I knew a fellow, a lives-and-breathes-them Land Rover aficionado, who was on his way across Africa in a 109 Station Wagon when the rear differential blew. Someone on a forum, as I recall, referred to the event in terms of a “breakdown”—which elicited an aggrieved response from the owner. This was not a “breakdown,” he insisted. Why? Because differentials are “maintenance items.”
If you are a lives-and-breathes them Land Rover aficionado, or if you know one, you’ll recognize this syndrome. Over the years, and to a greater or lesser extent depending on the model, Land Rovers have become known for being, how shall I put this . . . co-dependent. Because of this, owners are constantly besieged with quips, snarky comments, and jokes. (“Eight out of ten Land Rovers ever made are still on the road. The other two made it home.” Etc.) These are especially likely to come from Toyota owners revelling in their own brand’s sterling reputation. Desperate-sounding ripostes about Toyotas being “appliances” only come off as desperate-sounding—the Toyota owner just smirks and leaves the Land Rover owner grinding his teeth.
Perhaps it was the resulting Maginot mentality that led to the simple defense of not acknowledging breakdowns as breakdowns, and not calling repairs repairs. After decades of association with Land Rover owners, I’ve realized that the word ‘repair’ should not be applied to any procedure being performed on one of their vehicles unless they’ve rigged a steel beam on two A-frames extending side to side through both open doors, and are using three pulley blocks and a team of donkeys to remove something. And even then: A dear (nameless) friend whose Defender’s transmission failed on an epic trans-Africa trip actually excuses it with, “It wasn’t the vehicle’s fault. A part was installed incorrectly at the factory.” Um, okay, Graham. The reductio ad absurdum of this peculiar mental illness is reached when the poor owner begins typing spluttering forum posts such as, “They’re only unreliable if you don’t use them hard enough!”
I can write this without (much) fear of assassination because I have always felt a strong attraction to Land Rovers, and at the moment own two of them. At the same time I can keep one eyebrow raised ironically because I also own an FJ40 Land Cruiser that in 35 years has not once, one single time, left me stranded. In 1978, when I bought it, my choice was between the Toyota or a 1974 Series III 88, at that time a product of the troubled British Leyland group (‘troubled’ and ‘British Leyland’ being completely redundant phrasing). Everyone short of the State Department warned me off the Land Rover, and in retrospect buying the FJ40 was absolutely the right choice. Reliability aside, towing a 21-foot sailboat or a utility trailer loaded with eight sea kayaks would have been problematic with the 88’s 75 horsepower. And then there were those axles . . .
Where was I? Right: The big question, of course, asked by everyone who is not of the lives-and-breathes community, is why? Where does what seems like this blind devotion come from, when there are so many alternatives, however appliance-like they may be?
One simple answer on logical grounds would be that Land Rovers work so well when they work that owners are willing to put up with constant fettling. From the range-topping Range Rover, still unmatched in its combination of luxury and off-pavement prowess, to the Defender, still unmatched in its combination of pliant ride with outstanding cargo capacity, and fine turbodiesel power with excellent fuel economy, Land Rover has been ahead of other marques in numerous engineering details since the 1970s.
But that’s the logical answer, and logical answers are vulnerable to logical ripostes regarding . . . reliability—surely, many would point out, the most critical characteristic of any expedition vehicle.
I think the real answer to the unswerving loyalty of Land Rover owners is the intangible, but undeniable, aura of history and romance that surrounds the Land Rover as it does no other expedition vehicle. Hook up electrodes to the brain of the most loyal Toyota/Nissan/Ford/Jeep owner, and ask him to, quickly, picture a vehicle on an African safari, and I guarantee the diagnostic screen is going to produce an image of a Land Rover, roof rack loaded with jerry cans, plowing through the bulldust of Tanzania.
Whatever the real reason is, I consider myself immune to such blind unreasoning justification.
Or, I did. Until this weekend.
I drove our recently acquired ex-MOD 110 Defender out to our desert property to do some work on the camping area. On the way out I’d noticed the shifting of the LT77 five-speed seemed to be more recalcitrant than usual (it’s due to be replaced with a later R380, along with a 300Tdi powerplant, soon). Just as I pulled up to park near the cottage, I was suddenly presented with, in the immortal words of the late James Hunt, a gearbox full of neutrals. Uh oh.
I had no factory manual, and no experience with the LT77, so I just got out the tools and began fettling. With the rubber shift boot pulled off, it became obvious the issue lay beneath a shift tower that supported two springs which helped locate the shift lever. With the springs popped off to the side, the lever came out (sending another spring-loaded plunger smartly across the cab, fortunately found). Four bolts undid the tower, and with it off the problem was immediately apparent: The metal and nylon socket into which the lever’s ball fits had come off the operating shaft, in turn because a set screw had come loose. Slide the socket assembly back on, tighten the set screw, tower bolted back in place, shift lever in and springs prized back on, and we’re finished. More or less precise shifting back in operation.
And then it happened.
I was thinking that, if the problem occurred again, I could probably have it sorted in less than 10 minutes. And as I innocently, happily considered that, another thought flowed—smoothly, sinuously, completely unbidden—into my brain:
It hardly even counts as a repair.
Or maybe I'm just not using it hard enough?