Behind the Steering Wheel [Courtesy Rovers North News, June 2007]
By Jeffrey B. Aronson
Recently, the New York Times quoted Nicole Farhi, a French designer working in London. She owns a 1956 Mercedes 190 cabriolet and claims “no one else is allowed to drive it. Old cars only recognize one driver. You have to know how to coax it. I drive my Mercedes every day to my office off or Carnaby St., and always get a lot of thumbs-up.”
Series Land Rover owners will recognize the validity of her statements. Even Range Rover Classic and Discovery owners can find themselves having to give more detailed instructions than “make certain you put gas in it” when they loan out their Rovers.
I have let others drive my two Series II-A’s, but never with enthusiasm or confidence. An offer to “take my car” is accompanied by a long list of starting, accelerating and stopping instructions that usually lead the recipient to say, “Never mind, I’ll walk.” Even in rain, snow and sleet! If they do summon up the courage to drive it, they watch me cringe with a discomforting combination of anguish and fright.
When you do loan out the Rover, it will never drive as you predict. When you insist the clutch action is smooth, it will lurch. If you state it shifts easily, it will grind in every gear. Rovers recognize only one driver; any alternate driver will feel as though they’re still working on their Learners Permit. You really do need to know “how to coax it.” What is undeniable is that if you drive your Land Rover every day, you will get thumbs-up from a huge range of people, on Carnaby St. or Main St. __________________________________ In the 1960’s, tweed flat cap sorts argued endlessly about “what is a sports car?” Most agreed that agility, handling, great road feel, simplicity and functionality, were critical qualities. Physics would dictate that light weight would be important. That in turn meant a small engine of simple yet durable construction – you needed to be able to tune it easily when you took it to the track or to a rally on the weekends. The car would be small so it could remain light and nimble. Light weight also mitigated against much weather protection, thus the “hankie in the wind” tops common to MG’s, Triumphs and Austin-Healys.
Driver involvement was also a crucial factor. No need to isolate the driver from the road underneath the car; he would want to feel every bump or dip. A short-throw manual transmission, correctly placed pedals, informative instrumentation, and hip-hugging seats would increase your involvement. Passenger comfort or convenience played only the smallest role- the Porche 912 of the ‘70’s didn’t even offer an adjustment on the passenger’s seat. This debate arose after sports car manufacturers found their markets being devoured by cars that met consumer demands for comfort, speed, reliability, size and styling without the discomfort, noise and barebones feel of the classic sports car. Putting a 4-speed manual transmission or bucket seats in a Pontiac Tempest or a Ford Mustang did not make them sports cars, but it did jack up volume sales of those models. Most of the body panels, frames, engines and other components were shared with the family sedan counterparts of the same manufacturer. That kept costs low, making British cars- with a high pound/dollar exchange rate even more expensive in comparison. Welcome to the 21rst century when Land Rover finds that the highly adaptable, utilitarian, elemental Defender shares its platform with no other Land Rover product. It requires more labor time, paid for in those expensive British pounds, than its other Land Rover cousins. Volume might be the answer except for the cost of manufacture and the inability for the current model to meet US legislative and regulatory standards. What’s providing volume sales for Land Rover are the Range Rover Sport, Range Rover, LR3 and LR2. These vehicles are profitable for Land Rover [and Ford] but they create their own dilemmas for Land Rover. Some might become Land Rover enthusiasts, but honestly, a vehicle requiring a computer system to diagnose running problems is not going to be the first choice for remote fieldwork. They’re purchased by owners whose needs are for family transport, daily commuting, vacation trips and high speed highway driving. They are fascinating vehicles in terms of engineering and off road orientation. The care and feeding of this new Land Rover owner – who expect annual updates and enhancements – might just soak up Land Rover’s resources that otherwise might go to making the Defender available for the US market. How badly do Land Rover enthusiasts want a Defender back in the US? The price asked for 1993 Defender 110’s and the ’93-’98 Defender 90’s tells us that both models’ popularity remain enormous. Visually, the Defender never strayed far from the purposeful look of the Series I – III Land Rovers. In terms of engineering, the Defender stretched the extraordinary capabilities of the Series models even further. Our relatively low fuel prices meant that we received the exceptional 3.5/3.9 liter Rover V-8, which gave the Defender the acceleration and highway speed necessary for living large in the USA. In the ‘90’s, we bought every Defender brought in – the problem for Land Rover was that the annual total rarely exceeded 1,500. That’s not really enough volume to assure updates to meet regulatory changes. Ah, those darned regulations – like airbags, side curtains, and more. For example in April, 2007, the federal government announced that all new passenger vehicles sold in the US will be required to have anti-rollover technology by the 2012 model year. We haven’t even begun to review the emissions standards that keep Land Rover’s outstanding diesels out of the US market. When General Motors threatened to buy Land Rover in the 1960’s, British enthusiasts rebelled and led Land Rover convoys to protest the possible takeover. If Americans want the Defender back in the US, maybe we need a convoy to Irvine, CA, to let Land Rover know of our deepest desires. __________________________________ Frank Twarog, Hinesburg,VT has the desire. He’s younger but we’re both graduates of the University of Vermont. When Frank became a student, I taught courses in the History Department. He owned a Series Land Rover and hung around Rovers North when he should have been in the library. Frank was one of the first people to share my joy when a Rovers North 2.25 rebuild was dropped into the QE I. During the ‘90’s, he’s writing articles for the Rovers North News and soon after, landed a sales position with the company. A Defender 90 followed, as did a family and a new profession as a lawyer in Burlington, VT. It was Frank who rescued me from my flailing attempts to find another Series Rover to “co-own” with my neighbor, Hugh Martin. Frank’s ’66 Series II-A Hardtop had led a rough life as a farm truck at the Shelburne Farms estate but it served Frank well as a plow truck at his Hinesburg home. To entice me to buy it, Frank had the sale savvy to leave a 1977 UVM Faculty Staff parking sticker on the bumper – indeed, that cemented the sale for me! Recently, Frank sent photocopies of a 1966 and 1973 Vermont business directory featuring Burlington’s Land Rover dealer. In 1966, Lakeview Buick, Inc., sold Buick, Opel [Buick’s captive import] and Land Rover. Their multistory building was on Burlington’s hilly Main Street, and you drove up a ramp to get to the service department on the second floor. As a college student during that time, I remember ogling at the one Land Rover in the showroom window. As my Morris Minor had cost me $400, a new Land Rover seemed like an impossible stretch to me. By 1973, Lakeview Buick had followed its competitors to the suburbs and opened a spacious new dealership about 3 miles away. Without the view of Lake Champlain, they had morphed into Lake Buick. By that time, UVM was employing me at a salary scale that continued to assure me that I would remain Rover-less. Still, I would drive my Simca out to Lake Buick to stare at the Land Rovers. Frank sent a note accompanying the photocopies. “Drove by Lake Buick today…they’re tearing it down.” It was a quaint time when Rover of North America, and later, British Leyland, threw their products into the mix with other marques. Long before the Sales Guides wore wrinkled khaki shirts and expedition boots, they wore slick polyester shirts and white boots. “Did you want a vinyl roof with that Electra 2.25, sir?” _____________________________________________ In April I conversed with correspondent Randy Dickson of White River Junction, VT. When I asked him “what’s your job?” he responded with a short answer. “I’m an industrial arts teacher,” he said. Then he asked me the same question. Oh, boy, this is going to take a while. Like many people in Maine and throughout northern New England, I have multiple jobs, depending on the seasons. Painting houses, caretaking summer properties, wood cutting and clearing are best accomplished in drier, warmer weather. In northern New England, that means late spring, summer or early fall. Fortunately for me, I have other jobs - editing this magazine, assisting at our local school, building web sites, public humanities programs and bartending. Reading, talking, surfing the web and drinking occur year round. This island is the size of an English town, about 4 miles wide and 9 miles long. You’re not going to put on a lot of miles working here. Good thing, too, for gas has risen to nearly $4.00 per gallon. The island school lies 1 mile from the village. After working there one morning I walked to the parking lot with Amanda, our school secretary. “Amanda,” I said, “how would like a ride to the village in my Land Rover, the ‘Chick Magnet’?” She laughed and said, “Jeff, I’ve only got 30 minutes for lunch!” Summer people have commented to me that my two ’66 Series II-A’s are perfect vehicles for the island. Unknowingly they treat the Land Rovers as if they were delicate antiques, unable to withstand the rigors of daily use. Wrong! The Station Wagon and the Hardtop are perfect vehicles for island use, but because of different qualities. The weather has been screwy in Maine this year. Winter came late, in February, with hard cold and little snow. March and April brought heavy snowfalls and two nor’easters that battered the entire state. I write this column on May 1; it is snowing in Caribou, Maine this morning. The weather has extended the heating season and emptied out the wood pile. Heavy snowmelt and hard rains have made the fields and woods quite wet and boggy. This cool spring has meant that fetching wood for the stove has been a steady need. Fold up the rear seats in the station wagon, remove the ammo box [my version of the fabled “Continental Touring Kit”] and the crate full of “Car in A Can” fluids, and you have a lot of room in which to stuff firewood. In April, a new summer family came into the bar for food and drink. They’re Connecticut residents building a summer home on newly-cleared waterfront. My ears perked up – what are you doing with the logged trees? In fact, they had some local brothers clear the land and cut the trees into log length already. If they didn’t want the wood, I was free to drive down and take it. A phone call the next day cleared the way for me to add to my depleted woodpile. When I arrived at the lane to their lot, I got out of the Rover to walk the land. It sloped down steadily towards the rocky shore. The ground was quite soft with runoff, but I noticed some ledge and rocks in the ground that should provide solid footing. I got back in the Rover and drove down in first gear low range to the wood stacked near the shore. I loaded up the Rover with wood stacked nearly to the roof. Then I headed back up the hill. English magazines will tell often about the challenges of off roading in slippery grassy fields. They’re right. My route required that I turn left and then head up a steep rise with no room to gain momentum. The Rover’s wheel started to spin in first low range. Shifting into second lessened the wheelspin but I couldn’t get enough speed to make it up the hill. I considered shifting into high range 4-wheel drive but I knew that first gear would be too low for the entire run up the hill; shifting a non-synchro II-A on the fly just looses momentum. After a few tries I could see ruts forming in the field, so I got out of the car to plan a different route. I had no desire to empty the Rover of wood – it had taken too much energy to stuff it in. Taking a longer way round would give me more room for momentum, but take me across potentially softer ground. Just in case, I knew I had my Hi-Lift for assistance, so I gave the new route a try. Fortunately, it worked! _______________________________ Recently we received yet another letter from a soldier in Iraq, this time, a postcard from Sgt. Paul Thronburg. He writes “thanks for the magazine. There are lots of Defenders running around over here, both civilian and MOD versions. I am looking at a couple of Series models as my first. Thanks again!” Keep yourself safe in Iraq and let us know which Series Rover you select. We all need to remember to thank you and your counterparts in all the armed forces for your service and sacrifice. Copyright 2007 Jeffrey Aronson and Rovers North
"The Land Rover is not a vehicle, it's a way of life."