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Welcome to Land Rover’s torture chamber

  1. Pity the plight of the British car. Save for a few flukes, our island’s output is a confusion of good intentions failing to meet aptitude or expectation. Or, in other words: ambitious, rubbish.

    Except when it comes to off-roaders. We’re good at them. Well, Land Rover is. And it’s got a lot to do with a 16th century country pile guarding the Welsh borders. It’s called Eastnor Castle, and within its grounds there’s a series of fiendishly punishing off-road routes tailored artfully to destroying Land Rovers.

    For the last 50 years, it’s where the manufacturer’s been developing its vehicles. And we’re here both to audit the current lineup, and test the truism that Land-Rovers are actually pretty good, on the very routes designed to kill them.

    Our mission is simple: can we kill the world’s toughest off-roader?

    Words: Matthew Jones
    Pics: Rowan Horncastle 

  2. First, we sought some destructive advice. This Defender 110 belongs to the first British team to win the Camel Trophy. In it are Bob and Joe Ives - they drove it to victory in 1989 and, between them, know many things about breaking Land Rovers.

    “Drive it fast and disrespectfully,” says Bob. “They’re fairly bomb-proof but they don’t like jumping. Oh, and if you really want to kill one, don’t tighten up the wheel nuts properly. I sold my TVR-engined desert challenge 110 to someone that did that - he was racing in Dubai, felt a wobble, remembered he hadn’t torqued them up, the front dug in and he ended up end-over-ending it.”

  3. “Try getting in a rut, giving a few turns of the wheel and really, really accelerating as well,” says Joe. “Good way to rip the A-arms off, that. Flipping one over’s also worth a go. During some quarry training with Land Rover a driver went to the top of a really steep slope then bottled out and gave it full left-hand lock.

    “After giving it loads of power the car rolled down the hill from roof to wheels. Poor bloke soiled himself. He was fine, though. Turned out he was scared of heights.”

  4. So: disrepec’, speed, jumping, turning the wheels in a rut, undoing the wheel nuts and a full wang of lock at the top of a slope. Nice. And Noted.

    A different Bob gestures towards a Range Rover - a proper one, not the Sport - and offers the keys. “Let’s give Gearbox Hill a try.”

  5. Cryptically, this is the hill that Land Rover engineers use to test transmissions. And, according to Bob - a pro off-roadist that’s showing us around - it’s claimed several.

    “The testers would do about 600 laps of this hill a day. They break all sorts on the development mules - differentials, gearboxes, half shafts, the lot. Hopefully, this one’ll be fine.”

    Au contraire, Bob… With Camel Bob’s words firmly at the forefront, I hit the low-range button, select Mud and Gravel and attempt fast and disrespectful.

  6. The potentially damaging but breathlessly addictive sport of Driving Fast Up a Steep Muddy Hills sounds like an excellent way to scale a damp Malvern.

    But once the various electronica’s configured itself to the task, the Range Rover’s disarmingly able. A big nudge of the 4.4-litre blown V8 diesel’s throttle begins all manner of computerized alchemy. Power’s briefly sent to each wheel for an exploratory nibble, it decides on the most tenacious then simply heaves itself into the clouds.

    It can’t be that easy. And this gearbox must die. Time for another go. In reverse. But it refuses to fluster - the hill falls out of the front window, the change that dropped out my pocket on the way up gets lodged underneath the seat with a chime and I’m at the top of the route. I decide to get out and assess how steep this place actually is. I fall on my backside and summarise - really was very steep.

    Time for a re-think.

  7. I find Camel Bob and tell him that fast and disrespectful didn’t work.

    “Try drowning it. You’re supposed to approach the water slowly so you create a bow wave. This generates a depression that keeps water away from the air intake. What you need to do is get it in the water and floor it. It should flood it. Go for a luxury thing - you might be able to b*gger up the electrics too.”

    A Range Rover Sport seems wise. They’re the preserve of oaken footballers and people that buy stupid toy dogs with their rectum on permanent display - surely I can break one of those.

  8. Teacher Bob directs me to a 700mm wading pool. And this stuff isn’t water. It’s an engineer’s nightmare: silty grit with a puddlejuice mixer that looks perfect for asphyxiating engines. Once the front wheels are wet, I boot it into the full 700mm (roughly half a Jeremy). I can feel the water rushing under the floor pan as a brown wall of liquid grows in front of the radiator.

    We exit the pool. Engine still runs. Electrics still work. Blast.

  9. Back to the drawing board. Let’s try rolling it.

    I ask Camel Bob if I’ll die if I roll over in a Defender. “Probably not. And if you don’t you can just flip it over and carry on.” A double-cab 110 looks agricultural enough to handle the job and I ask the other Bob to find me a large, inhospitable hole.

  10. Camel Bob’s advice was “Bang the steering on as much lock as you dare and hit the throttle.” Which is precisely what I do. Sort of.

    Only partway through the throttle mashing exercise do I get the insidious feeling that I quite like being alive. So I stamp on the brakes, which sends the Defender’s offside rear into the air. Instructor Bob says a Very Rude Word. Sorry, Bob.

    “Don’t worry. Eastnor’s where Land Rover engineers decided to fit coil springs from a Range Rover onto the Defender - they allow a better depth of travel , which means more articulation.”

  11. Time to set the sights slightly lower.

    A winch. Surely I can break a winch. I flagged down another Defender and asked if he’d oblige in a tug of war. “S’your winch mate - go for it.” Diff locks engaged, throttle on the new 2.2-litre four-pot diesel (replete with dizzyingly modern particulate filter for Euro V emissions) and the wheels start scratching for grip. The other driver mirrors.

    After a minute of fidgeting, smokey stasis, the winch remains intact. Probably should have watched this first

  12. Total failure’s looming. Time to find some reflective glory to bask in.

    This man is Roger Crathorne and he’s driving both Top Gear magazine and Jeremy’s car of the year - the Range Rover Evoque. He’s devoted his 45-year working life to Land Rover and engineered, developed, sold and driven them since 1963. Including the Evoque you see above, who’s Magna Ride dampers served their off-road apprenticeship on these very lanes.

  13. He’s also very good at destroying them.

    “When I was developing the original Range Rover, I probably broke between 25 and 30 differentials before we found a design the engineers were happy to sign off for production. We really tortured those mules - most of them were overloaded by 750lb when we were taking them up Gearbox Hill.”

  14. “International testing was good fun, too. In 1969 there was a weld failure on the self-leveling suspension bracket on the original Range Rover test mules, which meant that the whole rear end was just floating around.

    “We didn’t have any big equipment to fix it so we improvised - it’s where I discovered you could weld using a 12-volt battery, set of jump leads and stick of welding rod.

    “So, basically, if it was gonna break, we’ve probably already fixed it.”

  15. How frustrating. In true TG style, rubbishness has trumped ambition.

    Despite the unsettling ruts and divots and water and incompetence, we categorically and absolutely failed to break any of the Land Rovers. We’re blaming Eastnor.

    Our punishment? Driving home in this - the very first Range Rover rolling chassis. We couldn’t break that either…

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