Day one: I’ve got a book coming out. I might have mentioned this. More details here. To promote its release, the publisher wanted to film me talking about it while driving. I told them I would blag something interesting. But what? Too flash and people might think, I’m not buying that twat’s book when he’s clearly got too much money as it is. Too rubbish and it might seem as if I didn’t know my shit. I explained this dilemma to the nice people at the book company. We’ll let you sort out the car, they said sweetly in a way that suggested I was wildly over-thinking something unimportant like a full-fat loony. But it was important to me, and there seemed to be only one solution. I needed a Defender. Everyone likes a Defender. Not too flash, not too shabby, just chunky and likeable. In fact, I’m about to buy a Heritage run-out model, but it doesn’t turn up until December and the shoot was scheduled for a few days’ time so I contacted Land Rover and asked nicely if I could borrow something. You’re in luck, they said, we’ve got a Defender spare. And it’s one of the end-of-days Autobiography editions. I’ll get this out the way now; the Land Rover Defender Autobiography costs £61,845. It’s an idiotic amount of money for a piece of 1940s farm equipment, even one with two-tone paint and an interior so comprehensively leathered that even the roof lining is the old wrapper from a cow. Mind you, they’re only selling 100 in the UK, it’s (almost) last of the line, they probably won’t struggle to shift ‘em. But yes, 61 grand. It’s a lot.
The book people are already at my house when the Defender arrives. We go outside to have a look at it and, having previously humoured me with my pathetic fretting over car choice, suddenly they’re interested. The word ‘cool’ is used several times. I agree. In this spec, the Defender looks extremely handsome, what with its black wheels and fancy paint and whathaveyou. My next door neighbour comes out of his house and openly fawns over it. A camera is unleashed, I talk some drivel while driving it and some more drivel while standing next to it, and our filming is done. I meet my friend Mike for lunch. He too declares the Defender to be cool. Although he also notices the various sturdy clonks and thumps that emanate from the mechanical parts. No amount of fancy trimming can disguise the fact that, technically, it’s as complicated as a pair of scissors. But a pair of scissors with a richly scented leather handle.
Later I go to the supermarket. Don’t strictly need to, but we’re out of milk and I want to drive the Defender again. If I had a Ferrari at my disposal I’d feel the same, but I’d have to get out of the city and find some decent roads upon which it could unleash its skills. Obviously I’m not using the Land Rover’s real talents either, because they are to drive up very steep, very rough and very muddy things and there is none of that in Waitrose car park, but the delight of driving it in town is that it still feels unusual and amusing. Also, it’s only about the length of a Fiesta so it’s a piece of piss to park, lousy steering lock aside.
My wife comes home from work and declares the Defender to be cool. I think what we can conclude from today is that this is, on totting up the totals, the coolest car in the world.
Day two: Last night I had a cheery message from the Land Rover PR chap asking if I appreciated the extra power of this Autobiography edition. Thanks to an ECU tweak, it gets 148 horsepower rather than the standard 120. Frankly, I’d forgotten about this spec detail and hadn’t noticed any difference at all. But today, while bumping around London, I paid more attention. I can’t really spot more power as such, but it’s a little more flexible and co-operative. You can leave it in third for turning into junctions, rather than slamming the chunky change down into the low second gear. So that’s nice. If you’ve got a regular Defender, there are aftermarket companies who will put their hands into the engine’s brain to achieve similar things.
Later, I lash a car seat into the back and take my 19 month old son out in the Defender. In most cars, he’s down low and the glass line is around his forehead. In the Land Rover, he’s up high with a whole window in front of his face. This makes him giggle with delight as we chug about the place. He’s happy, I’m happy, the car feels happy. In some ways it reminds me of my dog. She too has many, many flaws and on paper you’d be an idiot to welcome such an awkward, noisy, daft creature into your life. Yet, I adore her. And the same goes for the Land Rover. Although, on the plus side, I’ve never seen a Defender wait until it’s been cleaned and then immediately roll in some fox shit.
Day three: There’s a Grand Prix on. But there’s also an Avro Vulcan scheduled to fly over an airfield just outside London and that seems like a more interesting option so the boy and I pile into the Land Rover and set off on a trip to Essex. The Defender does not have what you’d call a smooth ride. It joggles and jiggles and generally shifts around in a restless way. It’s quite noisy on the motorway too. Yet, amazingly, the little chap in the back falls asleep for most of the journey. I wake him in time to see a glorious old V-bomber soar overhead then we have a snack sitting in the open back door, watching little planes taking off on the runway nearby. All told, a grand day out. An ordinary car would have been simply a way of getting there and back. Doing it in the silly, slow, friendly, jaunty car made it feel like an adventure.
Day four: The Defender has to go back to Land Rover. I wish it didn’t. I know, I know. My heartfelt affection towards it defies all logic. I don’t need one. Few people do. But it has a personality and a spirit that is beyond all reason. I like it because it’s unlike any other brand new car. I like it because, though it’s hard work to drive, it makes you think and concentrate and put more effort into the basics of working the controls where most cars smooth away such skills in an anaesthetic sludge. I like it because it makes my little boy smile and seems to bring out the warmest reactions in strangers. As an awful Brit car bore, I even like the parts cupboard interior with its Marina stalks, Metro buttons, Montego window switches, and door lock buttons from the Rover SD1. And that in turn reminds me that it’s the bookend of 67 years of local history, which is something else in its favour. It’s not quick, it’s not quiet, it’s not smooth or slick or sophisticated. But it has something sorely lacking in most cars you can buy today. It has a heart, and it has a soul.
The car talked about here is a Land Rover Defender Autobiography. It has a 2.2-litre turbocharged diesel engine making 148 horsepower. They haven’t re-tested the more powerful engine, but the standard car will go from 0-62 in 14.7 seconds and on to 90mph. It costs £61,845. Feel free to mention this several times in the comments section below.