As a privileged journalist, it’s the sort of email that is always nice to see land in your inbox: “Come and spend the day with us, have a look around the factory, eat some nice food, then drive some of our cars”, but for a Land Rover obsessive, when the words Lode Lane and Solihull are also included, it’s a combination guaranteed to raise the heart rate.
At least it was for me – someone who had only ever been to Solihull once before, and that was only because I suddenly realised that I’d made a terrible ‘petrol consumption/distance to next service station’ miscalculation when returning from a trip oop north. So, with a legitimate reason for going to the home of all things Land Rover, I set off ridiculously early (in the IIA of course)… almost too excited to even stop for breakfast on the way, although I did manage to force a bacon butty down somewhere near Oxford.
A light drizzle greeted me upon my arrival, and despite being an hour early I was welcomed by a line-up that ranged from 1949 80” Series I to 109” Series III. All were so immaculate that I was naturally ashamed by the ‘lived in’ state of mine and so made sure that there was at least some degree of separation as I tucked it between various moderns and waited for all of the other attendees to arrive in their Landies.
Of course, I soon realised that I was in a minority. To many of the others that had graciously accepted the invite, it was a chance to have a day out of the office, experience something different and walk away with a story or two for their respective products. For me, it was a pilgrimage and a chance to worship at the altar of an icon and so my IIA sat on its own in the Midland drizzle.
Eventually, I left the safety of the car park and the company of the heritage fleet and was furnished with a latté and a pastry – already I was kicking myself for not staying true to my Land-Rover roots, opting for the breakfast of a London-based creative instead of asking for thick soup and a dead squirrel to wipe up with afterwards.
Soon though, that awkward moment where you are forced to exchange pleasantries with people that you have no idea who they are (despite the fact that, as it turned out, you follow each other on Twitter), was over and one-by-one we piled into special 130” stretched Defenders ready for a trip around the site.
I soon clocked that the chap taking the wheel of our Defender was Michael Bishop – Land Rover Experience Senior Instructor, Land-Rover anorak and author of ‘They Found Our Engineer’ – the story of Land-Rover’s first engineer, Arthur Goddard.
“So, do any of you have a Defender?” he duly asked, only to be met by an awkward silence. “Any Land-Rovers?” As I looked around, I realised that no-one was offering anything and so in order to liven the party bus up a little, I offered my ownership of the ’64 IIA daily-driver. I think Michael was pleased (it was difficult to see as he was facing the other way for obvious reasons), and it could be the paranoia setting in, but I was then convinced that the gaze of everyone else in the extra-long wheelbase suddenly fell on me as if I’d ruined the hard-nosed ‘go on, impress us’ approach of a press junket!
I had clearly outed myself as an enthusiast – no, obsessive enthusiast and that clearly gazumped my ‘journalist’ tag. Bugger. No chance of being impartial now. We were then shown round the factory floor where smiley, happy people stuck bits of Land Rover together with nonchalant skill and an all-encompassing air of supreme confidence before being led to the star exhibit of the Defender Celebration Tour: the recreation of the original production line.
Several Series I 80” chassis at various build stages were the star of the show in a wonderfully put together exhibit that also included a demonstration of the 30 degree safe handling limit and various artefacts including the camera used by Antony Barrington Brown – member of the 1955 Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition.
As visitors to the exhibition, we were encouraged to wear ‘cow gowns’ – brown coats such as were worn in the factory and although I decided that mine would be an excellent addition to the workshop, those in charge had other ideas and so regrettably I was forced to hand mine back and return to ‘normal’ life like a superhero stripped of his cape.
I did try and return to grumpy journalist spec by moaning about the weather (hammering it down by this point), the insistence at referring to Series I, II and III as Defenders and the fact that the spicy potato wedges served as part of our free lunch were a little too… well, spicy, but as Roger Crathorne – ‘Mr Land Rover’ to many then came and sat next to me for a chat about Land-Rovers and Mini Mokes, my attempt at being a dour-faced journo rather than kid in a sweet shop didn’t last long. Roger (born in Lode Lane and a Land Rover employee for five decades), did at least echo my sentiments about the wedges, but before long it was time to either make a dash for the exit (“Must go, deadline is looming”), or stay and play with one of the vehicles from the Heritage fleet.
“Have you ever driven a Series Land-Rover before?” asked the instructor as he sat behind the wheel of a 80” Series I, before he confidently abandoned plans to give me some tuition and duly slid over to let me take the wheel instead. “We’ll go up and over the old air-raid shelter” he announced, at which point I swear I began to have palpitations. THE air-raid shelter? Part of THE original test route? I contained my excitement, pictured everything in black and white and pulled the pin poking through the floor in order to lock it into four-wheel-drive. For a minute and half it was 1949 and I was Alec Joyce – test driver, giving the 80” the once over before stamping the paperwork and taking something else for a spin through the Jungle Track.
By the end of the day, the staff at the Land Rover Experience practically had to kick me out of the door: I’d run out of things to look at; try as I might I failed to find anything in the shop that I could justify buying, and I could sense that even Mr Crathorne fancied going home.
As I ploughed my way down the M42 at a steady 55mph, I realised that I’d failed in my attempt to ‘play it cool’ and chalk it off as just another day in the life of a magazine ‘hack’, but that I was also glad of my failure. After all, if the people putting these magazines and websites together can’t embrace their inner-enthusiast, then who can?!
Thanks to Land Rover for the invite and hospitality. The wedges were quite spicy though…