 at a time, then are called to evacuate the dockside warehouse. Each has to be driven due to Gibraltar’s claustrophobic road network. Then it’s bull bars, radios, winches, spares packages, tires, upgrade kits. That is the fundamental end. The above 100 hours of work will turn a Hiace or Land Cruiser into a mobile library, working laboratory, prison van or fully functional ambulance.
Those last were the first vehicles sent to Ukraine. “Some large institutions – Médecins Sans Frontières A good example – always go straight [to conflict zones]”Gourlay said. “But before they sent any requests, we saw what was happening and talked to Japan, who agreed to go ahead. [70 Series] Production for us.” Land Cruiser Ambulance, rather Hais? “Roads and bridges disappear first in a war zone, so it becomes increasingly difficult to move around. You need something that can adapt to the region. We have already sent 300 vehicles there three months after the conflict.”
Turnaround can be quick. During the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone in 2014, Toyota Gibb bypassed normal channels and loaded cars directly from its dock onto the RFA Argus, a Royal Navy support vessel. Airlifting vehicles is not unknown. The latest emergency scramble was that morning. Transport for the Earl and Countess of Wessex on their jubilee tour of the British Overseas Territories. A Lexus was scrambled. “A bit unusual,” Gourlay tells me.
Day work is more unpleasant, mostly shipped on ro-ro ships, but the numbers and logistics are mind-boggling. At any given time they track around 800 vehicles that can travel to over 85 countries. Notifications, status updates, email alerts, tracking, delivery – this is the automotive Amazon for international help. But much more than that. Toyota Gibb’s knowledge and experience is second to none. They know what you need if you want an anti-poaching Hilux for Tanzania, a relief van for a disaster zone, a mine clearance pickup in the Middle East. But a firm line is drawn at anything that can be construed as military use. You can buy a ballistic blanket, but no armoring. The UN is a peacekeeper, not a warmonger.
The cars come with warranties, aftermarket support and even driver training After all, what’s the point of sending a car to an end user who doesn’t know how to operate it? Valerian Lemoine leads TGS’s driver training program. “It’s everything from using the clutch and gears correctly, to reducing cleanliness, to being a safe driver. If you give someone a 2.5-ton car, they need to know how to handle it. Plus companies realize that these cars are part of their project. face – they don’t want to be seen in a negative light as irresponsible road users.” Valerian worked for MSF, which has 4,000-5,000 vehicles worldwide. The UN is now turning to TGS to help spread its road safety message.
Jonathan gave me a tour of the warehouse. Base cars are compulsively simple in a way we’re no longer familiar with: wind-down windows, clunking locks, stiff switches. They fit the kit hard, reliable. Most of it seems to come from Australia. “We fit Codan radios, which go back to the Flying Doctor type thing, but the UN and NGOs still use it because it has a huge range. People here will say it’s dead because we have mobile phones and satellite phones. Well, but if there’s a coup the first thing they take out is the cellular network. So your phone is gone. If you’ve got your own high frequency network, you’re still talking.
Whether technology is obsolete or not depends on your perspective. They hear endless stories of exporting Euro VI emissions compliant cars to Africa that explode on local fuel. “We can do modern technology,” Gourlay insists. “Geofencing cars, remote immobilizers – the Land Cruiser you drive is fitted with a panic alarm and we know it works because it’s accidentally set off every time the car is cleaned.”
Driving by road is not sophisticated. The steering needs arm locks, the ride is bouncy, the diesel crude and roady. “Agencies are more aware of it now – we’re seeing some use cases move to Corollas and RAV4s, the desire to move lightly.” However, the relative luxury of those models is not what matters, but that they still have the same reliability despite the added complexity. Toyota – with TGS as its outlet – has this market sewn up.
Now don’t worry about numbers or logistics, but what a white Toyota represents when it rolls into your town. We only see a car, but in other parts of the world the arrival of a white Toyota signals hope, salvation, medicine, communication, education, help, food, relief. It signals help. A white Toyota – paint code 058 – a sign that things will get better And if that’s not a worthy introduction to a car game, I don’t know what is.