The Duke of Edinburgh was carried to his tomb in a modified Land Rover, and this is apt. He walked away from a highspeed collision in Norfolk a few years ago because – and probably only because - he was driving a Land Rover Freelander.
The Land Rover, which was intially the off-road Rover, is the original British SUV. It is beloved by farmers, who need them, and dukes, who like them because they are both grand and useful, a metaphor in metal – at least from their perspective - for feudalism itself. Few cars are as evocative of an ancient chariot, or as versatile: motorways do not daunt them, and nor do potholes. Now everyone wants an SUV because individualism is bleakly fashionable, though they have no farm nor title, which explains the parking anguish in Kensington and Chelsea, where they bloom like daffodils, and also in Hampstead. To meet this hunger, almost every car company now makes an SUV, including Lamborghini, Bentley, Aston Martin, Porsche and Rolls Royce. The Ferrari SUV is coming, and I cannot count exactly how many distinct SUVs Volkswagen makes. The more roads we build, the more off-road vehicles we covet, and they are ever more sumptuous.
I suspect we all have our own novel, and our own adapted Land Rover within. Mine would have a bed, perhaps a library and a fridge: I like a campervan for its imaginative possibilities. Few would imagine a Land Rover a hearse – it’s a bitter joke, perhaps his best joke – but the fact that a Land Rover carried a British prince first to life and then death is a testament to the brand. Patriotism is a valuable emotion to invoke, particularly in these bunting-clad days of awe, though Land Rover Jaguar is now owned by Tata Motors. It doesn’t matter: it is still British. Consider the famous marmalade advertisement from wartime: 'TOTAL WAR EFFORT demands the withdrawal of golden shred. It will return with VICTORY' (The effect is then spoilt for modern eyes by having a picture of a Golliwog at the bottom).
Diversity is essential for all modern car companies for the pound must not go elsewhere. Jaguar Land Rover will sell you an ink-black Defender or a ice-pink Velar: there is a Land Rover for everyone. If you are driving across a desert – rather than merely imagining you will after a glut of advertising designed to convince you the North Circular is only the beginning of your adventure – you will buy a Defender. If you are quite rich, or admire Jeremy Clarkson, who never met a Range Rover he couldn’t love, you will buy the Range Rover. If you like art, you will buy a Range Rover Velar for its exquisite lines. If there are seven of you, you will buy a Land Rover Discovery. And on, and on. It may be disorientating for the VW Fox driver such as myself to understand that cars can tow caravans out of bogs while carrying seven people, but it is so: car design whirrs on while we are sleeping. If you are looking for a new Range Rover for slightly more than £30,000, you will buy the Evoque. It is a best-seller: the most affordable and beautiful Range Rover, and the best SUV in its price range.
It does not dwarf me, as the classical Range Rover does, being at least a head smaller. It does almost everything that a Range Rover will do – it can manage 60mm of water and mountain tracks and wet fields – but it is still, in the city style, pretty. The seat is high – after a Range Rover, driving an ordinary car feels like squatting - and the interior is fretted with luxury. You can exchange the rear-view mirror for a video of the road behind. A camera under the car will assist with potholes. All this it will do to the music of ABBA or Brahms.
Amid this, it is easy to forget that the Evoque is essentially an off-road car. This is the both the enchantment and the sorrow of the modern Range Rover. They are so popular with city folk, and so luxurious, that they are not asked to do what they are designed for, for fear of ruining them. The contradiction inherent in savage luxury is even more pronounced in the ultra-luxury SUVs: who puts a wet dog in the back of a white leather £300,000 SUV except a madman? Again, it doesn’t matter: and perhaps dukes don’t feel that way.