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In 1947 Rover’s technical chief Maurice Wilks was walking along a beach in Wales trying to imagine a vehicle that could replace his old army-surplus Jeep. He sketched a design in the sand with his stick.
That simple robust design contained the DNA of all the current Land Rover variations, including the aluminium (then from post-war surplus aircraft) used for the body panels, and the drab military surplus cockpit paint that decorated them.
That original “Landie” was the first widely available 4WD. And from Alaska to Zambia they became synonymous with versatility and rough-country capability.
Along with the Ferguson tractor, which made English farms so productive, and the Spitfire which ensured that we didn’t speak German, the Land Rover is/was an icon of British ingenuity.
The larger and comfier Range Rover series began life in 1970. Besides spawning four generations of itself, it generated many other variations on the 4×4 theme including the Defender, Discovery, Freelander, Sport and Evoque versions, and most recently, the Velar.
(I did not know that the company also produces coffee, a range of pushbikes and even an all-terrain pushchair).
Last week, I was invited to join a busload of car culturalists and prospective purchasers for the “Above and Beyond” Land Rover experience at the privately owned Boomrock facility, high up on Wellington’s rugged west coast.
So exciting at the start, and so memorable at the finish.
There is a sealed track with a long straight, a chicane and a skidpan. In addition the “all terrain” park has grassy, muddy and rocky terrain, water crossings and 8km of gravel roads, in a beautiful cliff-top setting with the Tasman sea in front and a wind turbine farm behind.
We were dined, (but not wined) and took turns driving the latest Range Rovers, the luxurious Vogue, the Sport, the Velar and the Evoque, on muddy, slippery surfaces (it had rained heavily the day before).
All except the Evoque had 3.0-litre V6 turbo diesel motors (but you could order larger diesel or petrol engines if you wanted), four doors, seven seats, the choice of multiple wheel types and exterior and interior finishes, 8-speed auto transmissions, and adaptive dynamics and safety features. The Vogue is the top of the line, and the one prime ministers are often seen in. That particular model starts around $171,000 before extras. An interesting extra is bullet proofing, which you could order if you really felt you needed it.
The smaller Evoque has a 2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbo diesel, four doors, five seats, but still with most of the family bells and whistles. It is also available as a two-door convertible.
There were also three Land Rover Discoveries on hand at the venue. Our mission, should we accept it, was to test one in the seriously challenging countryside.
The Discovery has the familiar 3.0-litre V6 turbo diesel engine (a more powerful petrol engine is available), four doors, seven seats and 2,400 litres of load space in its aluminium body. It has 500mm of wheel articulation, leans to 27.5 degrees and can wade through 900mm-deep water.
We tried to tip them over, get them stuck in the mud, or to skid them off down a steep wet hillside, but they universally refused, and needed little driver skill to perform amazingly well. These vehicles could easily handle a traverse of the Remutakas, if only the track were wide enough.
In 68 years, the progress of technology and refinement at Land Rover is simply astonishing. It took the dinosaurs so much longer to become birds.
There’s no getting out of the driver’s seat to manually engage front-wheel-drive. The driver sits in a comfortable command centre and dials up the unique “Terrain Response” system. This is used to tell the vehicle what it is being asked to do – for example, to negotiate snow, mud, a steep descent, or deep water. The system cleverly optimises the vehicle’s engine, gearbox, centre differential, chassis air suspension and adjustable ride height systems to match the demands of the terrain, modulating the response of the throttle and suspension.
It would have been interesting to compare the Discovery with the original Landie, which would on occasion (no power steering) break a driver’s thumb when a front wheel hit a rock, or cause back injuries on rough ground. Had such a thing happened at the event, it is comforting to think that at least some of the 40 prospective purchasers were probably doctors.
Of course, as the owner of a 4×4, I love the philosophy of “making your own path,” rather than following an established one.
Driving and car control in the Range Rover range, especially the hairy-chested Discovery, is wonderful, rewarding and confidence-building, and it can be done in complete comfort, wearing a suit if you wish, whilst listening to Dvorak on the splendid sound system.