The Noise of the Realm: Land Rover Defenders and the Family Vacation.
Long trips in traditional Land Rovers (known as Defenders and, before that, the so-called “Series” cars, I-III) have been a Kitman family tradition for almost fifty years. What made us seem like clairvoyant early adopters in the protozoan days of the SUV movement, circa 1963, was not any real desire to ford streams or get back to nature but rather my freelance writer father’s youthful discovery that there were carmakers out there waiting to lend their vehicles to people who might work them into their articles.
Since Dad was always writing something or other – the life of the freelance satirist is seriously overrated – the friendships he struck with the Rover Motor Company’s North American representatives, Bruce and Gertrude “Jimmy” McWilliams, a dynamic husband-and-wife marketing team, and their slightly mad adman, Howard Gossage, “the Socrates of San Francisco,” as he was known, came in handy. They also changed the course of our automotive lives.
As recalled in these pages [November 1996], Dad ran for President in 1964 as a Lincoln Republican on Abraham Lincoln’s platform of 1864, using Series IIA Land Rovers as his campaign vehicles (thus predating by four years joke candidates such as Wavy Gravy’s pet hog, Pigasus, and comedians Pat Paulsen and Dick Gregory, none of whom had an official campaign car).
The previous year, Dad had borrowed a 109-inch-wheelbase wagon from Rover so we could go to Wheeling, West Virginia, where the Wheeling Steel Company feted him grandly and presented us with a half ton of steel (still in Dad’s backyard, with his name inscribed on it) after he’d celebrated the Lilliputian steelmaker’s capitalist spirit in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post for its uplifting refusal to comply with President Kennedy’s voluntary price controls. Very young at the time, I remember realizing how snuggling up to a 1000-pound slab of cold steel in the back of a Land Rover on the drive back to New Jersey was something not every kid got the chance to do.
Aside from a firecracker that exploded prematurely next to my ear as I was preparing to chuck it at a trespassing neighborhood dirtbag when I was twelve, and too many nights spent in noisy rock clubs since, I ascribe any diminution in hearing I’ve experienced in life to long trips in the back of old Land Rovers.
One I’ll never forget was a 1971 jaunt across Europe in an 88-inch-wheelbase wagon. Dad wanted to make good time, so our journey included many of the new French autoroutes, which did not showcase the Landie’s 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine to its best advantage. Added to the overall axle/gear whine and ambient engine scream, there was the incessant fighting with my two younger sisters, which culminated in a hotel parking lot in Montreux, Switzerland.
As my parents and I waited in our packed-to-the-gills blue Land Rover for my sisters to come down from our room on the fourteenth floor of the hotel tower, it dawned on me that this would probably be a good time to alert the folks to the fact that I’d actually locked my sisters in the bathroom in our room an hour ago, a fact I’d temporarily forgotten. Their response, louder than any transfer case could ever be, will never leave me.
“What if there had been a fire?!” They kept coming back to this tedious theme – I mean, there hadn’t been a fire, right? One of my parents would look over their shoulder at us kids, casting withering glances my way such as I’d never seen, while screaming loudly – to be heard over road noise and yet still be understood as very specifically screaming at me. My sisters cried big tears until the moment the parent would turn away, when they would cackle and point, reducing me to my own private hell, because their taunts and gibes couldn’t be heard over the Roverian din. The misery repeated itself for twelve hours, until we reached Paris.
Memories of this trip came flooding back this summer when my son, Ike, my daughter, Ellie, and I made like my dad and borrowed the latest Defender 110 from Land Rover in London. After a quick detour to visit friends in Norfolk, we headed for Paris and then the Normandy coast. Before we knew it, we’d driven 1000 miles. Actually, we knew it.
American fans of the Defender, which stopped selling here in 1997, may not know that it changed quite a bit during its 2007 “refresh” at then-owner Ford’s hands. There’s no mistaking it for anything but a lineal descendant of the humble mud-plugger born sixty-one years ago, and I love it madly. Yet there’s some worrisome evidence of mission creep in the new machine, which hopefully won’t just become a creepy mission when new owner Tata gets around to replacing it one of these years.
I can’t say I don’t like the idea of a faster Defender. But thanks to its new 2.4-liter common-rail diesel and six-speed manual, the Defender is now possibly too fast. While I applaud all speed in theory, 85 mph is a rate of knots Defenders of yore achieved only when their chutes failed to deploy after they’d been tossed out of airplanes. At that speed, one has the time, between violent course corrections, to consider the limitations of the Defender’s hoary chassis and anti-aerodynamic visage. Side winds, especially the sort one encounters when passing semitrailers loaded with French beetroot headed for subsidized resale in faraway lands, reveal a somewhat unsettling machine that is to high-speed composure as Lindsay Lohan is to . . . high-speed composure.
Then there’s what is inside this Defender: Leather seats, carpets, power windows. Gone are the twin opening vents beneath the windshield and the dash’s utter simplicity in favor of a “fully integrated” fascia. Owing to a power bulge, no longer can the spare wheel be mounted on the hood. And to the rear, two forward-facing seats replace four opposing fold-down chairs, the site of so many of my childhood memories.
If Tata is really clever, instead of dreaming up ways to lard the next Defender with more luxury, the company will fast-forward two generations to bring us the full green monty – a solar-powered, go-anywhere, plug-in hybrid that also runs on previously digested sunflower seeds and sardine oil. Until then, Tata should go on building regular Defenders while considering content additions more carefully.
Tata may also want to consider restoring some of the noise. The new Defender is so quiet, I could actually hear my bickering children. Perhaps that’s why my parents used to take us on vacation in Land Rovers.
By: Jamie Kitman
Illustration: Tim Marrs