London, England - Over sixty years ago, the Land Rover was born. Originally conceived as a half-car/half-tractor for use by British farmers, it arrived in a postwar world where steel was in short supply-hence its dual purpose-but this 4x4 marvel would soon leave the shores of England and go on to be sold in over 160 countries. It became an automotive icon in the process.
We recently paid a visit to Eastnor Castle, at the center of a 5,000-acre estate in Herefordshire, England, and the home of the Land Rover Experience. Engineers and designers at Land Rover have used the grounds at Eastnor for off-road testing for many years, and while this location is unique because it offers the visitor driving instruction in new Rovers, it also houses a great heritage collection of vintage and one-off vehicles-most of which can be driven on the grounds. These vehicles cover the evolution of the brand right from the start, with pristine examples of several models, such as the granddaddy of them all: The Series 1 that was unveiled in 1948. With its 80-inch wheelbase, square form, and four-wheel-drive capability, it resembled an American Jeep, and not by coincidence either, as the Jeep was used as a model. (But even though the Land Rover staff freely admits this, they're just as quick to add, "Then we went on to perfect the four-wheel-drive SUV.")
So while these Rovers aren't in Africa, an English castle is a pretty impressive backdrop for this collection (and if your dream is to drive these Land Rovers while getting married in a fairy tale castle, Eastnor can do that too, as one of the many services it now offers). It's interesting to note that while the medieval fortress is perfect in every detail, it is in fact a fake. Built in 1812, it's modern by English standards; what is original, though, are the owners-the Hervey-Bathurst family (descended from the original builders), who now hire it out for nuptials, corporate retreats, and, of course (for at least the past 40 years), the Land Rover Experience.
The Forward Control Land Rover is a rare sight nowadays. Originally offered on a 101-inch wheelbase (and later, a 100-inch version), they ran the 2.6L Rover passenger car six-cylinder or the 2.3L diesel I-4; the smaller 2.3L gas four-cylinder was for export-only models. In real life, the FC was never a big hit with the public, and most FCs manufactured were 1-ton versions that ended up in military use, either as field ambulances or for light troop transport. They also rode on heavier-duty ENV wide-track axles, which replaced the Salisbury pieces in the mid-'60s to increase unsprung weight (i.e., to address rollover concerns).
That first 1948 Land Rover ran a 1.6L four-cylinder engine that made just 50 horsepower, but it did have a four-speed gearbox, two-speed transfer case, locking four-wheel drive, 4.88:1-geared axles, and it was an instant success in England. The Series I, which first debuted in 1953, ran a slightly stretched wheelbase, a more robust 2.0L four-cylinder, and the more familiar 4.7:1 axles. It's primitive, of course, by today's standards, but driving it around Eastnor's grounds it's still capable of doing what it was designed for-four-wheeling. If I had to make a complaint, it's that this early Rover was built to fit some kind of stunted, half-starved Englishman-by this I mean that I barely fit behind the wheel, and each time I changed gears, I was in danger of clipping my chin with my knee. While the Series I is hugely collectible, it's a later model that is probably best known around the world-and it's not the Series II Land Rover (in various wheelbases) that started to appear in the 50's. Instead, the most iconic of all Rovers came later: The Series III station wagon.
Across the pea gravel parking lot was what looked almost like a wreck of something rather than what it was: A desert special ops vehicle specially built for the British Army Special Air Services based at nearby Hereford. This truck was in service from 1986 to 2005 and was used in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its 3.5L alloy V-8 engine drives a full-time, four-wheel drive setup on a ladder frame with a steel-plated underside. When deployed, its fully integrated tubular rollcage sported a ring mount for a variety of weapons ranging from machine guns to anti-tank missiles. As you might expect, it's anything but smooth with solid axles front and rear-both sprung with coil springs. But being that it now resides in the Heritage collection, I suppose it did its job.
Also on the strange side was a Defender riding on tracks. This vehicle was prepared to this unique specification in support of a transglobal expedition lead by Sir Ranulph Fiennes in 1996. He set out on a driving challenge that took this vehicle across from the UK across Europe and Asia to New York without using shipping or aircraft. How? By crossing the sea ice of the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska. Powered by a 3.0L diesel engine, Fiennes also insulated and installed auxiliary heating to make the truck more comfortable. The tracks, in place of tires, were built by Mattracks and specially installed at the factory. Last (but certainly not least) a rear power take-off was added to turn a paddle wheel, while a set of removable pontoons floated the truck across the icy Bering Sea-just in case. Apparently it all worked out. I was allowed to take this hybrid (now that's my idea of a hybrid!) truck for a spin around the courtyard. It clanks like a tank, and I can say with authority it's a real bitch to steer.
Tomb Raider Defender
Right next to Sly's ride was the Tomb Raider truck. One of three built, it was mostly used for static shots and so has a fully functional interior. Running a 4.0L V-8, it was built on a 110 Defender chassis. While many of the features on the truck were for show only, it drives like there is a mummy chasing it. I took it up through the hills of Eastnor, which were quite dry at the time (darn!), and while it can get going, it's the specially designed exhaust note that makes it seem even faster. (Sounded a lot like the space shuttle launch.) The oversize tires and heavy-duty shocks soaked up the bumps, and if I could have found a sand dune in the English midlands, I'd have tried getting a bit of air. Maybe next time.
Rovers Of The Stars
Eastnor doesn't just house vintage and historical vehicles. It's also home to several very unique Rovers that have some pretty big names attached to them. So here's the quiz.
What do Sylvester Stallone and Angelina Jolie have in common with an elite SAS military unit and an Arctic Adventurer? They have all driven specially built Land Rovers. And while each is unique to its task, at least two are just a bit about over-the-top. These built-for-the-movies trucks were featured in the Sly Stallone flick Judge Dredd, while Angelina in her role as Laura Croft has raided tombs in more than one sequel and more than one Land Rover. These vehicles were of course built for show, but they still actually run and I got to drive them.
FC-110 Future Truck
Driving through the stone arched main gate of the castle, it was the very out-of-place Judge Dredd City Cab that caught my attention first. Built around a donor body taken from a late-'70s forward-control Land Rover truck, this "cab" from the year 2139 is the only complete model remaining, though there were 31 (in various build stages) created for the movie shoot. The cab of the Judge Dredd truck is capable of carrying six passengers and now tours various shows.