GRINDING GEARS: I like cars you can whack with a hammer

Launched last week, the new Land Rover Defender takes some of the boxy charm of the original and repackages it in a slick new shape.

It’s the ideal vehicle for people who will spend $645 on a pair of designer Wellington boots and never set foot in anything more rustic than a farm-to-table bistro.

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Having grown up around, and frequently under, Land Rovers, I’m not sure how to feel about this polished new machine. Doubtless it’ll be able to handle any sort of terrain with poise, and never leave you stranded (until 15 seconds after the warranty expires), but it’s not really right, is it?

It’s too fancy and modern somehow. Yes, the world has moved on from the original Series Land Rovers and Defenders, which all drove like a garden shed nailed to a chuckwagon. And yet, I find myself strangely yearning for exposed metal and the charm of having the gearshift break off in your hand.

I’m not exaggerating, that did actually happen to me once in my dad’s 1976 Series III. I was a bit late for work and the transmission never did like to go in reverse, so I gave the shifter a bit of a forceful shove and – snap! Now what? Well, I stuck a short length of pipe on top of the shift-stub and drove it around like that for a while.

I realize that I’ve officially arrived in Old Man territory with this next comment, but that sort of thing builds character. It does! When you rely on an old Land Rover to get you around, you need to be quick-witted, and good at problem-solving, and capable of using basic tools, and it also helps if you’re really, really good at swearing.

If you own a modern Land Rover, the only real advantage you can have is if you’ve got a large line of credit and a bank that’s not paying attention. There’s very little you can do yourself, so you need to rely on the thickness of your wallet rather than the depth of your character.

Land Rover
Original Land Rovers were primitive machines, and that was part of the fun, writes columnist Brendan McAleer. Now Land Rovers, like most new vehicles, are more computer code than tubes and chrome. photo supplied Brendan McAleer

Let me tell you another little story. A couple of weeks ago, our washing machine decided to pack it in. At just three years old (right outside the standard warranty), it stopped working and started displaying an error code. An error code? You stupid thing! All you do is mix soap and water and clothes together and spin! You don’t need the kind of processing power normally reserved for landing on the moon.

Nevertheless, some circuit board had expired in the depths of the machine, so we had to wait two weeks for a technician to come out and replace it. The tech threw the old board out, put the new one in, and everything worked again. For now.

Meanwhile, with two young children, we were reduced to popping over to the in-laws and using their top-loading washing machine. This squat, stalwart contraption was in its late 30s, and worked without complaint. If it did break, you could fix it with a screwdriver and a short length of duct tape.

Modern cars are so complex these days that they might as well be magic. If you’re a young person, you might never develop any interest in their inner workings, as it’s just endless lines of code in the machine. Turn a wrench? Know how to gap a spark plug? You might as well learn about vulcanizing bias-ply tires. It’s outdated technology.

And, when your car breaks, you just replace the circuit board and move on. Or replace the car and move on. As with appliances, cars are getting ever more disposable because of their complexity. Contrast the throwaway nature of the Porsche 996, the first water-cooled one, with the lasting durability of an air-cooled 911. The air-cooled cars are still worth a fortune because people can fix them.

In more heartening news, I am seeing a small resurgence in people under 30 being interested in older cars. Usually it’s Honda Civics and things of that nature, but there are a few hardy souls fixing up Minis and MGBs and the like.

It’s my belief that, despite being raised in a time of touchscreens and Twitter, a new generation is understanding the satisfaction that comes from repairing something. Even if that repair is a bit of a bodge, like putting a pipe over a nubbin of a gearshift.

And there’s something deeper going on here too. Old, semi-unreliable cars require something more from their owners than simply the ability to stroke a cheque. They need you a little bit, need you to develop knowledge and skill.

Dad’s old Land Rover certainly needed a few things on a regular basis, and managing to keep it chugging along was a semi-enjoyable activity. Long distance runners refer to it as “Type Two Fun,” where Type One fun is fun while you’re doing it, and Type Two is only enjoyable looking back.

But anyway, seeing the new Defender made me a bit sad for a disappearing age. It may be a cleaner, cleverer, and more capable future. But I prefer my Land Rovers to be as simple as an old welly, preferably with a bit of mud caked on it.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.

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