Men and motors: it’s the name of a particularly unappetising digital TV channel; and it’s a deep, central truth of human existence. For many men, particularly in Scotland, and even more particularly in remote, busless, rural Scotland, cars are life; and, sad as it may seem, the measuring out of one’s time on earth in terms of vehicles owned is as natural as eating or breathing. To move, after all, is to live.
I can conjure up whole chunks of my Ayrshire childhood by naming a car and inhaling its imagined, memorised aroma: a Wolseley, two-tone blue over grey, with its leather seats and carpeted floor which provided bed space for my two sisters and myself on long, inconceivably exciting night-time journeys from Glasgow to the south of England. The plasticky, hot-clutch smell of a Vauxhall Cresta, broken down with a ruined universal joint in Lyon. The distinctive polystyrene pong that every Fiat my family owned had, and every new one still possesses.
As for my own custodianship of various wheeled machines, there’s no question that my entire existence can be described in terms of in-car events: that first kiss, first cigarette, rejection by innumerable women; jobs, journeys, joys and sorrows. MGs, Renaults, Lancias, Volvos, Fords, Volkswagens . . . (the list goes on).
Now the love affair with automobiles is over, for I have reached the end of the road. No longer wilI I lust after Aston Martins, Lamborghinis, Jaguars or other examples of automotive artistry. I would like to say that it’s an environmental thing, but it isn’t. At the end of the day, you abandon the car as fantasy, and embrace it as nothing more or less than a practical tool. However, in my case, it so happens that the purchase of a vehicle where form follows function to an almost ridiculous extent is a dream come true. Because, from the day I was given a Dinky toy version, I have yearned for a Land Rover.
What I have now is a Rioja Red Defender 110 station wagon County TDi, complete with an unbelievable 12 seats, aluminium bodywork that ripples and bends in a strangely appealing way, a viable cruising speed of 65mph (any more and the North Sea would run dry of oil within a week). It can handle dogs, grannies, teams of children, hay, pigs, sheep, hen food and large amounts of gravel, all with ease and aplomb. Its permanent four-wheel drive deals easily with the vicissitudes of Shetlandic roadscape. And best of all, it is utterly itself. A Land Rover is a Land Rover is a Land Rover, and is recognisably the same machine that was made for farmers more than half a century ago. It is a classic in a way that a Toyota Landcruiser or Mitsubishi Shogun could never be. Even the recent use of the name “Defender” is meant to inflame purchasers with pride in the British forces’ use of Land Rovers for everything from fire engines to long-range desert assault vehicles. And there they were, on the news last night, on the front line in Sierra Leone. I feel happy in a Land Rover. I feel safe. I feel at home.
Two days after I bought the monstrous red machine, BMW announced that it was pulling out of Rover and that it had sold Land Rover to Ford, while the question of what would happen to the Cowley plant and its workers remained very moot indeed. Land Rover – profitable, competitive, internationally prestigious – was the jewel in the Rover Group’s crown. But for family-dominated BMW, the going was just too tough. As the car manufacturing industry worldwide becomes concentrated in the hands of a few multinationals, BMW was just not big enough to cope. Ford, on the other hand, knows exactly what it is doing, has cherry-picked the best names and the most valuable products – from the Jaguar XK8 to the Range Rover – and even the plug-ugly, venerable, but still enormously saleable Defender is safe under their ownership.
There is only one wholly British-owned car maker left, and that is TVR, whose specialised sports-car niche was one of the inspirations for the original Alchemy bid. But niches are really all that is left to the one-country car maker now. Everybody wants a niche. But if your niche gets too big, then the multinationals will want to move in – in the nicest possible way, of course, preserving as many vestiges of national pride and historic iconography as they feel suits their financial purpose.
“A gentleman’s conveyance,” said an acquaintance, somewhat sneeringly, on seeing the gigantic shape of my Land Rover in his car park. I felt strangely warmed. Despite all the alterations in overall ownership of the firm, I even felt a degree of national pride. After all, the British designed the Land Rover. Just look at it: it has Britishness written all over it.
Except, of course, it’s really just a ripped-off Jeep, cobbled together after the war and based on the hundreds of ex-US Army vehicles left in Blighty. So, now that Land Rover is American, maybe it’s going home at last. Mine smells of dog, abandoned fags and silage. I hope the kids won’t have to imagine that niff when they grow up; because unlike BMW, I don’t intend to sell.
Tom Morton’s book Internal Combustion: a love story will be published this summer