Monday 19 August 2019

It has been an extraordinary 70 years for Land Rover - and for me. And here's why . . .

70 years of Land Rover - Brian Byrne: My personal look back on memorable, global drives with the iconic brand

Iconic brand: Land Rover
Iconic brand: Land Rover
Land Rover
Land Rover
Land Rover
Brian Byrne

Brian Byrne

"Don't touch the clutch or brake; let the engine drag bring you down." His day job was training Irish Army drivers in 4x4 technique. He was giving me a civilian lesson, my first outing in a Land Rover Defender. "Trust the vehicle," he said. Then he told me to let the car go over what felt like a precipice on The Curragh.

I did. And the car let me down. As it was supposed to, controlled and as gentle as you could expect on a much-rutted and steep mud and gravel slope.

That started me on an intermittent love affair with off-road driving, the best of it with Land Rover. Intermittent because as a motoring journalist it is only occasionally that I get the chance to put 4x4s properly through their paces. But such occasions with Land Rover have brought me around the world.

The Rover company's chief designer, Maurice Wilks, built a prototype to operate on his farm. He used a WW2 Jeep's underpinnings, and painted it green because camouflage paint was the only easily-found colour in post-war austerity Britain.

Land Rover
Land Rover

That was also the reason for the aluminium bodywork. No longer needed for fighter planes, there was lots of excess sheet around. The production Land Rover was launched in 1948 at the Amsterdam Motor Show.

Civilian use of the vehicle was primarily by farmers, at home in the UK and later in mainly African countries under British colonial rule. Not surprisingly, as it was never comfortable enough to become a popular road car. In addition to the agricultural community and the British Army adopters, the vehicle was also converted for a variety of other uses, including fire engines and specialist vehicles for other emergency services.

In 1970 the company came out with a whole new genre, with the name Range Rover. Taking the best of the available off-road technology, it was powered by a formerly Buick 'small' V8 that seemed massively powerful in its 3.5L It provided smooth driving, and a capability beyond what most of the targeted owners might ever have to use.

I remember the first time I drove one. A friend of my father's from England came to visit. I was thrilled to see he had a Range Rover. So much so he tossed me the keys and told me to take it for a spin. I brought it back an hour later quite dirty from a mild muddy foray on The Curragh.

That original Range Rover - now known as the Classic - changed the game for the Land Rover brand. It was comfortable enough as a passenger car for the wealthy. And it had the luxury ethos to appeal to them.

It also proved there was a market for a passenger vehicle with proper 4x4 capability. But because of difficulties to do mostly with the collapse of then owner British Leyland, it was 1989 before the brand managed to target more 'ordinary' opportunities in the agricultural, construction and engineering sectors, with the first Discovery.

Land Rover brought me to the US Canyonlands in Utah, USA, in 2003. It was the last leg of the company's first G4 Challenge, and though I spent most of my time in the back seat of the Discovery, I came away impressed with the ability of the car, and the frontiers people who two centuries before had traversed those same awesome spaces in Conestoga wagons.

The third generation (2005) of Discovery gave me my first taste of Iceland. Never afraid to 'trust the vehicle', the company hosted a three-day expedition in winter, crossing rivers, snowfields and solidified lava terrain. My particular memory is of floating on my back at midnight in a warm bubbling stream, with my face in -10degC cold, and looking up at the most vivid starlit sky.

A smaller Land Rover SUV, the Freelander, was to bring me back to Iceland, this time in summer to Snaefellsnes, the location of the entrance to the 'centre of the earth' as used by Jules Verne in his science fiction novel about a journey to that very place.

The arrival of a smaller Range Rover, the Sport, had us driving in the Pyrenees in 2005, testing both its road drive and offroad capabilities. At some point a pair of journalists, not Irish, decided to wade into a mountain lake without checking the depth … they and their car had to be rescued.

When I was offered a slot to cover a week of the 2006 G4 Challenge, I brazenly said I'd do all four. I was the only European journalist to do the whole four weeks. Beginning in Bangkok we travelled up through the rain forests of Laos, camping with the mosquitoes in dry-season paddy fields. From there we flew for a weekend event in Rio de Janeiro, then spent 10 days driving through the Andes in Bolivia. Big memories include driving at speed across the vast salt lake of the Salar de Uyuni.

Two things scare me mightily. One is caves, the other those dirt mountain roads with unprotected thousand-feet drops. On that G4 Challenge I paddled a dugout wooden canoe 12km under a mountain in Laos, seeing only by small helmet-light. In Bolivia I drove those sheer-drop roads. I'm still absolutely scared by both, but I'd do them again in a heartbeat.

I went back to the Andes in 2007, this time for a five-day 'Road to the Clouds' adventure which was to show how a Discovery 3 could operate at up to 5,000 metres and beyond. We took the hard way, mostly along river ravines and unpaved valley tracks to the pass at Abra El Acay. From we drove up even further through what was a veritable moonscape, to achieve maximum altitude.

I was lucky, I didn't come down with altitude sickness on either of my Andean adventures, when younger and arguably fitter members of our groups did. I did get sick, however, at the launch of a new generation Range Rover through the Atlas Mountains in Morocco in 2012. Nothing to do with the altitude or the vehicle, just a rather severe bout of food poisoning. It didn't put me off either Land Rover or Morocco.

In recent years, Land Rover has pushed the luxury end of its range rather than the utilitarian, albeit with an amazing level of technology that allows any Land Rover or Range Rover vehicle to take its occupants to and back from some extreme situations. Today owned by Tata Motors, it has survived seven decades over sometimes fraught ownership by Rover, British Leyland, British Aerospace, BMW and Ford.

Through all that, the Defender was, until its recent demise, the only direct link with the original Land Rover invented by Maurice Wilks. Somehow the others don't grab me viscerally like did that one I first tipped over the hill on The Curragh all those years ago.

But then, the customers - well-heeled and likely never to have to pitch a tent in -13degC by headlamp in darkness in the Andes - are different too.

Happy 70th birthday, Land Rover. And thanks for the memories.

Indo Motoring

Also in Life