Clarkson on: 4x4s
If you’re a dizzy bird who’s just read something in the hairdresser’s about how your big SUV is murdering polar bears, then it’s really not difficult to find a smaller, less bear-killing alternative.
The Range Rover you have now is, in essence, a five-seat estate car, so you could have a BMW 5-Series, an Audi A6, an Audi A4, a BMW 3-Series, a Mercedes C-Class, a Mercedes E-Class, a Ford Mondeo, a Vauxhall Astra, a Vauxhall Vectra, a Ford Focus, or any one of about a million Nissans, Toyotas, Skodas, VWs, Citroens or Fiats. Or if you are really worried about bears, an Oyster card.
Yes, I know you live in Surrey where the roads are sometimes covered in twigs or frost, but trust me, you’ll be able to manage without four-wheel drive. No, really, you will. Cross my heart and hope to die.
We heard recently that sales of four-wheel drive cars dipped by 15 per cent in November, and most industry analysts reckon that there will be similar falls in 2007. So eventually, I presume, the car makers will get the idea and stop making them altogether. That’s bad news for the Army.
Replacing our boys’ Land Rovers with Renault Espaces is a bit like replacing their boots with flip flops. It won’t really work.
I’ve just been reading a book about the history of Britain’s special forces – well, it beats the crap out the book my wife is reading which is called The Cloud Atlas – and I learned something intriguing. Contrary to popular myth, the SAS was not born from the Long Range Desert Group. It was born from the commandos and simply used the LRDG as a taxi service.
And here’s something even more intriguing. To get around the desert, the boys had to use ordinary 2WD trucks. This, they say now, was jolly tricky.
I should say so. Have you ever tried to drive in a desert? If you try to keep the revs low, and use low end torque to pull you along, you will sink into the sand. If you keep the revs high and the wheels spinning you will sink into the sand. And if you do anything in between, you will also sink into the sand.
Driving over sand, in a two-wheel drive car, is like trying to marshal air with a dustpan and brush. It cannot be done. And yet, somehow, those boys did it. Digging and heaving and shoving and pushing their trucks over the softer stuff, and then blasting over the shale in the hope they’d have enough momentum to climb the next dune.
But not so much momentum that they’d reach the top of the dune with too much speed... and take off. One heavily laden truck, apparently, was going so fast when it reached the ridge, it flew for 96 feet. And then broke the driver’s back when it landed.
Many things prompted the SAS to ditch the LRDG, chief among which was their capacity for theft. They could steal anything from Army supplies and some of the things they stole were a handful of new fangled American Jeeps.
"Replacing our boys’ Land Rovers with Renault Espaces is a bit like replacing their boots with flip flops"
They fitted them with two twin machine guns, fore and aft, and would whizz about the desert blowing up more Italian and German planes on the ground than even the best fighter ace could manage in the air. Put very simply, four-wheel drive helped Britain win the war in North Africa.
And today it’s still being used in the fight against the Taliban and the insurgents in Iraq.
Unfortunately, while the Americans have replaced their Jeeps with Humvees and moved on, Britain is using a car that’s based on a WW2 relic. The Land Rover Defender.
I had the honour of being allowed to drive an Army Land Rover when I was in Basra last year, and honestly, it was like stepping back through a 200-year time portal. I’ve seen trees grow faster. And it was more top-heavy than a mushroom.
Much to the amusement of the Americans, they’re called Snatch Vehicles and they’re supposed to get troops into and out of a battlefield quickly. Yeah, right. If you try to do anything quickly they fall over and the only reason they don’t is because they are fitted with the smallest engines in the world.
They put me in the driver’s seat and feigned an attack on my ‘wing man’. I screeched to a halt, the soldiers in the back leaped out, the ‘injured’ from the other vehicle were brought on board, a grenade was lobbed into the other vehicle to stop it falling into enemy hands and then, as the back door on my car slammed shut, the sergeant shouted in that Army, boomy way, “Go, go, go!”
I tried. Really, I did try. But we set off at a speed even Jane Austen would call pedestrian. And yet, despite the slowness, as I swung us round to get us away from the ‘trouble’, I thought we were going to roll over and crush the men who were poking out of turrets on the roof giving what they call top cover.
We are told that Britain is getting its arse kicked in southern Iraq and I’m not surprised. Never mind better housing, better vests, and better hospitals – all of which are important – what our troops need is better, faster, less top-heavy transport.
I keep thinking of the Bowler Wildcat, fitted with flame-throwers and machine guns. That’s what the SAS would have chosen if it were 1943 and they were up against Rommel.
Then there’s my Land Rover, which has a 3.9-litre V8. That’s what the Army would have been given when Britain was an empire run by an empress, or even a kingdom, ruled by a king. But of course today we’re a country run by a, er, man, so it won’t happen.
The plan at present is to replace the Land Rovers with a vehicle called the Panther. It looks like a mini Humvee, and is designed specifically for the military, so it paints a low radar image, goes pretty fast and can be fitted with whatever level of armour the commanders see fit.
Great, but it’s made by Iveco, which is owned by Fiat, and that of course is fine... for now. But Fiat is not in rude health at the moment, so in the future it may well be bought.
And that’s where things get tricky. Bought by whom? The Chinese? The Libyans? The North Koreans? Who may decide the best sort of armour plating, actually, is cardboard.
Really and truly, British troops should use British equipment. They should use Land Rovers, and Land Rover should be working on a new Defender now, with that in mind. But instead, they’re working out how to survive in a world when bear-obsessed dizzy women no longer want Range Rovers. This means our troops will soon be asked to defend our nation from the seat of a North Korean Fiat Uno. So, there we are then. It seems we’re in a race. Whether we kill the polar bears before they have a chance to kill us.