Unmuddied but filthy rich. Pool/Samir Hussein/WireImage

March 18, 2024   6 mins

In most circumstances, finding your car submerged in mud up to the fenders is a sign that something has gone badly wrong. For the off-road enthusiasts of the Shire Land Rover Club, it is the entire point of having a car. This was one of the first things I learned at the Club’s “play day”, held at a military training area near the Hampshire-Surrey border. I’d barely arrived when I witnessed a Defender 90 being hauled out of a bog where it had almost disappeared, water rising in fountains from its furiously spinning wheels. The man who did the hauling — also in a Land Rover, of course — was James McCurrach, a management consultant and volunteer on the Club’s committee. “No one learns,” he observed cheerfully, “someone else will have a go in a minute.”

The course was a maze of muddy tracks and clearings, littered with puddles that turn out to be deep trenches of water. As more Land Rovers arrived, it became an orgy of revving engines and diesel fumes. The Club’s basic purpose, said McCurrach, is to “meet up and talk shit about Land Rovers”, but these monthly play days are for pushing the cars to their limits. “When you go out as a group, you can be a lot braver and try things you would never try on your own. Most days I’ll come home and say, ‘I didn’t think my truck could do that.’” It was clear however that this is about people as much as vehicles. There is something oddly sentimental about a day spent dragging people out of holes; it is like an elaborate friendship ritual.

I was here to find out what the Club thought about the evolution of the Land Rover brand, a story that speaks to deeper shifts in Britain over the last 70 years. These cars once represented Britain’s rural soul; they were “classless” vehicles used by farmers, landowners and the royal family. Today, they have become status symbols for a moneyed elite around the globe. The Club’s members had plenty to say about this transformation, but their own geeky obsession with Land Rovers tells another story entirely. It demonstrates the survival, in these atomised times, of an associational life based on shared interests, fun, and a kind of everyday camaraderie.

Like most great British myths, Land Rover’s origins lie in the war, or more precisely, the strict industrial rationing that followed. This was what led Maurice Wilks to design a simple aluminium-bodied working vehicle for farmers in 1947. Unstyled, bare-bones authenticity turned out to be key to Land Rover’s charm. It became a feature of the British establishment in more ways than one, a detail of country life as well as a supplier of ambulances and army trucks. In 1970, the first Range Rover — a crossover catering to both everyday and off-road use — instantly found its way into the Louvre. For Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, who drove Land Rovers from the Fifties until their deaths, the cars helped to project a sporty, down-to-earth charisma. That said, the royal fondness for the brand was clearly sincere. The queen was supposedly handy with a spanner, while Philip made the design of his hearse a morbid pet project of sorts, tinkering with it for 18 years before finally riding in it in 2022.

“Philip made the design of his hearse a morbid pet project of sorts.”

The legendary simplicity of these cars is also what allows associations like the Shire Land Rover Club to flourish, and there are dozens of them in the UK and elsewhere. When I asked the enthusiasts what was special about Land Rovers, they all cited the ease of repairing and customising them, as well as the availability of spare parts for doing so — a result of various models using the same specs across decades. At the play day, I saw vintage military vehicles from the Seventies as well as Frankenstein cars cobbled together from different eras. As one Club member put it, “they’re a big Lego kit for adults really. You can swap and change bits as much as you like.” Unsurprisingly, this seems to attract mechanically-minded, hands-on types: engineers, farmers, tradesmen, builders of one kind or another, small business owners in software or electronics.

The spirit of passionate amateurism, along with the Club’s “pull your mate out of a hole” ethos, creates strong bonds. Some of the members have been close friends for decades. At the play day, I met one man who had come with his partner all the way from Belgium; he told me his main reason for collecting British cars is “the community”. These seemed like the kinds of people you would want around in an emergency, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that some of them, under the leadership of a Hampshire businessman called Guy Shepherd, have repeatedly driven to Ukraine with supplies for the war effort, including medical equipment, uniforms and quad bikes. Shepherd even donated one of his own classic Land Rovers, a weapons-mounted infantry vehicle, which went straight into action on the front line. The Club likewise ran an aid convoy to Bosnia in the Nineties. It is a useful reminder that groups like this are not just for hobbyists; they can be the stuff of civil society.

But the Club’s rugged vision of Land Rover feels increasingly antiquated. Over the decades, the lure of the luxury market has reshaped the brand into something that evidently lives on smooth surfaces. Leather and wood trimmings replaced the early utilitarian interiors (the first Range Rover could be hosed-down inside), the indestructible ladder-frame chassis made way for more comfortable handling, and electronic gadgetry began to infiltrate the engineering. The cars were finding a new role in the global market, as was the company itself. After being bought by BMW in the Nineties, it was passed along to Ford and finally ended up with the Indian conglomerate Tata Motors in 2008.

“Land Rover is a symbol of Britain’s power as a brand, and its powerlessness as a country.”

In this way, Land Rover became part of a historic shift in the economy, signalled by an openness to foreign ownership of even the most traditional British companies. In the same decade that it acquired Land Rover, Tata took over Tetley Tea, the remnants of British Steel, and Jaguar, another heritage car marque. Tata’s own heritage is certainly not to be sniffed at, having been established by the great Indian industrialist, Jamshedji Nusserwanji Tata, in 1868. Still, it is testament to the enormous global realignment of the last 70 years that Land Rover, whose first model was being designed the year India gained its independence from Britain, is now just one small part of a globe-spanning Indian business juggernaut. In addition to its British plants in Solihull and Halewood, Land Rovers are now made in Slovakia, China, India and Brazil. Meanwhile, the UK’s dependence on Tata was illustrated by the company’s recent decision to lay-off 2,500 steelworkers at Port Talbot in Wales, as well as its commitment to fund a much-needed battery plant for electric vehicles.

What is the significance of the Land Rover’s British heritage in this context? The design writer Deyan Sudjic has compared it to “breeding rare sheep”, in the sense that such brands are careful to retain the distinctive marks of their parentage even as they are relentlessly adapted for the market. The appeal of today’s Range Rovers, typically found in affluent urban enclaves, comes partly from a nouveau riche aspiration to an older image of prestige, like a modern equivalent of commissioning a family crest. That seems to be the idea behind the new Range Rover Burford, a name invoking the Cotswolds country lifestyle favoured by celebrities and hedge fund managers, aptly described by Simon Mills as “unmuddied but filthy rich”.

But while the brand is still associated with the royal family, it is also associated with Kim Kardashian. And increasingly, it is just famous for being expensive. Whereas the first Range Rover only cost twice as much as a Ford Cortina, Britain’s most popular car at the time, the latest models are now between four and 10 times the price of a Ford Puma. An endless menu of optional extras can take them past a quarter of a million pounds — and that is before the insurance premiums, which have skyrocketed thanks to the rate at which they are stolen (though at least criminals are more likely to use their off-road capabilities).

At the Shire Land Rover Club, the consensus was that the cars had lost touch with their roots. “Land Rovers as we’re using them here today are gone,” said Adam, a carpenter and longstanding member. “It’s now a luxury product. It’s a Gucci handbag or a Chihuahua. You’re paying for the oval badge.” The crucial difference for him, and for others I spoke to, was not a decline in performance or engineering, but the loss of the vehicles’ trademark simplicity. “If I want to change the brakes in that,” he said of his own 1962 model, “it might cost me a hundred quid and take me half a day. Now you have to take it to Range Rover, and they have to plug the car into a laptop.” The same complexity makes the newer versions unsuited to the really tough conditions that the Club loves. “There’s too many sensors, too many electronics, the air suspension can fail.”

Be that as it may, we could see the UK’s luxury car brands as a story of manufacturing prowess unlocked by foreign capital. Making these vehicles requires a level of craft and sophistication that Britain rarely achieved in the early decades of Land Rover. And they are hugely desirable overseas. Just look at what happened when sanctions prevented wealthy Russians from importing them: a mysterious boom in shipments to neighbouring Azerbaijan. The problem is that, as Ruchir Sharma has pointed out with respect to Europe as a whole, luxury goods are not a promising basis for a modern economy. It is all very well for Britain to supply the world with heritage cars — or, for that matter, with public schools, London apartments and actors with plummy accents — but such artisanal products do little to address chronic issues such as low productivity and underinvestment. No longer just a car, today Land Rover is a symbol of Britain’s power as a brand, and its powerlessness as a country.

Wessie du Toit writes about culture, design and ideas. His Substack is The Pathos of Things.