This year marks the 70th birthday of the Land Rover, but is it still king of the countryside or is its long reign over, asks Dave Philips
As the king of off-roaders celebrates its 70th birthday, some unwelcome guests have gatecrashed the party. There are plenty of other 4×4 manufacturers eager to snatch its muddy crown. So has Land Rover taken a wrong turn?
Problems with oil leaks
Opinion is divided. In 1948 the Land Rover had few rivals. But times have changed and though many traditionalists remain loyal to the green oval badge, others have swapped allegiance to the many Japanese 4x4s available. Among them is keeper Rory Gordon. “I was brought up with Land Rovers on a small farm,” he says. “About 15 years ago, I inherited a Defender 980 from my uncle. It had a constant oil leak and was costing me as much as a new one to keep it on the road.
“In 2007 I bought a brand-new Defender 110 crew cab. I took it out to a shoot working party to show it off and, at the end of the day, beneath it was the biggest pool of oil you’ve ever seen. The turbo gasket had gone.
“Soon afterwards I was driving down to Tavistock from Nottingham. It rained all the way down and by the time we reached Devon the footwells were full of water. The cab hadn’t been properly sealed in the factory.
“I finally got rid of it and today I drive a Toyota Hilux. It never lets me down. It has a 2.2L diesel engine, does 34 to 35 miles per gallon and is brilliant off-road. It is more comfortable, reliable and economical than the Land Rover.
“There are some shoots where you get funny looks if you turn up in anything other than a Land Rover, but that’s down to tradition. I wouldn’t buy one again. I feel like I wasted 10 years driving Land Rovers.”
But not everybody agrees. Shooting Times contributor Tom Payne is among the many fieldsportsmen who wouldn’t dream of driving any other 4×4. “I own a Defender 90 XS hardtop and there isn’t a better vehicle off-road. I travel all over the country and it’s perfect for what I do. I’ve owned Land Rovers for 15 years and I’ll be staying loyal to them.”
The Land Rover story begins on 30 April 1948, when it was launched at the Amsterdam Motor Show. It was an instant success, which surprised the Rover company, whose main reason for building the aluminium-bodied workhorse was as a short-term stopgap because steel was rationed.
In its early years, there was nothing to rival the Land Rover if you lived and worked in the countryside. But from the late 1960s, 4x4s from other makers ended its monopoly — and nearly all were cheaper.
Land Rover launched a few new models of its own to rival those competitors. The first, in 1970, was the Range Rover. Today it is seen as a rich man’s luxury 4×4, but back then it was aimed at the countryman, with footwells that could be hosed down after a hard day out in the fields.
It was joined in 1989 by the Discovery, which was priced to take the fight to Land Rover’s Japanese rivals. It succeeded and became Europe’s best-selling 4×4 until it was ousted by the Freelander in 1998. Since then, a bewildering choice of models have appeared, including Range Rover Sport, Evoque and Velar. They are all capable off-road, but have too much carpet and bling to impress many country folk.
To traditionalists, a Defender is a rural essential, which is why a good Tdi-engined example from the 1990s will still set you back £5,000 or more. The reason prices are so high is because they have stood the test of time. Among their fans is Shooting Times writer Richard Negus, who drives a 20-year-old Defender 110 with a 300Tdi engine and 207,000 miles on the clock.
“I’ve always driven Land Rovers,” he says. “I’m a hedgelayer and run a garden business. It is the perfect work vehicle. There’s plenty of space in the back. I can get to inaccessible places and I can stand on the bonnet or the roof to reach high branches. I’ve never got stuck and it has never let me down. My only worry is whether I’ll be able to afford another one when this one dies, as prices are becoming astronomic.”
It’s true that Defender prices are high, but the good news is that depreciation is practically non-existent and, properly maintained, the vehicle will go on for ever.
If Defenders are too pricey, you can always consider other Land Rover models. For value, it is hard to beat a Discovery 3. With greater comfort, towing ability and load capacity, it is the perfect 4×4 workhorse, but still looks smart enough not to embarrass you in good company. A tidy second-hand TDV6 diesel will cost around £6,000.
Former keeper Allen Mills, from Northamptonshire, runs a Freelander. “When I ran a shoot I had a Series IIA Land Rover, then an Isuzu Trooper, but I did prefer the Land Rover, so when I gave up the shoot I bought a Freelander. It’s ideal for me, as I still do a bit of rough shooting and it is good off-road.
“My keeper friends don’t have the same love of Land Rovers as they used to. Most of them don’t run large 4×4 trucks at all, but drive all-terrain quad bikes with cabs. If I was still running a shoot, I think I’d do the same.”
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Best of both
David Dixon, a keen shooter who runs a logs business near Stamford, has the best of both worlds. His everyday workhorse is a Mitsubishi L200, but at weekends he drives a Discovery.
“The Mitsubishi can carry two tons and does 30 miles per gallon. I have to drive across very soft ground for my coppicing and wood business, but it’s never got stuck. I can just chuck everything in the back — it doesn’t matter if it’s plastered in mud. My Discovery is more like a car and I like to keep it that way. It looks good and it’s perfect for taking my wife to the pub for Sunday lunch.”
If money is no object, the ultimate vehicle has to be the Range Rover — in particular the Holland & Holland special edition, which is a collaboration between the two brands to produce the perfect 4×4 for shooting enthusiasts. Prices start at £180,000.
As Land Rover celebrates its 70th birthday, it is only fitting that a new Defender is expected to join the line-up later this year, but whether it will conquer the countryside as comprehensively as that 1948 original remains to be seen.
Meet the opposition
These days, there are countless 4x4s available. Land Rover’s serious competitors include those below.
But remember that few 4x4s enjoy the longevity – and country cred – of Land Rovers. Spare parts and service costs are also much cheaper.