James May

James May

Defending the Defender

Never let it be said that I’m not a true motoring enthusiast. I’ve just spent a week in a Land Rover Defender 90, which, the more learned among you will know, is available only as a diesel. So that’s army transport powered by the evil genius of Dr Rudolf, and I have been driving it exclusively around the streets of London.

It’s a 90-inch job with a station wagon body plus some Lara Croft extras such as tread plates in unnecessary places. I’m constantly flabbergasted by it. Its basic design is older than my house – and you have to live in a pretty new house before you can say that of any other car currently in production. It doesn’t just hark from a time before computer-aided design, it seems to be rooted in an age prior to the invention of the mathematical instruments set we used for designing cars in the back of our maths books at school. The shape was obviously worked out using some pieces of folded cardboard, and the last time I saw hinges like the ones on the Defender’s back door, they were on the smokebox of a locomotive in the Science Museum.

Oh, sure, one or two cosmetic bits have been added over the decades. Lights and what have you, and a new plastic radiator grille. But as soon as you drive in to a few things on one of your ‘expeditions’, these will all fall off, and then you’ll be back with the Wilkes brothers’ farm biffabout of 1948.

I love it. It’s definitely a chap’s car. A woman would look ridiculous in it because you would know she must have more sense. I, on the other hand, am very happy bouncing around the capital, parking up and then standing on the bonnet just because I can. You may like to arrive in style – I like to arrive with an arse like a farmer’s face. Just how utilitarian is this thing? Well, there’s a flap just under the windscreen, running the full width of the vehicle, which can be opened with a crude lever from inside. Basically, you open this if the engine’s not quite noisy enough for you or, when you take the Land Rover to the local jet wash, you can do the inside at the same time.

However, yesterday, something bothered me about the Landie. At first I thought it was the centre console, which features all sorts of things that don’t belong in a Defender – electric window switches, seat heater switches, heated screen switches and a radio. Fitting these to a Defender is like carpeting a shed.

But it wasn’t just that. The real problem was that it was just too new. Somehow, a Land Rover is only truly acceptable when it’s old, and ideally given to you by your dad. I can’t really explain why, but it’s a bit like shotguns and wristwatches. Or money.

“How utilitarian is it? There’s a flap under the windscreen, which you open if the engine’s not quite noisy enough” 

Now my Top Gear colleague Richard Hammond – he has a Land Rover that is cresting the peak of elegant decay. It’s a 110 V8 with ‘canvass and sticks’ (as Hammond would say. He means it’s got a removable and roll-upable fabric roof supported by a collapsible steel frame. And it usually does).

It’s black, but where the paint is flaking off in places you can see that it used to be red and the property of the Post Office. From a distance it looks quite tidy, but, up close, vegetation can be observed taking root at any sharp included angle. Anything not absolutely essential simply isn’t there any more, and several things that were once part of the engine are now in the passenger’s footwell.

It really is quite a magnificent thing and it has got me thinking. Soon, the Land Rover Defender will go out of production and England will be ruined unless something is done about it. Fortunately, I have a plan...

The other day, I had dinner with a man in his late Forties at his home. At the end of the meal he took out a bottle of rather fine but deeply obscure single malt whisky. In fact, it turned out to be his own. His father had bought a whole barrel of the stuff, freshly distilled, way back in the 1970s, and then left it in a hut somewhere in Scotland to age. This bloke hadn’t so much drunk his inheritance as inherited his drink.

Let’s face it, no-one has ever walked into a bar and asked for a nice young Scotch. The older the better, and that’s only possible if our forebears take the trouble to put the stuff aside for us. It requires a disciplined and far-sighted society, which is probably why we don’t have 18-year-old Greek ouzo.

Land Rover – officially at any rate – can’t actually build an old car, so it’s up to us to lay a few down while we’ve still got the chance. This requires thought. Whisky needs an old sherry barrel from the Iberian Peninsular. Balsamic vinegar, to take another highly coveted example, has to pass through a succession of barrels of various woods if it is to achieve the right flavour, and that can take 12 years.

So I quite like the idea of a barn-matured Defender. My experiences with the things suggests that two decades in the back of a cow shed should be just about right. That would give it a good nose.

On the other hand, those with a hardier palette might prefer a field-aged model, parked in a meadow with the windows half open to ensure a good mossy finish in 2025.

Come to think of it, this scheme would work rather well for the new Bentley Continental GT as well. It’s a great car now, but, rather like that cheap French grog that most of its first owners will drive off to collect once a year, rather nouveau. Half a lifetime in the car park of the Savoy – doors left unlocked so the odd pissed toff can sleep in it – should make it more pukka than a Rembrandt with your ancestors in it.

Sadly, my own father never did such a grand thing for me, and I don’t have any children of my own. So, had a son recently? Well, put his name down for a posh school or a golf club if you really must, but, for God’s sake, put him down for a Defender.

 

James May, Column, Land Rover, Defender

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