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Time for a confession. I’m getting rather interested in tyres. When discussing with any of my non off-roading friends that I’m about to write a feature on 4x4 rubber, I regularly get the rather tedious, and not very funny, comment that tyres are ‘black and round – what more is there to say?’ Plenty as far as I am concerned, and a lot of it very interesting in my humble opinion. In this month’s issue is the report of my recent experience driving 250 miles through the Mexican Baja, testing the new 4x4 tyres from BFGoodrich. This was an illuminating, entertaining and at times alarming experience, driving Baja Challenge buggies over some of the most testing off-road tracks and rocky trails this writer has ever experienced in 30 odd years of motoring journalism. For once it was not driving with a bunch of fellow journos, some of whom may think they are hotshot aces when getting behind the wheel, my fellow drivers in Mexico included actual Baja 1000 winners, and professional off-road specialists, including Rod Hall – the only person to complete all 46 Baja 1000 events! Humbling? You had better believe it.
For many, SUVs are just plain ugly. Too big, too brash and too much. These people had a field day when Porsche unveiled its Cayenne. The company’s desire to make sure everyone knew it was a Porsche by grafting a 911 sports car nose on to the front was thought by some to be a hideous piece of automotive design. It’ll never sell… The Cayenne is now the largest selling model in the German manufacturer’s range; fair to say that, when looking at the sales figures, Porsche is now really an SUV manufacturer that side-lines in quirky sports cars.
SUV design is primarily a case of function taking first place over form. Few are designed just for design sake; a Defender is hardly svelte with smooth lines that make you want to run your hands along the bodywork – and not just for fear of catching yourself on a protruding rivet. It’s built to do a job and its looks are secondary. Much has changed at Land Rover with the high-class designs rolling from Gerry McGovern’s studio. When the Evoque was first shown, its dramatically different looks made traditionalists declare it was not a proper ‘off-roader’, it was soft and an example of design over function. Sales of the Evoque destroy such comments with sales being 50/50 between male and female customers, and driven properly the Evoque is a competent off-roader. And like the Cayenne, the Evoque is a huge sales success.
This is being written on the last day of football’s ‘transfer window’, a time where seemingly ludicrous amounts of money are paid for players around Europe. Now, while I’m something of a football fan, of both the game and the even more ludicrous ‘soap opera’ machinations that surround it, I am also aware that many readers are probably not – some people seem to dislike all things football with an almost religious zealotry. I mention it solely because you could say that this was our ‘money issue’, where we take a look at what is available in the 4x4 market for very little – and it also coincides with some ‘deals’ in the market that make football transfers appear almost reasonable. After all, would you pay £83,000 for a Toyota Land Cruiser FJ40 of 1980 vintage? Probably not, but it shows that some interesting model 4x4s are now making it into the international classic car world, in this case the FJ was sold at the super-posh auction at Pebble Beach, USA. And then there’s the very first Range Rover, chassis number 001, going under the hammer just after we closed for press. Initial estimates are that it will go for around £140,000 (see Marketwatch, page 96). As you read this, you’ll know what has happened, but you can be sure that even if I had the money, my hand would not be raised at either auction. And you are not likely to see either vehicle at your local pay ‘n’ play site any time soon!
It’s always refreshing learning something new about four-wheel drive, especially the technology used to get a vehicle across impossible ground, or through poor weather conditions. This month, I certainly learned something new, albeit something that was actually conceived some 60 plus years ago!
Now we are all getting used to the amazing technology that is fitted to 4x4s these days, plus all that mind-boggling stuff from the wizards in white coats at Jaguar Land Rover. Actually, they probably don’t wear white coats anymore, I’m just showing my age and love of an ancient cliché; these days it’s all designer suits, Google glasses and virtual reality caves… But I digress. This month’s piece of wonderful ‘new’ technology for me was the amazing Elston Skid-Master Sander fitted to the unique 4x4 Dodge woodie station wagon, featured on page 44. I won’t explain what it does here, just read through the feature and see what you think. I guarantee it will make you smile, both at the ingenuity, and sheer barmy, craziness of the whole idea. It’s probably not going to be included on the next Discovery Concept from the guys at Jaguar Land Rover, but you feel learning about it should increase their education on the history of four-wheel drive. Some years ago I was privileged to get to know John Cooper, of Mini and World Championship motor racing fame. John was no mean engineer himself, but he told me a story about how an Italian engineer once said to him, “if you want to learn something new, then go to the museum”. Meaning that you’ll be surprised how many ‘new’ developments have been tried before. Mind you, I’m not sure that the Skid-Master will be making a comeback on the next generation Range Rover!
As far as off-road heroes go, Sergio Marchionne might not be a name you are familiar with. In many respects, however, if you are a 4x4 enthusiast today, he’s probably up there with the Wilks brothers, Spen King and the Indian Tata family; without whom, Land Rover wouldn’t be what it is today. Without Sergio Marchionne, we’d simply be without Jeep. Full stop.
Apparently back in 2009, the weeds around the Jeep factory in Detroit were three feet high as the company shuddered in the shadows of bankruptcy. It wasn’t a great time to be a Jeep dealer anywhere, certainly not in the UK. Fast forward five years to January 2014 and the Italian Fiat SpA company secured full ownership of the Chrysler Group in an eye-watering $4.35 billion agreement, and the man behind the deal (and with it the complete revival of the Jeep brand) is Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of Chrysler (Source: www.bloomberg.com).