WORDS SIMON DE BURTON
The modern spec of the four-wheel drive has made that open road more appealing than ever. So what’s stopping us?
Forty years ago – on June 17, 1970, to be precise – a new motoring phenomenon was born in the form of the Range Rover. Unveiled in the rugged surroundings of a disused Cornish tin mine, this remarkable vehicle met with rave reviews because it achieved the seemingly impossible – combining impressive off-road performance with the ability to travel at 90mph on the motorway, all the while cocooning its passengers in the utmost comfort.
Designed by Charles Spencer King, the Range Rover’s brilliance was all down to smart engineering: it had mainly aluminium bodywork for lightness, a lazy V8 engine that produced plenty of low-down power, mighty underpinnings and, perhaps best of all, coil-spring suspension.
Deep down we imagine a day when we'll jack it all in, load up the motor and head off on our own voyage of discovery
Up until then, four-wheel drives were regarded as purely utilitarian vehicles and were generally fitted with so-called ‘cart springs’ that, while good for bearing heavy loads, were jarringly unforgiving to passengers. But the Range Rover’s coil set-up made for a compliant ride on both rough terrain and smooth asphalt which, together with a well-appointed interior, helped make it the original high-end, go-anywhere vehicle for everyone from farmers to bankers.
Admittedly its handling became more boat-like than car-like when pressed on a twisty road, but drivers soon learned to live with that and adapt accordingly. The alternative was an unplanned barrel-roll.
Four decades later and luxury four-wheel drives (aka SUVs/sports utility vehicles) are ubiquitous: Porsche has its Cayenne; Mercedes-Benz, the ML and more businesslike G-Wagen; and BMW its X5 and X3. Lexus offers the RX300; Nissan has its X-Trail and Pathfinder and the Toyota Land Cruiser is almost as legendary as the Range Rover. Jeep, meanwhile, boasts the Wrangler, Patriot and Cherokee models; and, of course, Land Rover offers its Defender, Discovery, Range Rover and Freelander models.
There’s no doubt Freud would have something to say about our current enthusiasm for vehicles with all-terrain capability, especially as, according to the industry standard, just 15 per cent ever set a tyre off Tarmac. Most people ostensibly buy an SUV for its practicality: you can fill it with children, dogs and clobber and drive for miles in comfort at a level of safety that is perceived as being greater than that of a normal car, simply because you’re in something bigger than most other vehicles on the road (apart from other four-wheel drives, of course).
But there’s often another, more romantic reason for wanting one, particularly for males. Deep down, we imagine a day when we’ll jack it all in, load up the motor with maps, water bottles, Jerry cans and mosquito nets and head off on our own voyage of discovery. And, as unlikely as that is, it won’t stop the particularly deluded from adding overlanding essentials such as high-lift suspension, full-length roof racks, mud-plugging tyres and auxiliary lighting despite the fact that most of their journeys could be made perfectly well
in the most mundane and ill-equipped hatchback.
Yet perhaps the strangest aspect of our voracious appetite for buying off-roaders and not using them for true adventure is that modern ones are so prodigiously capable, meaning we really do have the equipment at our disposal to make that trip of a lifetime. There are usually plenty of reasons for putting it off – such as work and family commitments, lack of time, general disorganisation and so on.
But there is a way to experience the thrill of ‘overlanding’ without having to purchase a four-wheel-drive and without having to make all the essential preparations yourself – and that is to get someone else to organise it all for you. Many firms now offer overlanding holidays, but some of the best are undoubtedly put together by Land Rover itself in the form of Land Rover Expeditions. Now the company is running a self-drive programme in Morocco, getting to grips with some of the world’s toughest terrain.
The trip will start from Marrakech and finish with a crossing of the spine of the High Atlas Mountains at heights of up to 2,000 metres. Small groups of up to 12 people (two per vehicle) will take part and enjoy the benefits of off-road tuition from Land Rover instructors and the assistance of a local guide.
Full details at landroverexpeditions.com
Mud and glory
The oldest off-road vehicle brand in existence is the Chrysler-owned Jeep, which dates back to the Bantam BRC (the basis of the military Jeep), first built in 1941.
During the early Fifties, the British Army commissioned a specialised four-wheel-drive vehicle called the Austin Champ with a Rolls-Royce engine and a gearbox with the same number of reverse speeds as forward ones. It proved too complex and too expensive, however, and all military Champs were auctioned during the late Sixties.
Land Rover is the world’s second oldest producer of four-wheel drive vehicles, the original Land Rover having been launched in 1948.
Toyota’s Land Cruiser, which went into production in 1954 as Japan’s answer to the Land Rover, has become one of the world’s most successful four-wheel-drive vehicles. The utilitarian, early models have achieved classic status – a restored Seventies example recently fetched £12,000.