Over the years, my father’s garage has become an elephant’s graveyard of corroded metal, faded wiring diagrams, desiccated gaskets and other relics of a lifetime of Land Rover ownership. Buried deep somewhere in that automotive salmagundi: an old Punch magazine. Within its yellowed pages, a cartoon shows three British Leyland workers clustered around the company magazine, contemplating a picture of an Austin Mini with its speedometer mounted on the hubcap. The caption reads: “Cock-up of The Month.” Amen. The Land Rover was the far best four by four by far ever built by lazy English Communists.
Not many vehicles are as immediately and inescapably iconic as the Land Rover. Its cheerful boxy shape provokes a strong desire to don knee socks and a pith helmet (or wellies and a Trilby) and go bouncing around the landscape, interfering with the simple quests of Kalihari Bushmen. Alan Quatermain would have driven one. David Attenborough did. It’s British pluck personified, like an all-terrain steak-and-kidney pie.
Perhaps that’s what made Dad buy one: Familiarity. My parents emigrated from Northern Ireland to the Wild West coast of Canada in the late ‘60’s. After a brief dalliance with uncouth colonial pickup trucks, they plumped for the Jeep with a plummy accent.
The Land Rover’s aerodynamics-are-a-bloody-Jerry-plot design gave it the drag-coefficient of a 4’x8’ sheet of plywood. However, its simplicity meant that it could be taken apart like a huge Meccano set. No need for doors? Off they come! Mind you, just try and get the confounded things lined up again when you want to put them back on.
Bolting a tire to the bonnet made (frequent) underhood excursions an exercise in avoiding ending up with Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ fingers, or Charles the First’s haircut. Still, it gave me and my brother, perched on the front fenders, something to hang on to as we hurtled down a potholed logging road.
It’s true: for some reason, the Land Rover brought out the inner eejit in all of its drivers. My mother’s only speeding ticket came at the helm of the 'Rover, which, considering its chelonian turn of speed, was roundly applauded by the rest of the family. My father managed to get it stuck attempting to ford a stream, within twenty feet of a perfectly serviceable bridge.
Performance? Imagine Winston Churchill in a sprint. Cornering? The QEII on wheels. Interior noise? Like being topside in the Blitz. Kit? All your essential mod cons: windows that open and close, black vinyl seats like the surface of the sun in summer, a dashboard that’d literally dash your brains out, and a steering wheel of a diameter not out of place on the deck of a man-o’-war at Trafalgar.
Childhood memories of the Land Rover run the gamut from sheer terror to slight nausea. Whether it was teetering on the edge of a narrow mountain path or nearly bisecting me with the lap belt in the rear-facing back seat, the 'Rover was death on wheels. Countless hours were spent holding the trouble light and passing wrenches to my cursing father. (Dad once asked a teenager wearing a Rage Against The Machine t-shirt whether he too owned a Land Rover.)
After one particularly involved overhaul, we put everything back together– only to be left with a margarine container filled with an assortment of important-looking nuts and bolts. In a fit of genius, my father affixed a masking tape label marked “Spares.” Problem solved.
By the time I got my grubby little paws on it, we were on our second ‘Rover (the first still sits on the driveway, eviscerated to keep the second one mobile). For a developing pistonhead, this was a monumental disappointment. Having been taught to drive in my Dad’s mid-eighties 535i (at the time one of the best-handling sedans you could buy), I was informed that all future solo flights would be at the helm of Rosie the Riveted.
I was to discover that the Land Rover had more Achilles’ Heels than a Greek centipede. For instance, there was the day (late for work), I leaped into my chariot and put the transmission into reverse. Ba-kunk! Off broke a two-foot section of gear lever. Two years later, we were still driving around with a set of vice-grip pliers attached to the stump.
Then, having fixed the throttle linkage’s tendency to fall apart at stoplights with baling wire ('Rover Aspirin), I experienced the joy of having both half-shafts (their ends crystallized to protect the differential) snap and leave me stranded on a rail-crossing.
The big green monster currently resides on gravel at the ancestral manse, where wintertime duties compel it to sally forth and plow the drive. Unfortunately a recent frame-off restoration has resulted in a driver’s-side door that can’t be closed. Chariot of the Gods? The Gods Must Have Been Crazy.