Time for another car column.
The dependable Land Rover Defender
When playwright Tom Stoppard was an unemployed student he got a job writing car reviews. “Knowing nothing about cars, I sat inside them and just described what I saw.” When I began writing about cars I discovered I was more interested in the car owner than in the vehicle. I got wise how to pad out the column with technical jargon and puff drivel, ‘Wow! Can this car go around corners!” Editors used to send back my copy asking for ‘more on the bloody car’ and less on the driver. (Puff Drivel is not a rap artist.)
Sadly, I’m just as sentimental about some kinds of cars as other pitiful males. I have a twenty year-old three-door RAV I won’t part with, pimped, preened, still every day useable. I really wish I had the steely commercialism of car dealers. Cars are just commodities to buy and sell. Parting with one should not be sweet sorrow.
One car I’ve never been sentimental about is Land Rover’s staple all-shifts grafter – the Defender, affectionately referred to by owners as the ‘Landie.’
After seventy years production of this venerable workhorse, Land Rover has finally shut down production in preparation for an all-new design. You know something has altered irrevocably when a car company dumps its most recognizable vehicle for a brand new design. It’s like Porsche closing production on the 911, VW nixing the Beetle, or Tunnocks making no more chocolate tea cakes and producing instead a square Battenberg.
The Jeep Wrangler
When first I arrived in California as green as an olive, I immediately hired a set of iconic wheels, the USA’s classic American automobile – the Chrysler Jeep Wrangler. Real men drive real cars built for macho men. Who needs a heater, wiper blades, or a pansy’s radio? What a disappointment.
It was shoddily built, cramped like a coffin, useless for carrying any sort of load, and you could see the hand on the petrol gauge visibly move backwards to empty over ten miles as its huge V8 engine sucked oxygen from the air, and poured out lead poison from the rear. But I knew it could go anywhere on any terrain, a must for people living in mountainous and desert regions. I lived up a windy canyon road at the top among cayote.
Contrary to English national pride the Wrangler was the forerunner of our Landie, not the other way around, originally Willy’s Jeep, churned out in their thousands to hustle five star generals and food parcels around for the American army in World War II. (Willy was the manufacturer.) It went on to serve in Korea, South Vietnam, and every South American country Reagan could terrorise, and destabilise its socialist government.
The Great British Defender
Britain’s Defender – a good patriotic war name – is a copy of the American Jeep but made to a superior standard, more practical, less laid back cool, more English horsey sit-up-and-beg hunting position. It spawned dozens and dozens of variations, from stretched people carrier to tree stump puller, from pick-up truck to police car and AA breakdown truck, and onwards to posh about-town wannabee landowner transport.
Many a farmer rescued a snow-stricken sheep in it from snow-drift hills. Like the Jeep, it transported thousands of troops across mud rucked fields on D-Day, and north African deserts chasing Rommel.
Same as most 4x4s, the Defender has the aerodynamics of a hen house, drives like one, is painfully slow on motorways, is hellishly clattery and noisy – wear ear muffs – sparsely equipped, only recently getting comfortable seats and a decent heater. It has shut lines you can see from outer space. But people who bought them love them, and hate parting with them. Early versions can cost as much as a London apartment, and still need rebuilding, unfit to move into. And like so many of our car companies it isn’t really British. The company is owned by Tata the Indian conglomerate.
Taboo to say ta-ta to Tata
So, no booing foreign ownership. We need Calcutta’s cash.
On the plus side, Tata gives lots of people work in Solihull. (Wouldn’t it be nice if Scotland had a car manufacturing factory, electric vehicles perhaps, and a few small bespoke body shop fabricators too.) Tata has invested heavily in new plant for Land Rover and for its sister company Jaguar, also enjoying a renaissance. Consumers can’t get enough of Land Rover’s products, the Range Rover range selling like … hot Range Rovers. A palace on wheels, a kingly carriage to usher the wealthy in need of status to school to pick up wee Gilbert and save him a bus journey.
Not always reliable
I hope the day has gone when the best thing on a Land Rover was the badge on the bonnet. Land Rovers were incredibly unreliable, a strange concurrence since the Landie built by the same company is known for its durability and dependability.
After my brush with a Jeep Wrangler I got a Land Rover Discovery. It cost on average $1,000 USD every two months to repair. Within a week the dash top had warped, and the rear view mirror dropped off its harness. Build quality was dire. (Remember, this is a vehicle built for tough all-terrain work.) As I drove the car out the dealership after the umpteenth fix I spotted another owner sitting atop an exact same model, livery also black. He was holding aloft a giant lemon. On the side of the Disco hung a banner on which was scrawled “Do NOT buy this car”, his silent protest. I gulped and drove on crushed by disappointment, my confidence eroded.
Over the years the Defender, ‘old faithful’, drove on and on regardless of Land Rover’s troubles, the farmer’s friend, the lumberjack’s companion, the shop keeper’s load carrier. It has taken countless Attenboroughs on innumerable expeditions to the remotest places, and back again. Only recently did it morph into an expensive handbag for city poseurs, rarely seeing a grassy field on a summer’s day, let alone a gravel track. You can load them to the gunnels with useless, glitzy, hair-raising expensive extras.
Silly, really, to tart up a quarry man in a Versace outfit. The honest model was easy to look after, strong, unassuming, parts readily available.
The new plastic model
Land Rover plans to build the replacement Defender sometime in 2018. Details are scarce, but the firm has suggested the new vehicle will be significantly more cost effective to produce and far more efficient to run than the original.
Judging by teasers of the new model it seems designed to appeal to a younger set, surf board on the roof, bicycles on the rear, sex in the fold-down back seat, but judgment on its universal utilitarian practicality will have to wait until the first is produced.
Until then, the reign of King Mud Plugger 4×4 is over.