Get them as filthy as you can
Land Rover's 50th-anniversary models are too good to keep on the road
"You know what all Land Rovers need?" I ask Bill Smith, an off-road enthusiast who's riding shotgun with me in a brand-new Discovery. I can't tell what color it is anymore, but I think it's beige. "Windows in the floor." We're cresting the hill at the Autoshow's four-wheel-drive test track, run again this year by the Central Ontario 4x4 club. The nose is pointed way up into the air, and all I can see is sky.
Smith laughs. "You've just got to memorize the corner before you make a run at it." Thankfully, I've already been around once, and I keep myself from getting stuck or knocking over any of the big orange pylons that define the course. It rained last night, and there's a lot of mud slinging around, but the Disco is taking it all in stride. I am impressed.
There are few vehicles in the world which look better when they're dirty, filthy-dirty. The Disco's one of them, and most of the other ones are Land Rovers of some type. Ever seen a clean Defender? You'll know exactly what I mean. While I've never thought of them as much fun on-road, I'm having a ball here; this is great fun, and&emdash;dare I say&emdash;much easier than I ever thought it would be. The Discovery shrugs off railroad tracks and boulders with almost reckless abandon; it tiptoes in and out of puddles. It grinds its way up gravel slopes. It's amazing.
What's equally amazing is how well the new Discos and Range Rovers compare with the Land Rovers of old&emdash;the tall, boxy things with the eighty-eight-inch wheelbases, jacked way off the ground and sitting atop heavy-duty Marsland chassis. They're here too, brought here for the media by some members of the Land Rover owner's club. Among them, a yellow 1957 model formerly owned by a National Geographic photographer and a 1962 Safari Station Wagon named Miss Golightly.
Despite their ancient underpinnings and raucous four-cylinder engines, these vehicles never cease to astound. The yellow one, despite being far noisier than the current models, is surprisingly easy to drive&emdash;you don't even need to give it gas when letting out the clutch in low range. Its suspension, under the conditions, remains quite supple, and the steering wheel, though often spinning of its own accord as it wanders around rocks and other obstacles, is big enough to offer sufficient leverage; there's no power assist on any of the controls. Yet it wheels up forty-five-degree grades, leans over at almost thirty, with merely a clank from the tools sliding around in back and a hum from the motor.
Equally impressive&emdash;though much less of a surprise&emdash;are the unparalleled abilities of the current models. Despite thousands of extra pounds' worth of leather, wood, sound system, power assist, and other convenience items, they're even easier to drive, with their automatic transmissions and&emdash;in the case of the Range Rover&emdash;traction control. Though the requisite luxury items that the Yuppie Trucky set demands as standard are certainly here, it's clear that none of them have detracted from the off-road goodness of these vehicles.
Electronic trickery here is very much in service of off-road performance. While the white Range Rover that I take for a lap has a marvelous CD stereo system, automatic climate controls, and a trip computer, you can feel most of the processing power at work as you trundle along; the traction control clicks on and off, the air suspension levels itself out, and the transmission juggles gears with aplomb; yet beyond the little aural changes that you hear, it's as if nothing's standing in your way.
Land Rover's managing director, Pascal Mismaque, tells me these abilities have to be there in a Rover. While most sport-ute buyers rarely take their vehicles off-road, Land Rover owners, he claims, are different. They're typically wealthier, want to be seen as individualists, and most importantly, will actually take the things off-road, get them a bit dirty. At least, a couple of times.
This year being Land Rover's fiftieth anniversary, there's another, special, color, for owners to bury underneath a layer of mud. It's called Woodcote Green and is available on a total of 100 vehicles: 50 Range Rover 4.0 SE 50ths, and another 50 Discoverys. Both feature an uprated harman/kardon audio system, special leather interiors and TWR five-spoke alloy wheels. The R-R starts at $85,000, and the Disco goes for $54,900.
At prices like that, it'll unfortunately be all too easy to confine these wonderful vehicles to the road. But resist: go on a trailride; go find a track like the one at the Autoshow; join an off-roading club. Get your car filthy. Ruin a pair of good white running shoes like I did. Then smile.
Toronto Area Rover Club
Membership c/o Bill Daddis
68 Marsh Harbour
Aurora, Ontario L9G 5Y7
Toronto Area Rover Club
News c/o Trevor Easton
124 Central Avenue
Grimsby, Ontario L3M 4Z2
Border to Border Trek '98 (BC to Mexico in celebration of LR's 50th)
Contact Simon Burn <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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