As English as fish and chips and as stylish as a cardboard box, the Land Rover is a love-it or hate-it kind of car. And if Ben-Fogle’s 300-page love letter to the iconic British vehicle is to be believed, it is also the world’s most common, with more than two million owners worldwide.
It is, he points out as he dons the red, white and blue jersey, truly a people’s car, more so even than Hitler’s pet project, the Volkswagen Beetle.
However, if it is now the vehicle of choice for the rural working man, it was first the toy of wealthy farmers, country squires, and royal families. Even today the whiff of new money hangs around souped-up luxury versions of the brand, with Ralph Lauren, Kevin Costner, and Sylvester Stallone regularly seen parading themselves and their Land Rovers on Hollywood Boulevard.
The story started at a car plant in gloomy Solihull, in an even gloomier post-war Britain, when Rover Cars wanted a British answer to the American Jeep.
Legend has it that the company chairman, Maurice Wilks, while on a beach holiday in North Wales, sketched out in the sand his ideal image of the perfect four-by-four, a vehicle for the civilian market that could be mass-produced.
The Land Rover was a child of austerity: cheap aluminium panels were favoured, as was a basic cruciform chassis — something which remained standard up to 2016.
When the first model rolled off the assembly line in 1947 the manufacturer had little idea of the treasure it had stumbled upon. In a country which still had an empire, it was about to become the workhorse of choice from Aden to Singapore. Fogle — again slipping into Jeremy Clarkson mode — points out that it is a vehicle on which the sun never sets.
From the early models, known rather unimaginatively as Mark I, II and III, up to when it was renamed the Defender, the Land Rover was an exporter’s dream.
Today, many second-hand models are ex-army — Land Rovers were modified for military use by armies worldwide and saw action in the Middle East, The Falklands, and parts of Africa. In Northern Ireland, they are still used by the PSNI.
The author is a fan. He’s owned three, and parting with each was, for him, like losing a loved one — something perhaps his family wouldn’t appreciate.
He also admits its faults are many: the doors don’t seal and rainwater gets in; the windows always mist up; the gears grind; the engine roars, even at speeds as low as 60kmph; and the seats don’t adjust.
Fogle is best known as a TV presenter, and half way through his book drifts off into an episodic and slightly-repetitive account of the Land Rover in all its forms and aspects. We even get a list of its appearances on the big screen, including Tomb Raider, Romancing the Stone, and any number of James Bond movies. We learn that Queen Elizabeth II learned to drive in a Land Rover although she is not required by law to have a driving licence.
Rover Cars and its Land Rover production line — the symbol of all things British — were taken over by BMW in 1998. The German buy-out led to some little-Englander grumbling in the UK, but it also saw money pumped into the company and an increase in production standards that kept the production line going longer that might otherwise have been expected.
The reality, however, was that the Land Rover was past its sell-by date — production at Solihull ceased on January 29, 2016, and the Land Rover was instantly transformed from a mass product to a vintage collectible.
Fogle has written a rambling but enjoyable account of the world’s favourite four-wheel drive.
Land Rover: The Story of the Car that Conquered the World
William Collins, £14.99
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