Some cars are cool, but it can be difficult to explain this to a non-car person. I recall a discussion I had with my dad several years ago about why I bought a $500 Land Rover, which I needed to park in his driveway (whereupon which it proceeded to deposit a startling variety of fluids). He wondered why a vehicle would be worth only $500. I explained that these things were notoriously unreliable and basically had zero resale value. (Bad electronics—on a British car? Surely you jest.) Because he is a sensible man, my dad quite predictably inquired: “So why on earth would you want one?”
In my high school drafting class, it was often remarked that a picture is worth a thousand words. Not having a picture handy, I launched into a lengthy account of my experience with Land Rovers in Sub Saharan Africa in my twenties, and the difference in philosophy between, say, a Rover and a Toyota Land Cruiser. While the latter was considered the gold standard for reliability, the complexity of the Toyota was daunting. Pull up a schematic from a shop manual at random for a mid-nineties Land Cruiser, and compare it to the same part on a similar era Land Rover, and you’ll see what I mean. As I ventured further from (what passes for) civilization in East Africa, it was not uncommon to be surrounded almost exclusively by old Rovers. To be sure, part of this is explicable simply in terms of the legacy of British colonization in the region. But as I talked to other expats during my time in that part of the world, I saw that many had a preference for Rovers over Cruisers. They’re simple, easy to work on, and parts are abundant. How simple? Let me tell you a story.
I was on a project somewhere in Massi Land near the Kenyan boarder, and as I walked through a village, I passed a gentleman sitting on a rock, grinding a valve with an old file. Sure enough, nearby was a dark green Series IIA with its hood up. The thing was beat to hell. The block (sans head) was sitting in the dust leaning against the front wheel. He was performing a valve job—with basically a rock. How many times the engine had been ‘rebuilt’ this way would be impossible to guess, but the machine’s simplicity and its aluminum body meant that it was essentially impervious to time.
At this point in my narrative, my dad had largely lost interest, and we had not yet even begun to talk about the legendary Camel Trophy!
Here, by the way, is the picture that would have been worth a thousand words:
“This, dad, is why a Land Rover is cool”.
What a shame to have lost one of motorsport’s most interesting and exciting events to the political-correct impetus to not advertise cigarettes. Now, granted, my truck is a Discovery, not a Defender like the vehicle pictured. Not as cool, but they did run the Trophy with Discoveries for a few years as well. Here’s the important part: the reason they could do this, is that under the soccer-mom-friendly body of a Disco 1 is the running gear of the Defender—they’re identical. This is not a modern CUV (cute utility vehicle); this is a truck that gets 11mpg. The lug nuts are an inch and a half in diameter. Peek underneath one sometime. Everything is about twice as big as you’d expect it to be. Look at the ground clearance, the approach and departure angles, the sheer diameter of the axles. Now, for purposes of contrast, let’s look at the same year Jeep Wrangler:
Cute, isn’t it? You probably knew a sorority girl in college who had one.
Granted, the YJ epitomized some of Jeep’s darkest days, but we can see immediately that these represent entirely different notions of what a four-wheel-drive should be.
Whether history has been kind to the Discovery is a matter that can be taken up separately. Suffice to say, in such a discussion, ‘scandal’ might be an appropriate term for having buried a simple, capable chassis under a nest of Lucas electronics. Moreover, I suggest it is also a fitting term for the way our Federal government ‘protected’ us for decades from diesel engines, including the terrific TDi the Discovery came with in most of the rest of the world. Instead of a simple, torque-y, 25mpg diesel, we got the archaic 4.0L Rover V8, which hails from roughly the Eisenhower era. As Chris Harris memorably put it when describing this mill in his Range Rover: “Massive V8, about eleven horsepower”.
Also separate, would be a discussion of the current direction of Land Rover, and the market demand for luxury SUVs. The first step to appreciating old Land Rovers is to separate them from the phenomenon of ‘conspicuous consumption’ with which the brand has more recently entangled itself.
I wish here to simply opine on the ‘coolness’ of an old Land Rover whose paint is fading. Why does the green oval badge with the simple script Land-Rover evoke such strong emotion, while the nameplates ‘Suburban’, or ‘4-Runner’, merely induce a yawn? The answer is somehow bound up with all this lore, this legacy. There is a mythology to Land Rover, and this, I suggest is precisely what makes cars ‘cool’; their mythos. You cannot create it out of thin air, and it’s not the product of marketing genius.
I haven’t been back to Africa since the mid-nineties, and so cannot comment on affairs there relative to four-wheel-drives. But my guess? Not much has changed.