King of the road

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 22

For 70 years, the Land Rover has traversed difficult terrain
all over the world. As the two-millionth vehicle is sold for charity at Bonhams, Bear Grylls gets behind the wheel of this British classic

Among the kind of people with whom I keep company – adventurers, explorers and such like – there is a saying: "If you want to go into the jungle or the outback, you'll need to take a 4x4. But if you want to come out again, you'd better take a Land Rover Defender."

Thinking back over my life – from childhood in the countryside of the Isle of Wight, to army service, to adventures and explorations in some of the wildest and most inhospitable places on earth – it feels as if there has always been a Land Rover around. At my home in North Wales, we've actually got my wife Shara's family Defender which dates from exactly the year I was born: 1974. Now our own children – Jesse, Marmaduke and Huckleberry – are growing up with that very same vehicle. That's the thing about Land Rovers: they span generations and are linked by family stories.

A 40-year-old car still in daily use? Land Rovers really are indestructible. They fully live up to the legend. My memory is full of images of Defenders doing jaw-dropping things in impossible places. You look at a track strewn with boulders as big as hippos and you think, "There's absolutely no way through there". And then you get the Defender in its lowest ratio, set it the task and it simply chugs its way over, round and through the obstacles – even if sometimes it's perched on three wheels with one in the air.

I remember especially a river crossing at night that turned out to be a lot deeper than it looked. The water was actually washing over the bonnet and the headlights were illuminating the depths like a fish-bowl. The Landie just kept glugging on until it crawled out on the opposite bank and then seemed to shake itself dry like a labrador, ready for the next challenge. It's almost impossible to imagine any other vehicle doing the same. If water gets into the engine bay of even the toughest off-roader, it's cooked. But somehow the Defender does it.

There is something gloriously, uniquely British about the Defender, which makes it a true national treasure. The story of how it came into being is a classic of British life. The Rover company's chief engineer, Maurice Wilks, sketched an outline of his concept in the sand at Red Wharf Bay in Anglesey for the benefit of his colleague and brother, Spencer Wilks, while they were both on holiday over Easter 1947. Spencer was also the company's Managing Director. That feels like a scene that could only occur among Britons. It's also no surprise that the Defender was the Queen's go-to vehicle for decades whenever she was in the countryside. Every time she was at Balmoral or Sandringham, she always seemed to be photographed at the wheel of a Defender.

It's poignant to learn that production of this archetype of British life will ultimately cease in December this year – but heartening to know that to mark the Land Rover's passing, the two-millionth Defender will be auctioned for charity at Bonhams in December, albeit with the help of devotees such as myself, Virginia McKenna and Robert Brooks, Chairman of Bonhams. Times change, but this very special model will have been constructed in essentially the same way as it has been been for almost 70 years. Surely it must be the car that has been longest in production on earth, and the car with the highest proportion of hand-fitted components of any car in production? Has any kind of robot ever got near a Defender?

That basic character – I hesitate to call it primitive – means that the Defender can be fixed anywhere on earth wherever there's a guy with a lathe or a blowtorch. Several times I've had to change wheels in deep mud or in torrential rainstorms in remote jungles, which can be interesting to say the least. But essentially and mechanically they hardly ever go wrong. That's why I consider Defenders the unsung heroes of all our filming expeditions – always there for us when we need it, whether it's carrying kit for a shoot through harsh desert or jungle or helping the crew to cross fast-flowing rivers.

Land Rover have been incredible partners for us – like-minded, pioneering-spirited and committed to endeavor. Wherever I travel in the world, they provide us with vehicles for our adventures and that in turn gives us access to the remotest places. Without a Land Rover everything takes longer and has more upsets. That's the bottom line.

Not even their most ardent admirers – I include myself – would ever call Defenders comfortable. Land Rover have done their best over the decades to civilize and domesticate the Defender but it still remains a space of spartan privations and the most primitive concessions to comfort. The addition of air-conditioning and audio systems would probably have seemed unutterably decadent to the likes of Maurice Wilks.

The body's width remains essentially the same as it ever was, so there isn't much they can do to increase shoulder room in the front seats. If you've got to go bouncing and jouncing along a rocky trail for long, you're going to get a sore shoulder, so you might as well resign yourself. If you sit in the back, you're going to get a sore bum from bouncing on the benches (which always reminds me of Dotheboys Hall, the very strict school in Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby).

When you think of the adventures and expeditions in which Land Rovers have played a crucial part – going right back to the Oxford and Cambridge expedition to the Far East in the mid-1950s – and all the military campaigns and exercises in which they have figured, from Korea to the Falklands, from Malaya to Northern Ireland, it's a really inspiring record. By comparison, it is interesting to note that the legendary American Willys Jeep only really saw service in the Second World War and wasn't produced after 1945.

We can be certain that Land Rover will produce a worthy successor to the Defender that will, I am sure, fully embody all its best qualities. It's sad, all the same to see the curtain fall at last. Nothing could be more fitting than that this heroic story should close with the two millionth car to be produced. I am very proud that my name should be connected with it in some small way to the end.

Bear Grylls is an adventurer, writer and television presenter.

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