Flip through any dictionary today, and whether it’s an Oxford or a Mirriam-Webster, if you look under the definition of utilitarian, I’m sure that you’ll find Land Rover listed there.
Now that I’ve got that overused cliché out of the way, it’s time to question why people associate Land Rover with these rugged connotations. I had never been in a Land Rover vehicle, but had heard and read no end of praise about the British brand.
I have driven Range Rovers on a couple of occasions, specifically the HSE and the Sport, but found them to be luxury SUVs that could transport a family in comfort. The “being able to go anywhere” reputation didn’t seem to hold up. This is where it quickly becomes apparent that the Land Rover brand stands for something completely different, as we’d find out soon.
Even Hollywood loves them. Whether you’re watching gritty stuff like Blood Diamond or Mr. Bond’s antics, Land Rovers show up in one form or another, gracing the big screen with their presence, while conveying the seriousness of the situation.
Simultaneously, the brand has become a cultural icon, representing the heydays of the English manufacturing sector. Be as it may, there is no denying that Landies have become the darlings of the Instagram lifestyle crowd, who see a return to the simple life as soon as they jump into their Defenders. This probably explains the rise in prices for old Land Rovers in the last few years, in addition to the numerous aftermarket builders willing to tailor a Land Rover to a customer’s “bespoke” taste.
The truth is, the vehicle is so damned versatile, it’s hard to beat. Ambulances, police cars, farmers’ transportation, military adaptations and so much more, the original concept of a tough-as-nails four-wheel vehicle has served people around the globe for the last seven decades. Land Rover themselves have begun restoring cars through their “Reborn” program, giving the oldies a second life to live.
Being completely honest, I was fascinated by the brand, but I wasn’t looking for this story. Instead, it found me completely by chance. Visiting a friend’s house for the first time, he lifted a tarp to reveal a flash of very flat green paint on the unmistakably boxy silhouette of a Land Rover. The car had a story and it’s time to tell it properly.
In order to get an idea for what the Land Rover brand stood for, I had inadvertently stumbled upon one of the purest adaptations of the platform – a 1986 Land Rover 110 FFR, which stood for Fitted For Radio. A British military radio van, this example had served at the front lines moving with troops and keeping communication lines open. While it is unclear exactly where it served, the owner surmises that it spent some time in desert, before or after serving in Germany. The requisite details are buried deep somewhere in a British military archive.
Back to the car at hand. Its military life necessitated the complete absence of any creature comforts, not that the early Landies had many to begin with. This car had been given its distinctive green coat in the field, probably at a military barracks or a supply depot not far from where it would serve.
Being a radio truck, this example had a few quirks. It originally came factory fitted to provide 24 volts worth of electricity, no doubt to keep the radio alive. It also has a 12v socket next to the taillights to provide auxiliary power to a trailer or other equipment that may require it.
Inside, the cabin is expectedly spartan. A large steering wheel, clear gauges, two shifters (one for regular gears and one for low range), an ammeter and a very interesting light switch knob. Turning the knob allowed the occupants to choose a variety of different settings: headlights only, taillights only, parking lights only and various combinations of all three, for nighttime convoy duties. In addition to that, the cabin contains two cushioned seats and a lot of space in the rear, where the radio used to be.
Moving to the exterior of the Landie, it is for all intents and purposes a box on wheels. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s a number of boxes inside a box. The military versions were fitted with compartments for jerrycans on both sides, which I duly explored. The owner is in the process of returning the truck to its full military uniform, to which end antenna fittings had been recently returned to their rightful places next to the jerrycan compartments.
All these details simply worked together to convince me of one thing, the Land Rover is almost childishly simple, which is why it was so effective. Everything was modular, repairs could be carried out in the middle of a warzone or on the side of a busy street and they were reliable workhorses, most of the time. The original Land Rover never tried to be flashy, fancy or fast. It simply plugged away at what it did best and in today’s world, where we are surrounded by objects that are aesthetically pleasing but have no real impact, there is little wonder that more and more people are beginning to see the allure of a bulletproof working platform. Everyone’s got a Land Rover story, and as time goes by, younger generations do not want to miss out on the opportunity to forge their own.
So, what of this example? Having served a number of hard years in the service of the Queen’s men, this Landie now lives a charmed life in Southern California. She gets driven semi-regularly, mostly to transport four excitable yet friendly Huskies. Her paint is tired and the suspension creaks on occasion, but she tackles every task with a certain military doggedness (sorry!).
The owner kindly suggested that I drive the Landie home from our shoot location, a short drive. I was apprehensive, mostly because I did not want to hurt this proud military veteran, especially after it had earned my respect. Mometarily casting aside any fears, I climbed into the driver’s seat.
The starting procedure is a slightly detailed one, involving a couple different stages and an eight-second wait time. The 2.5-liter diesel engine woke with a typical clatter, which became its idle exhaust note. I gingerly shifted into first and we began to roll forward. Almost immediately, I had to shift into second, and then soon after, third. Old diesels do not like to be revved, as I learned that day.
Eventually entering a main street, I rowed through the gears to fourth and we began moving at a semi-respectable speed, only for me to progressively lose almost all of the steering feedback I had been receiving. A look of horror to the owner was immediately soothed by a knowing nod and “They do that.” So far, so good.
A few minutes later, the Landie was home. My impressions from the drive were basically those of driving a box, which is what the Landie is. Having spent a large majority of its life under 50 mph, the truck is a slow workhorse that will get you where you’re going through whatever terrain you choose. Just don’t drive it fast and don’t take turns at speed.
As we wrapped up the Landie for the night and the Huskies bounded around, happy to be back on terra firma, I understood the Land Rover’s purpose. Whether it was the 90, the 110 or the Defender, these trucks are flagbearers for the “Slow and steady wins the race” crowd, primarily because their race is of a different nature. I don’t know how many times a Forward Operating Base or a bunch of squaddies have been grateful for the presence of this green machine, but I do know that she’s got stories, slogging along for Queen and Country with nary a complaint.
A simple engine, a few aluminum panels and a little paint, rubber and gas. That’s all it takes to drive around the world. Simplicity really is key, something we oft forget.
So that’s a military Land Rover’s story. What’s yours?
Special thanks to Greg Emmerson for bringing out his Landie for a day in the park. It’s always good to be around Huskies and a Land Rover is more than welcome too!