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My old girls

Alan Judd's Motoring

7 July 2010

12:00 AM

7 July 2010

12:00 AM

The Range Rover was 40 on 17 June, which is cause for congratulation even if relations with the three I’ve owned were not uniformly harmonious.

They were all what are now called Classics and in good condition would be appreciating assets. The first, a 1972 two-door, accompanied me to South Africa where it suffered a mysterious, unheralded engine seizure. Shipped back to Britain, it was given a brand-new engine transplant, sold to friends to revive my finances and taken by them to Angola where it spent months in a container, undocked. When eventually it landed, a lorry drove into it. After more months waiting for parts it was sold to someone who drove it over a landmine. RIP.

The second was an old dog on which I spent a fortune and which I was struggling to sell when someone stole it. The insurance paid up, then the police found it and invited me to inspect it. I viewed the trashed remains and walked away, grateful for the payout. Before it could be recovered by the insurance company it was stolen again and the police interviewed me to check that I hadn’t nicked it back for myself. As if.

The third was my favourite, a 1993 four-door with fuel injection and the (normally) trusty 3.5 V8 bored out to 3.9. I ran it for a couple of years on LPG until the engine developed ‘porous block’ — hot spots in the cylinders that led to coolant loss. After a failed repair, we parted. I’ve wondered ever since whether it was the LPG that caused hot spots in those thinned-out cylinder walls.

The modern Range Rover has put on weight — unsurprisingly at 40 — and thanks to investment by previous BMW and Ford owners is a very different proposition. Since I wrote about it not long ago (Spectator, 3 October 2009), it seemed more appropriate to mark its birthday with a sibling that has changed far less even in the past 60 years — the basic Land Rover Defender. Or has it?

It’s still the most recognisable vehicle on the planet, while having no parts in common with its 1948 progenitor. The new 2.4 common rail diesel (shared with the Ford Transit) requires a bonnet bulge, and the model tested had air conditioning, six gears, electric windows, a heater that heats, a rev counter and forward-facing rear seats. My old Landies — all seven of them — had aircon, albeit via gaps where the doors were supposed to close, but that’s about all. Could this really be considered the genuine article? Then when it rained there weren’t any leaks. Can a Land Rover be a real Land Rover without that defining characteristic?

Another reason for suspecting this to be an impostor is that it goes like other cars. That free-revving engine takes you easily to 70mph at under 2,500rpm, at sound levels permitting speech. Very suspicious. On the plus side for the traditionalist, though, elbow room is still cramped, rear legroom is short, the wipers remind you of the 1950s, the handbrake is inconvenient, you can get the gears wrong (albeit because they’re close rather than a yard apart), the turning circle is even wider than its ancestors — perhaps because of large tyres — and the rear door lacks a catch to keep it open.

But when I took it on a course used for the national off-road championship this Defender more than confirmed its continuing identity as the world’s best production 4X4. Precipitous banks, impossible departure angles, torturous turns, bogs, ditches, anthills, ridges — we climbed, straddled, swam and barged through them all. Just stick it in second, select diff lock and low ratio and let that tolerant and torquey engine do the work, aided by a touch of traction control. That’s when you get the point of this machine.

Granted, my old girls would have done the course, too, but you’d have sweated to get them round whereas this beast does it almost by itself. Odd that it should confirm it’s still the genuine article by being so talented that it felt almost unreal. Just like its young 40-year-old sibling.

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