Best 4x4 or leg­endary relic?

BRIAN BAS­SETT shakes and rat­tles, but does not roll well with the Land Rover De­fender 90

The Witness - Wheels - - MOTORING -

OVER the years we have re­viewed a num­ber of Land Rovers in this col­umn. Cars like the Dis­cov­ery, Range Rover and Free­lander.

We con­sid­ered these to be among the finest cars we have driven in terms of de­sign, tech­nol­ogy and dura­bil­ity.

They also had the abil­ity to go just about any­where in com­fort.

The one Landy we have not had the op­por­tu­nity to drive was the De­fender, an icon de­signed in 1948 and phased out af­ter 67 years in pro­duc­tion in De­cem­ber 2015.

In those 67 years, other than the ad­di­tion of a small amount of com­fort, elec­tric side win­dows for the front pas­sen­gers and a tall front win­dow in­stead of a split win­dow, there were few vis­i­ble changes.

This is af­ter all a car in which front wind- up win­dows were only in­tro­duced in 1983.

En­gines and drive trains, as well as sus­pen­sions have also been im­proved and the ve­hi­cle we drove, cour­tesy of Al­lan Neave, used car sales man­ager of Jaguar/ Land Rover Pi­eter­mar­itzburg, had the last 2,2- litre diesel en­gine, in­tro­duced in 2011 and de­liv­er­ing 90 kW/ 360 Nm.

The orig­i­nal util­ity ve­hi­cle

The De­fender is pow­er­ful and tough with a rec­om­mended max­i­mum gra­di­ent as­cent of 45° and an abil­ity to tow sev­eral times its weight. Sounds great but there is a prob­lem.

The De­fender is a util­ity ve­hi­cle; it has also been ex­ten­sively used as a mil­i­tary ve­hi­cle, both dur­ing the Ir­ish trou­bles in the 1970s and as a plat­form for Rapier mis­siles for the Bri­tish Army.

Re­cently, in Afghanistan, the Bri­tish added a re­volv­ing 50- cal­i­bre tur­ret to a con­ver­sion of the ve­hi­cle and the De­fender ren­dered great ser­vice there. The prob­lem is that, while the De­fender is as tough as a bag of nails, it’s as un­com­fort­able as sleep­ing on a bag of them.

In fact is the De­fender can­not be talked of in terms of com­fort but in terms of the roles its ro­bust­ness and strength al­low it to per­form.

When one thinks of the range of fine, durable ve­hi­cles Land Rover now pro­duces, all of them very ca­pa­ble in the rough, one can­not help won­der­ing how the De­fender has man­aged to last so long.

I found the ve­hi­cle cramped, while en­ter­ing the cabin re­quired a great deal of grunt­ing and groan­ing, my cell­phone caught on the door han­dle and my foot could not quite find the run­ning board for that last push to take me on to the edge of the driver’s seat, where I could then slide into an ad­mit­tedly com­fort­able high- rid­ing seat. Leav­ing the ve­hi­cle was a con­tin­u­a­tion of the night­mare, with my right foot only touch­ing the ground once my left leg had cramped while try­ing to dis­en­gage from the run­ning board. There is, how­ever, an up­side.

The body work is tough and the ve­hi­cle’s ar­chi­tec­ture con­trib­utes to the im­age of brute strength it por­trays, with a no- non­sense func­tional sim­plic­ity and a slab- sided pro­file that makes it all the more adapt­able to any off- road con­di­tions.

That tough body is made of light­weight alu­minium, with its pan­els riv­eted on to a metal frame to al­low easy re­pair in the field. The cargo bed in all mod­els is also alu­minium, al­low­ing for a rust- free life for your De­fender. But alas, af­ter I drove the De­fender for about a week I found it un­com­fort­able on tar, with bone­shak­ing man­ners over deep pot­holes and speed plat­forms. The plea­sure of course is that you did not have to slow down for ei­ther.

On the Mid­lands D roads the De­fender is more than com­pe­tent but not easy to drive with its long­stemmed gear lever op­er­at­ing a sixspeed gear­box and a heavy clutch.

It is very much a man’s car to drive, although I’m told the coil- spring sus­pen­sion I had on the model I drove makes for “a soft ride” com­pared to ear­lier mod­els and meant I wasn’t be­ing quite as manly as I thought I was.

Real manly driv­ers, I was told, would hook the per­ma­nent AWD and lock up the cen­tre diff to drive this ve­hi­cle any­where. I re­torted I have al­ready did so — in the Land Rover Dis­cov­ery, with au­to­matic gears, elec­tric seats and a sub­lime sound sys­tem. The Land Rover De­fender is, then, as much an ob­ject of de­sire as it is one of the most re­mark­able mar­ket­ing suc­cess sto­ries ever.

I will ad­mit to hav­ing two friends who have De­fend­ers. The one ve­hi­cle is 28 years old and the other 32 years old. I have driven to Dur­ban in both of these. Conversation is im­pos­si­ble be­cause of cabin noise and air- con­di­tion­ing is pro­vided by small win­dows that open be­low the wind­screen.

Thank­fully the De­fender we drove was fully air- con­di­tioned, although cabin noise was still dis­tract­ing.

None­the­less these ve­hi­cles are loved and cared for by their own­ers and any crit­i­cism of them is viewed as trea­son. Com­ments about noise and driv­abil­ity are pushed aside as “wet” and not un­der­stand­ing the pur­pose of the Landy.

Tak­ing the ve­hi­cles from their garage is viewed as an event and in fact De­fender own­ers can be said to have de­vel­oped a cap­tive’s love for their ve­hi­cles, also known as Stock­holm Syn­drome. But, as we wrote in Wheels, life is too short not to fall in love, which is why the Landy leg­end will con­tinue to grow, even while the orig­i­nal fades into his­tory as we await the new De­fender at the end of 2016.

The prob­lem is that, while the De­fender is as tough as a bag of nails, it’s as un­com­fort­able as sleep­ing on a bag of them.

PHOTO: AL­WYN VILJOEN

Hav­ing one life and liv­ing it is what hav­ing a Land Rover De­fender is all about, as owner Ron­nie Drew is al­ways keen to demon­strate in his highly mod­i­fied Landy. Note the re­cov­ery rope, be­cause pukkah Landy driv­ers who do not get stuck, sim­ply are not try­ing hard enough.

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