/ 15 October 2004

Habits of the Gorilla

When my car, a white Ford Meteor with 80 000km on the clock, was stolen from outside my house, I immediately phoned my father. He listened sympathetically. Then he asked: Did you ever get yourself a Gorilla?

He had been pestering me for months to buy a steering lock, and I had been putting it off. Now the car was gone. I was on the point of lying: Yes, Dad, I got myself a Gorilla, just as you suggested, but the thieves cut it off with an angle grinder. Went through it like butter. But you cannot deceive my father about such things. No, I said sheepishly. I meant to, I really did. But for one reason or another I never got round to it.

That’s a pity. There was a long, crackling silence. You know, the guys who make the Gorilla are so confident about their product, they offer the purchaser a special guarantee: if your car gets stolen with the Gorilla in place, they’ll refund half the excess on your insurance. Ah well, perhaps you’ll be more careful next time.

Birds of a feather

The range of steering locks available in South Africa is impressive — the Wild Dog, the MoToQuip anti-theft lock, the Twistlok, the SL2 Auto-Lok, the Eagle Claw by Yale, the Challenger. All these locks work on the same principle: they are attached to the steering wheel and immobilise the vehicle by preventing the wheel from being turned.

The locks also have the same basic design. There is a hardened steel shaft and an extendable bar. The two parts are connected by a locking ratchet mechanism and each part is furnished with a U-shaped hook or “claw”. To engage the lock, you place the shaft diametrically across the steering wheel, with the bar retracted and the shaft claw around the rim. Then you extend the bar until the second claw fits around the opposite side of the rim. The ratchet engages automatically and locks the bar in place. If an attempt is made to turn the steering wheel now, the bar strikes the passenger seat, windscreen or door. To disengage the device, you insert the key in the lock and retract the bar, freeing the claws on both sides.

In some devices, the U-shaped hook on the shaft is replaced by a corkscrew hook, which is twisted around the rim of the steering wheel before the bar is engaged. The Twistlok, for instance, has such a hook, which is called the “pigtail end”.

The selling points of the various locks are similar. They are made of tough, hardened steel, which cannot be drilled, sawn or bent, and they are coated with vinyl to protect the interior fittings. They are easy to install, thanks to the automatic-locking system, and highly visible to thieves; to heighten their visibility and, therefore, their deterrent value, they are often brightly coloured. They have pick-resistant locks and high-security keys: the MoToQuip has “cross point” keys; the Challenger has a “superior circular key system”; and Yale offers a “pin tumbler locking system” with 10 000 different key combinations, and exerts strict control over the issuing of duplicates (by approved service centres only). Some of these products draw explicitly on the symbolism of the predatory animal. The Eagle Claw, for instance, suggests a bird of prey: a raptor with the steering wheel in its clutches. The logo of the Wild Dog depicts a snarling Alsatian, more rabid and vicious than the conventional guard dog. The association with wild animals known for their speed, strength or ferocity is also found in other areas of the security industry: tigers, eagles and owls appear on the shields of armed response companies, and rhinoceroses and elephants in the logos of companies that supply electrified fencing and razor wire.

The best of the breed

The day after I acquired my new car, a bottle-green Mazda Midge, my dad arrived on my doorstep. He was carrying a long package wrapped in mistletoe paper, although Christmas was a long way off. I knew at once what was in this package, but I pretended that I did not.

My dad works in the motor trade and I have always respected his opinions about cars. He gave the Mazda a thorough check-up, doing all the things men do to determine the quality of a second-hand vehicle — kicking the tyres, bouncing up and down on the fenders to test the shock absorbers, looking in the cubbyhole, jiggling the steering wheel, gazing under the hood.

He announced that I had made a sensible purchase. Then he gave me the present. It was a Gorilla.

He showed me how it worked, engaging and disengaging the device with practised ease. When it was my turn, the lock suddenly seemed like a test of perceptual intelligence, an educational toy of some kind. My fingers felt thick and clumsy: my hand-eye coordination had deserted me. The “pigtail” kept slipping off the rim, like one of those magician’s hoops that has a secret join in it.

The nature of the beast

The Gorilla has a personality of its own, which sets it apart from the herd. It is made in one solid piece. There is no ratchet and no extension; instead the lock, like a jointed metal jaw, slides up and down on a single bar. This bar is made of naked stainless steel, harsh on the eye and cold to the touch — until it is exposed to the sun, whereupon it gets hot enough to blister. The “pigtail” is bright red. The shiny metal bar is not coated with protective plastic, and so the device is leaner than the average lock, but if anything it looks stronger. It has nothing to hide. One is never tempted to wonder what material is concealed beneath the plastic skin. This is “super hard steel”, as the packaging puts it, designed to put an end to the “monkey business of car theft”.

The brutal style of the device is echoed in one of the manufacturer’s slogans: “There’s no substitute for brute force.” The pun on “brute force” furthers a play of meanings already suggested by the trade name “Gorilla”. Brute force is unthinking material force: there is no substitute for unbending steel. But it is also unfeeling animal force: there is no substitute for a powerful, dull-witted beast like a “Gorilla”.

In English, mechanical devices are very commonly given the names of animals. In mechanics and mining, for instance, there are countless devices designated as “dogs”. A “dog” may be any form of spike, rod or bar with a ring, hook or claw for gripping, clutching or holding something. “Dogs” form part of machines used in mines, sawmills and engineering works. “Firedogs” are used to support wood in a fireplace, “raft dogs” to hold together the logs forming a raft. Various machines and implements are also named “monkeys”, either arbitrarily or because of a supposed resemblance between the object and the animal. A “monkey” is a crucible used in the manufacture of glass, for instance, or a weight used in the manufacture of iron. In the nautical environment, “monkey” usually indicates that something has a peculiar use or location; it may also indicate that something is easy or simple. A “monkey link”, for instance, is an easily inserted repair link for a chain. This may be part of the derivation of “monkey wrench”, a tool which is a close cousin of the Gorilla.

The ambiguous identity of a single device as dull object and dumb animal is captured in the logo of the Gorilla, which shows a stylised steering wheel gripped by two huge, humanoid paws, with the shaggy suggestion of an animal body in the background. Attaching this particular lock to the steering wheel is like leaving a Gorilla sitting in the driver’s seat. Elsewhere on the packaging we read: “Find it [your car] where you left it — get a ‘Gorilla’ to protect it.” This slogan hints at a more covert layer of meaning. Colloquially a “gorilla” is a powerfully built, brutish, aggressive man. So the device may be seen as a sort of simian watchman.

Mastering the Gorilla

I have employed the Gorilla for some years now. Engaging and disengaging it, once, twice, a dozen times a day. Never leave it off, my dad warned me. Even if you’re just popping into the shop to buy a newspaper. It only takes a minute to steal a car. The action has become second nature. I reach for the lock on the floor beside the seat, hook the pigtail over the rim, lower the arm, clamp the jaws. In a few seconds of smoothly choreographed movement, I extend my power over my property, laying claim to it in my absence, seizing it in leathery paws with an iron grip; and then I withdraw that power again and reduce it to its proper, meagre dimensions. I can do it in the dark. I could probably do it with one hand tied behind my back. I am a persuasive advertisement for the product and the security it offers.

The details

Second Aid: Doorstops, Drip-catchers and Other Symbolic Gadgets is billed as “an exhibition of intriguing objects” and is curated by Jörg Adam and Dominic Harborth who founded a design studio in Berlin in 1998. Ivan Vladislavic’s Habits of the Gorilla appears in a book accompanying the exhibition in which the curators invited well-known authors, designers and manufacturers to look at “second aids “from their point of view. The exhibition forms part of the German South African Cultural Weeks’ programme and runs at the Franchise Gallery, 44 Stanley Avenue, Millpark, Johannesburg until November 11.

For details of the cultural weeks’ programme visit: www.goethe.de/southern africa2004 or Tel: (011) 442 3232.