What was the first car you drove? Mine was a blue Land Rover Defender 90 with a white roof, on my friend's farm in Oxfordshire. We were 15 and often drove around the farm lanes to check on the sheep and feed the ducks. Then one day he handed me the keys. "Check it's in neutral before you turn the key" said Pat, so I gave the gearstick a wobble and all seemed to be in order. Feeling nervous and excited, I turned the key, the engine rumbled and I was ready to learn...
"Push your left foot onto the left pedal and hold it; that's the clutch. Move the gear stick up to first gear, and slowly bring the pedal up. You'll feel it bite and we'll start to pull away." And we were off. Pat told me to squeeze the pedal on the right a bit, so I did that and we were picking up some speed towards the lambing barn. "Push the clutch in again and pull the shifter back, then we'll be in second gear." Yep, done that. It was only as we were heading towards the barn with a huge cattle feeder in front of it that I realised we hadn't yet covered stopping... "Erm, what do I do now Pat?!" With a frantic mash on the pedals, I managed to perform my first emergency stop. My heart was racing; I'd driven for the first time. And so my Defender love affair had begun!
14 years and many other Defender-fuelled adventures later, I find myself being handed the keys to yet another, only this time it's the Grasmere Green Heritage 110. After speaking politely to Dan and getting the thumbs-up from Land Rover, I'm off green-laning. With an autumnal orange sun glowing and the leaves falling on the old Pilgrims Way from London to the south coast, I load my friends into the back and we set out on our adventure. One of the crew, Russell, used to own a Defender and knows exactly where to head. We pottered along back lanes and B-roads in Kent before heading to Snodland for further exploration.
"I know this really good route, I've been there loads of times." Approaching the lane, signposted as a dead end, we break out onto a muddy track covered in leaves descending down a hill. I question if we're still on a by-way. "Yeah, yeah sure, just drive down that hill." Oh, easy as that (!). It's muddy, seriously muddy. Huge wet slippery banks, undulating rocky surfaces and a couple of petrified looking walkers face us on our descent. I select low range, put it into second gear and slowly pull away. I take my feet off the pedals completely, just holding on to the steering wheel for dear life as the Defender works its way down. This continues successfully for the next few hours, before the inevitable pub lunch to help celebrate our adventure.
Obviously we had to do a water splash shot
We've covered the Defender's flaws already in our
. Do I care? Nope. The official line is that Land Rover has ceased production of the Defender due to emissions regulations, whereas others will argue the current platform has simply been surpassed by the Japanese competition. I've driven a lot of them, and it's clear why people have moved away from the Defender. But I've never driven a vehicle that offers the sense of adventure. Every journey feels like an exploration. People stop and look, wave and smile, you get the thumbs up from other drivers and the Defender is recognised for exactly what it is - a British icon.
Therefore I'm saddened that the Defender as we know it will cease production. Yet I'm happy because, after all, over two million have rolled off the production line at Solihull. So you may not be able to walk into a Land Rover dealership and order a new Defender as we know it, but there are plenty out there to be enjoyed by everyone. My weekend with the Heritage 110 reaffirmed my love for the Defender, and firmly placed it on my dream garage list. In this case, speed doesn't always matter.