The Story of Winnie the Winch

She was a big girl, as strong as an ox but a bit cheap. She was never going to win any prizes for her looks or performance when you were getting down and dirty, but the fact of the matter was that she’d get you out of the shit when the time called. However, this winch didn’t come into my life without a bit of a fight. (And yes, that’s ‘winch’ not ‘wench’.)

On the 31st of August 2012 our journey across the United States and down into Mexico will begin. We fully intend to seek out the more remote corners of these countries, searching for the desert sands, muddy jungles and the tranquillity of isolation. We crave remote locations and adventurous travel but we also know that when you’re in such places you have to be able to get yourself out of the shit, literally. Our previous travels have included three years on a motorbike and a bike can simply be kicked over to prise it from the sucking mud. We travelled by canoe, which can simply be dragged over the mud when it becomes stuck and we travelled by three-wheeled tuk-tuk, which can simply be rolled over (several times) when it becomes stuck. Unfortunately its not quite so easy with two tonnes of loaded Niva and a dog in the back called John. A winch is what you need at times such as these.

Our trip is being undertaken on a bit of a tight budget so eBay has come to the rescue with a Chinese knock-off winch, now christened Winnie. To be fair, for the money it’s a hell of a winch. Not the fastest but it’ll pull eight-thousand pounds quite happily with twenty metres of steel cable. That’ll do me I thought. The downside is that twenty metres of eight-thousand pound steel cable wrapped around a winch weighs a hell of a lot; about seventy pounds. A winch-bumper was needed!

Ebay once again came to the rescue. Well, sort of. The original bumper on a Lada Niva is made of pretty solid steel, solid enough to support some pretty hefty bull bars that Winnie could be bolted to. A set of second-hand bull-bars were procured for the princely sum of £15.00 from a young farmer near Telford. They were from a 1989 Niva and ours is a 2009 but hell, Nivas haven’t changed that much over the years. Well, as it happens they have. The bull bars-bolt on to the chassis from underneath with the addition of a third bracket in the middle that bolts onto something clearly found on a 1989 Niva but not found on a 2009 Niva. Luke was called.

Luke is a good friend. Personable, good for a laugh, good for putting the world to rights and also the doting husband to the lovely Laura. However, more importantly, Luke has an angle grinder. I bribed Luke with a hearty meal in a nearby pub (which I later complained to the landlord about and got my money back) and Luke lent me his angle grinder for as long as I needed it. Gleefully I set about the bull-bars with it the next day. It was a marvellous thing, it did indeed grind from all angles and several angles were ground off. First to go was the useless middle bracket. It was gone in seconds and with the aid of Liz’s muscles we attempted to fit the bull-bars to the Niva. Unfortunately, it transpired that the tow points wouldn’t align with the two brackets through which the primary bolts went to secure the bars to the chassis. With the obvious solution in hand I whipped them off and ground off the lips to both tow points. More muscles from Liz and by gum the bars fitted. They wobbled on top of the bumper a bit but if I bolted the winch all the way through the bull-bars and through the bumper as well the whole lot would be held together in one solid lump of winching nirvana.

There is nothing in this world manlier than a winch, every man should have one and no man is truly complete until he has one. I was pleased to find that I could still lift 70 pounds of winch, just about, and I strained to carry Winnie from the garage to the Niva, stopping just short of a hernia. I was disappointed to find that the winch was a couple of centimetres too fat to squeeze between the bars and sit over the bumper to which she’d be bolted. Fortunately the bull-bars have three horizontal bars and I reckoned it could afford to loose the middle one. I was certainly getting my money’s worth from Luke’s angle grinder. Yet more steel was ground away and having now been messing about for a couple of hours while also dodging rain showers, Winnie would now fit, sort of. It hung off the front of the car looking like a National Grid sub-station and I suspected that the merest suggestion of winching from it would end up with the front portion of the vehicle some distance from where the sound of bending metal had emanated from just before the front of the Niva fell off. It did not inspire confidence. In steps Simon.

Finally realising that my manly efforts were not going to do the job, especially not on the cheap, it was back to the drawing board. I contacted the one and only Lada Niva importer in the British Isles only to be left reeling at the price of the factory winch bumper. A visit to the Lada Owners Forum was much more promising. A quick message was sent to the moderator and an equally quick reply was received which read words to the effect of, “You need Simon mate!” Simon was duly contacted and it just so happens that he lived down the road in Telford too. Result!

Now, Luke is unquestionably manly and has a lovely angle grinder. However, Simon is the very personification of manliness. He was possibly the father of the concept. Not one, but three Lada Nivas sat on his drive, all with winches and custom paint jobs too boot. What’s more, Simon has a whopper of an angle grinder. By far the biggest I have ever seen being waved about. He boasted that it was a full nine inches. We talked Nivas and winches over tea and biscuits for a while and reeling in his presence I crossed his palm with silver at the promise of a custom-made winch bumper. He assured me that I could literally hang the Niva from a tree by it if I so wished. He talked about how he would ‘sculpt’ the front of my Niva to ensure that the winch would sit further back and thereby allow for steeper approach angles. By ‘sculpt’ he meant he’d cut away the metalwork and grill of the Niva with a plasma-cutter, (yes, he had a plasma-cutter aswell!) and put the winch where the radiator used to be. I don’t know what ‘approach angles’ are but I think it has something to do with hills. Simon oozed confidence. What he didn’t know about welding and Nivas wasn’t worth knowing and I left feeling that although the work would be drastic it would be exactly what was needed.

Simon works full time and does this kind of work as a bit of a sideline so we arranged to meet up again in a couple of weeks, by which time he’d have the bumper all welded up and we’d spend an afternoon ‘sculpting’ the Niva and fitting the winch. Unfortunately, through no fault of his own, Simon had a bit of an altercation with a forklift truck and spent the next five weeks laid up recovering from being run over. This was a rather big deal as he’s already registered disabled having nearly been cut in half as a nineteen year old petrol-head when he had another altercation with a tree at some considerable speed. However, alls well that ends well. The forklift truck didn’t finish him off and true to his word, after a little delay he made some irreversible modifications to the front of the Niva and fitted a lovely new custom-made winch bumper which is now the envy of many a manly man. As well as practical it is also a head turner. Only the other day I spent quite some time chatting to three Eastern Europeans and a reminiscent older chap at Helfords about the manliness of the entire machine. Four burley men at the local builders merchants were almost giddy when I popped in for some gravel for my mother the other day. They couldn’t do enough for me a clearly counted me as one of their own. This winch/Niva/bumper set-up opens doors!