The Land Rover conundrum - solved.


They’re not unreliable. They’re simply co-dependent.

I arrived at this conclusion in a single flash of realization after driving Land Rovers many thousands of miles in East Africa, and putting in equal time in Land Cruisers on many of the same routes. Unlike the passionately monogamous fans of either vehicle, I love them both and see their individual strengths and weaknesses with what I feel is a nearly complete lack of prejudice. 

The 70-Series Troopie is the undisputed king of load-hauling, its cavernous cargo area capable of swallowing a scandalous mountain of kit if the third row seat is removed (remove the second row and it could double as a hangar). The running gear is mightily overbuilt, and the naturally aspirated, six-cylinder 1HZ diesel engine—still the powerplant of choice in Africa—provides all the lazy momentum one needs and will seemingly run forever, while remaining simple to service (unlike its powerful but much more complex twin-turbo V8 descendant). With a factory rear locker the Troopie will conquer any obstacle one is likely to encounter on safari, and with 180 liters of fuel in the stock tanks it has country-crossing range. The Troopie’s biggest disadvantage is its stiff suspension, even with the move to front coils and longer rear leafs in 1999. Parts, on the rare occasions you need them, are also extremely expensive, at least in East Africa.

The Defender soundly trumps the Land Cruiser in ride comfort—more of an advantage than you’d think if you haven’t done 300 miles of Tanzanian B-roads in one day. The Defenders we normally use are further enhanced with TJM coils and the superb Koni Raid shock absorbers, and are simply unflappable in any conditions and under any load. The 300Tdi—like Toyota’s 1HZ since supplanted but still the favorite of bush mechanics—is a good old plodder and provides excellent fuel economy. And—again not to be underestimated—the squared-off internal configuration of the Defender makes it a perfect blank canvas for installing all sorts of platforms and cargo barriers, which allow packing more equipment than mere measurements would indicate. The ubiquitous Wolf Pack boxes slot in particularly well.

That boxy Defender shape is efficient. It holds all this.

Downsides? The Defender retains the driving compartment dimensions of its earliest progenitors, designed when the average Englishman was probably not much taller than his more famous compatriot Thomas Edward Lawrence, whose height was variously pegged between five-four and five-six. Legroom is only adequate even for my five-nine frame, and all proper Defender owners can point proudly to the calluses on their outside elbows where they repeatedly slam into the door during normal operation of the steering wheel. It doesn’t help that Defender “seats” should always be described inside quotation marks.

Land Rover: Comfortable ride, but watch that right elbow.

Then there’s the reliability thing.

First let’s bin the snide dismissals of Land Cruiser disciples who’ve never driven, much less owned, a Land Rover yet claim personal encyclopedic statistics of fault-ridden Defenders. We can also dismiss those amusingly irrational Defender defenders unwilling to admit any flaws in their cherished British steeds. One fellow I know whose Land Rover blew a differential on a cross-Africa trip categorically refused to call it a breakdown because, as he insisted, “Differentials are maintenance items.” Okaaaay . . .

Troopie: Cavernous, but an inferior suspension.

Nevertheless. On a purely personal—and, admittedly, too-small-to-be statistically-significant— level, out of three major trips on which I’ve driven Defender 110s, I’ve experienced a notable mechanical fault on . . . three trips. During the first, the vehicle we drove would sporadically and completely unpredictably simply . . . stop running. The engine would die and the starter would turn healthily but futilely. Yet, oddly, after a nap of ten minutes or so (discovered completely by accident the first time), it would start right up again and run perfectly. As yet unfamiliar with the vagaries of the 300Tdi, I quickly learned about part #RTC6702, the fuel cutoff solenoid. Apparently, when this part is nearing the end of its life the electromagnet inside will randomly lose connectivity and cut off the fuel supply, only to randomly reconnect after a brief hiatus. It’s a ten-minute replacement job once you know about it.

On the second trip, with a group of ConserVentures volunteers and a pair of Defenders, we faced the challenge of ascending the Nguruman Escarpment—the 2,000-foot west wall of the Rift Valley—via a private, little-used, and in places very steep track. Shortly into the climb, it became obvious I had virtually zero traction in the 110 I was driving. The center diff lock was not operating—and when the center diff lock on a full-time-four-wheel-drive vehicle is not operating, you have a one-wheel-drive vehicle. We were rescued by none other than Philip Leakey of the anthropologist clan, who towed me (with his beat-up 80-Series Land Cruiser) 15 kilometers to his property halfway up the escarpment, after which Roseann towed me the rest of the way in her 110. 

In a twist of irony, the next trip resulted in the exact opposite problem. To access the farm of some friends down a muddy and slick road, I engaged the center diff lock to ensure traction to both axles. When we left and hit tarmac again a few days later, I moved the lever back to the right to disengage it. The next hundred kilometers went smoothly, but then, as I had to negotiate a tight roundabout and was admiring a brand new Kenya Wildlife Service Land Cruiser pickup, I heard and felt the squeal of tires protesting at being forced to turn at different speeds—the diff lock was still engaged. I climbed under the 110 with a flashlight and quickly found the problem: The lever that engages the lock had popped out of its arm. Repair took a couple of minutes.

Lever (right arrow) fits into arm (left arrow)

And then it hit me. At the exact moment the trouble had manifested itself, I had been experiencing, as Jimmy Carter once put it, “lust in my heart” for that spanky new Land Cruiser. Could it be . . . ?

I lay there and thought back to other situations. East Africa is rich with lustable (to coin a word) expedition vehicles. On the previous trip, the day before we were to climb the escarpment we stayed in a research camp run by the local Maasai community. I distinctly remembered a German couple who had visited in a well-kitted turbodiesel Toyota Hilux, which I had inspected approvingly—while the Land Rover in which I was shortly to be immobilized stood by silently. Broodingly . . .

And the trip before that? I had stopped by the Toyota dealer in Nairobi and picked up a couple of brochures, which I casually and heedlessly stored in the center console of the Land Rover

The more I thought about it, the more suspicious parallels I found. The beat-up Series III 88 I’d brought home a few years ago to a house already occupied by two Land Cruisers, and whose rear prop shaft had blown a U-joint two days later? Of course . . .

Lying under the 110 with its diff lock now free, I mused on what Land Rover disciples frequently point out as the salient difference between their vehicles and Japanese pretenders: the so-called “personality” factor. Land Rovers, it’s argued, have it, while Land Cruisers, however competent and reliable, are simply appliances with no more soul than a refrigerator. I’d always viewed this idea dubiously—now I wasn’t so sure. Land Rovers, it appeared, did have personality, and that personality included the clairvoyant ability to detect the slightest hint of disloyalty, and to react in the most immediately petulant way possible. Nothing major, mind you; just a reminder of your interdependent relationship.

Come to think of it, it does sort of look like a tipped-over refrigerator . . .

An obvious experiment presented itself. We still had several hundred miles to drive before reaching Arusha, where we were to return the vehicle. I resolved to remain utterly faithful to Solihull products for the duration. As we drove south toward Namanga, whenever I spied a Land Cruiser or Hilux coming toward us I did the mental equivalent of closing my eyes, sticking my fingers in my ears, and repeating lalalalalalala to distract me from the approaching “appliance.” That worked for a while, but then I went active: At the first hint of a familiar approaching Japanese silhouette, I concentrated, envisioning instead a customized Defender 130 Crewcab with Michelin XZL tires, a Superwinch Husky, and a full Safety Devices roll cage. Or I imagined a completely restored 101 Forward Control equipped with a Bagnold sun compass. Or I pictured Sarah Batten, the lovely director of the Land Rover Experience training division (whoa, careful with the “lust in the heart” thing there, Jonathan).

Anyway, call it coincidence, but it worked. The 110 purred along happily through Kenya and into Tanzania, carried us down the long, brutal track to Lake Eyasi and back with what seemed like even more perfect suspension control than usual, and gave me the distinct impression that the needle on the fuel gauge was retreating at a slower pace than it had been. Was there a bit more get up and go in the 300Tdi on the road back past Ngorongoro? Whatever—I was convinced I had uncovered the secret to the “unreliable” Land Rover mystique.

We parked in front of the excellent Café Barista, in downtown Arusha, to get a cappuccino before returning the 110. As we came out I noticed a really nice Mercedes G-Wagen drive by—the bare-bones turbodiesel African version, not the leather-wrapped U.S. model. I would have given it a closer look, but the damned key was refusing to open the Land Rover’s door, and . . .