The air bag: Defending the Land Rover Defender

In the 27 years I have been driving, I think I have owned, coincidentally, 27 cars. The shockers were the ones with Land Rover badges on them.

Land Rovers and Range Rovers through the ages. Courtesy Newspress
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In the 27 years I have been driving, I think I have owned, coincidentally, 27 cars. I say “think” because some have been so forgettable that I can barely remember them; others so utterly bad that I have done everything to banish them from my thoughts.

I’ve had some wonderful cars, too. A Daimler 4.2 was one of the most regal, graceful machines I have ever experienced, while my Porsche 928 was a rakish GT that never failed to put a smile on my face. My Mini was a rust bucket, but terrific fun to drive, feeling like a go-kart on country lanes around my Welsh home, and two BMWs taught me more about driving than anything before or since, thanks to their leery tail-wagging in the wet.

My current steeds – a Volks­wagen Scirocco and a Triumph TR6 – are undoubtedly the best cars I’ve ever possessed. But what about the shockers – the cars that I still break into a sweat thinking about? They’d be the ones with Land Rover badges on them.

To be fair, the three that I have owned aren’t wholly representative of today’s products, but the reasons that both Jaguar and Land Rover are still fighting against the stigma of past wrongs are legion. I can tell you from bitter personal experience that they were so badly built that it’s almost hilarious.

Why do I mention this? Because the last Land Rover ­Defender rolled off the production line this week, marking the end of 68 years of continuous production – a record that surpasses even that of the Volkswagen ­Beetle. Landie fans are up in arms about its demise, and I can appreciate why – I owned a 1984 model 90, which was basically a short-wheelbase Defender, and it was heaps of fun with bags of character, when it was working. When it rained, however, and water poured into the cabin, it wasn’t much fun at all. Nor was it very appealing when the electrics played up. Which was all the time.

My ex-father-in-law is a loyal Land Rover owner (he has had seven, to my knowledge), yet he never seemed to stop complaining about them. “It’s a disease,” he once admitted to me. “I can’t help it.” Another time, frustrated by his appallingly unreliable ­Discovery, he said: “They’re the best-designed vehicles in the world, built by people who couldn’t care less.” He’s now on his fourth “Disco”, and still spends every weekend fixing it.

Apart from my 90, I owned two Range Rovers – both of them “Classics” with the famous 3.5L V8 engine. One was an early example that ran on carburettors, and wasn’t all that bad, apart from trim that fell off with every bump in the road, plus ferocious corrosion on the bits that weren’t aluminium. The other was a later, fuel-injected model, and despite its gravitas and luxury, I hated it with every fibre of my being. It spent more time on the ramps of the local garage than it ever did on my drive. When ­Lucas was mentioned by my wife as a possible name for our son, I objected in the strongest possible terms because of my experiences with that car’s electrical systems.

Yet for all its faults, the original Land Rover is, without question, the most important and iconic vehicle in modern history. Its eventual demise was a foregone conclusion, though – the basic design remained unchanged for decades, and it isn’t feasible to develop it any further, leaving farmers, engineers and armed forces all over the world looking for a replacement car that can go practically anywhere.

They’ll probably end up buying Japanese until a new version arrives, but by then, perhaps these people will have come to appreciate the one thing that always eluded me when I owned Land Rover products, yet the ­Japanese offer as standard: reliability. Will they ever go back to the “green oval”? Only time will tell.

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