There I was, stranded next to the road. Deziree, the 1971 Land Rover, had died on the way to our office. Thankfully I’d made it to the pavement. Being stuck in the middle of a busy road would have been less socially pleasing. So there we were, the dead Land Rover and I. I opened the bonnet, stared at the engine, fiddled a bit and tried to start the engine. No sign of life. So I stared some more, swore a bit, tried to start it again but curiously, still no life. I swore some more. Then I took out the phone and called in the cavalry. While I was waiting for the help to arrive, I started watching the reactions of other motorists as they drove past a classic, but dead, Landy and a disgruntled type, pacing up and down next to it.
The vast majority had that ‘ag shame’ look about them. Like when you drive in heavy rain and the car in front of you splashes some poor pedestrians. They looked at me like I was a wet pedestrian. Toyota 4×4 drivers, in general, seemed to wear their best ‘I told you so!’ faces. And then a Land Rover Defender 90 appeared on this horizon. He didn’t drive past. He stopped. I told him about the lifeless engine, and he muttered something about the coil. Moments later he was fiddling with the coil, checking the wiring, pulling here and there. “Try it now,” he said. So I did. And Deziree’s straight-six engine erupted to life. “I have an old 109, too, so I’m used to fiddling with the engine. Best fit a new coil, I see this one has plenty of miles on it,” said the magic fiddler, before he drove off in his 90, barely allowing me the chance to say ‘thanks’.
Since this incident, Deziree’s engine has received a major makeover and she jumps to life if you so much as look at the ignition key. It’s quite amazing. But that incident with the 90 owner and a recent discussion about a former Land Rover salesperson, got me thinking about Land Rover in general. Thing is, the Land Rover brand has traditionally been about 4×4 (like in mud, sweat and gears 4×4), camaraderie, the passion for a piece of metal (and aluminium) with loads of character and about the outdoor lifestyle. According to the passionate Landy salesman, who recently left his long-standing post, the heart and soul of Land Rover has changed, though. Besides the fact that the Defender is no longer made, the new generation of Land Rover Discoverys and Range Rovers has changed the essence of what he believed Land Rover was all about: the off-road driving, the camaraderie, the history, the lifestyle, the friendly wave shared between Defender drivers.
The new Discovery 5 will start at R1 million. The Range Rovers are much more. Not many owners of a new Disco or Range Rover will venture far off the beaten track, not with 20-inch wheels and delicate paintwork that can be scratched. The smaller Disco Sport and Evoque are at best gravel road tourers. Essentially, much of the brand’s real-world 4×4 prowess has passed on with the Defender. The new generation of Land Rover buyers, says the salesman, are less about lifestyle and more about fashion. These ‘new age’ owners couldn’t be bothered with details such as the Range Rover’s amazing 900mm wading depth. As long as they reckon they look cool in it, then that’s reason enough to buy it.
With the new sales trends, the camaraderie has also gone, says the salesman. In previous years, he said, he used to build up lifelong friendships with clients. Recently it had become just business. Walk in, show, test drive, pay, drive off. So here’s the thing: with the old Defender out of the game, is Land Rover’s new high-end, top-dollar focus not a short-sighted move that will eventually backfire? Or will the well-heeled clients always line up to pay their millions without a care in the world about heritage, 4×4, camaraderie and the outdoors/overland lifestyle? Time will tell. But I reckon the all-new Defender, apparently due to be launched internationally in 2018, will have a major influence on perceptions about the brand’s heart and soul. Here’s holding thumbs it has some of the old Defender magic that so many people still love and share.
Text and images: Danie Botha