Sometimes life is like a ’90s Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon. One with 193,000 miles on it and tires, brakes, and front end that “need replace,” as the Craigslist ad might say. Keeping it together while rolling down the straightaways isn’t bad, but come a series of bumpy corners in the rain, and, hmm baby, you better learn how to drive.
Sending a son away to a nearby university was hard enough, but now I feel like the skies have opened up just as I’ve gone too hot into the bend in a crusty Roadmaster. The truth, however, is that I’m driving a brand-new Land Rover Defender 110 to Scotland, where my daughter Ellie is moving to begin college, and waves of emotion, happy and sad, are pounding the psychic coastline, testing my skill in the great test track of life. Here’s hoping those bald tires hold on.
I’ll really miss my beautiful daughter, who’s (almost) all grown up. But because this is a car magazine I won’t dwell on that, because I’m also completing what is probably my last drive in a new Defender. I’m reprising—also with more than a hint of sadness—what has been a Kitman family travel tradition dating back to the 1960s, when my dad borrowed a Land Rover station wagon to run for president (see Automobile, November ’96). This being 2014, Ellie was able to jack her iPhone into the sound system (still no Bluetooth), while I was left to contemplate not just some shocking hip-hop lyrics she’s fully committed to memory, but fatherhood and change, and also what lies in store for Land Rover now that its eldest offspring is leaving home.
One of the great automotive icons of all time (with direct lineage back to 1948), the Defender will be out of production within the year. Its as-yet-unknown replacement has been delayed once already. One concept, the DC100, appeared in 2011 and was to arrive in 2015, but then it wasn’t.
My old friend, the painter Fred Ingrams, who lives in Norfolk and whom we stopped to visit on the way up north from London, thinks he knows why. Fred drives a 1996 Defender 90, the latest in a series of well-used Land Rovers that were run hard and put away wet long before he bought them to run hard and put away wet. When he’s not replacing rusted chassis members or committing a wonderful landscape to canvas, he spends a lot of time with dogs and the farmers with whom he goes hunting. They all drive Land Rovers to get to where they need to be going to take out their legal allotment of pheasants, grouse, foxes, rabbits, deer, et cetera—all of which are everywhere to be seen in Norfolk, like you’re in some kind of extra-trippy Disney sequence. Land Rover Defenders are everywhere too. Amusingly, their drivers will often lift a solitary index finger from the steering wheel when they pass one another, in a kind of salute. We do something like that in New York but use a different finger.
And that is what his Land Rover friends say the effect was when some local Land Rover dealers went to see the Defender replacement concept—I’m assuming it was the DC100—at JLR’s behest. Feedback was resoundingly negative: Their customers would never go for it. According to Ingrams, for Land Rover’s fundamental credibility to remain it needs to satisfy the farmers and the gamekeepers and wardens of places like Norfolk. They—and others who want to carry dead animals, spill cider, and hose out their machines—are the ones who make the rest of us poseurs feel like we ought to be driving one of these cars, and this key demographic wasn’t satisfied.
He might be right, but we have sympathy for Land Rover’s plight as the company tries to cast a replacement. Whether we like it or not, it’s time for the Defender to grow up. The increasing performance and safety that motorists demand—not to mention the regulatory thicket—make a vehicle that you can fix in the field with a screwdriver, a roll of tape, and a can of Foster’s Lager a pure impossibility. Allying that to conceptual simplicity and hose-out-ability is going to be tough, a real Buick Roadmaster moment, if you follow me.
But as I was telling my daughter, change is inevitable and good, even. So bring it on. Just don’t expect it to stop a proud parent from saying I already love you just the way you are.