The Volvo p1800
The Volvo p1800


You can’t always get what you want

Life Lessons University South Africa

Many of you will recognize these lyrics from one of the best-known songs by the Rolling Stones. The refrain ends, “But if you try sometime / You’ll find / You get what you need.”

These simple lyrics hold a lot of wisdom. They suggest that if we have patience following a short-term disappointment, we may sometimes come upon a better option than the original one we’d set our hearts on.

I’ll share a story that takes me way back to my university days, when these words rang especially true.

I was a second-year student at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. Stopping by a dealership one day, I spotted my favourite car: a second-hand cream Volvo P1800. The dealership was selling the Volvo for an extremely reasonable price. Today, I can’t remember what made me fall in love with that car in the first place, but 20-year-old me wanted it so desperately that I kept going back to check it out. A test drive finally convinced me that I simply had to have this car.

Because my dad had passed away when I’d been only sixteen years of age, my older brother, Pat, had become like a father to me. So, all financial matters required Pat’s approval. To secure his approval of the Volvo purchase, I had determined that my best approach was to send him a thoughtful proposal via telex. With only a one-week “hold” on the car, I imagined that the car would be mine in a matter of days.

Together with the help of my girlfriend at the time, I set about composing an irresistibly compelling 18-point explanation as to why I must have this car. I addressed every possible angle. Assuming that Pat would support my idea, I closed the proposal by requesting that Pat send money post-haste. I told him that time was of the essence and that he had to let me know before my deadline with the dealership had expired.

As the expiry date neared, my excitement and anxiety rose to excruciating levels. Finally, a telegram arrived. I ripped it open in happy anticipation of a positive answer. Imagine my disappointment and humiliation when I read the cryptic response from Pat: “Are you punch-drunk?” I had recently taken up boxing, so this was my brother’s satirical way of expressing his complete opposition to this purchase, no questions asked. He could have simply said “no” and left it that. But no. Instead, Pat had to ask me, “Are you crazy?!”

Tim with his Mighty MINI Cooper departing for South Africa on his honeymoon, September 5, 1971.

Fast forward to my third year at Rhodes. My mother’s MINI Cooper was about to be traded in for a newer car. A MINI is no Volvo. But it turned out that it was a much better option for me. The MINI was still in excellent condition, had amazing acceleration, and was a much cuter car. I still laugh and shake my head when I think of how enormously certain 20-year-old me was about that safety-first, fuddy-duddy second-hand Volvo!