Busman's holiday


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LRE London's technical off-road site is carefully constructed to show the capabilities of the vehicles : credit: © Peter Robain
Get cutting It’s now time to trim the sound deadening sheets to clear the newly-fitted rock slider brackets. Use the templates supplied in the kit to mark the areas, then cut them away with a sharp knife or saw. Take extra care – the material is razor-sharp when cut.

Some of you may never have come across the phrase ‘busman’s holiday’ before. It’s something I heard a lot when I was a kid, although apparently it dates back to 1893. Just to be clear, that’s almost 70 years before I was on the scene… But if it’s new to you, let me explain: a busman’s holiday means going on holiday to do something that is basically similar to your day job – you’re a bus driver and off you go on your holiday, by bus.

And that’s what Dunsfold Collection trustees and advisors Philip Bashall, Richard Grafton and I are doing. One way or another, we spend an inordinate amount of our time on Dunsfold Collection business and other Land Rover stuff, and here we are holding a half-day Collection planning meeting at the Land Rover Experience Centre London, which is co-owned by, you guessed it, Dunsfold Collection trustee and lifelong Land Rover enthusiast, Richard Beddall.

Richard started trialling and racing with the All-Wheel Drive Club as far back as 1970, and in 1979 he was approached by the boss of Mercedes-Benz UK who asked him if he could put a team together to teach the Mercedes main dealer salesmen (they were always men in those days) how to drive off-road. It turned out that Mercedes was about to launch the G-Wagen, and Richard and his team drove around the UK demonstrating the new vehicle and teaching the Mercedes salesmen how to drive it off-road.

In the mid-1990s Richard set up an off-road driver training business on the Duke of Somerset’s estate in Wiltshire and within a few months he had an arrangement with Ottons of Salisbury, the local Land Rover main agent, to provide driving days for their customers. In 2000 he was at the Rover Owners’ Association annual event and, while chatting to Andrew McRobb who was there with Land Rover Gear, heard that Land Rover was about to look for franchisees for the new Land Rover Experience operation. The outcome was that Richard and Andrew came together and secured the franchise for what is now LRE London.

Writer Gary Pusey, centre, with left to right Richard Grafton, Richard Beddall, and Philip Bashall

The reason that Philip, the two Richards and I need to have a planning meeting is because right now we have a lot to talk about. We need to finalise our plans to get ten Collection vehicles to Malvern in time for the much-anticipated Land Rover Monthly Live event over the weekend of 20-21 May, and we also need to conclude the arrangements for what is probably the most important development in the 55-year history of the Collection – the opening of a permanent museum building that will allow the charity to host public open days and offer exclusive guided tours to clubs and other groups.

The opening event in June is for Friends of the Collection and Wall of Fame Supporters only, as a ‘thank you’ for their financial and moral support and, in the case of the working party volunteers, their hard labour, which has been of immense help over the past two and a half years. Several Land Rover clubs have already asked if they can arrange private guided tours for their members, so the trustees and advisors need to get together to put in place a plan that can make all of this happen. And on top of all this, we’d also like to host a public open day before the year is out.

A half-day planning meeting means, of course, that there’s the other half of the day to think about, and Richard Beddall suggests that we dedicate the afternoon to the planning discussions, and spend the morning having a glorious busman’s holiday, driving three of JLR’s Land Rover products around LRE London’s off-road driving course.

​​​​​​After Richard generously allows us to choose which of the models on the LRE London fleet we want to drive, we’ve concluded that we want to play in the mud in the latest (fifth generation) L460 Range Rover, the L461 Range Rover Sport, and the L663 Defender. All three of us will be driving them for the first time off-road and given that Philip’s daily driver is a 2014 Freelander, Richard Grafton’s is a 1984 Ninety, and mine is a 1990 Range Rover, we’re all probably in for a bit of a technology shock with the new models.

Plenty of wading and mud on offer on the tracks of LRE London. Range Rover Sport leads the way.

We make a plan to meet at LRE London’s impressive base at Luton Hoo at 8.30am to meet Richard and our instructors over coffee and pastries. Our visit coincides with the March cold snap, and we’re all delighted to find there’s a sprinkling of snow on the ground, along with  plenty of mud.

LRE London is one of nine Land Rover Experience centres in the UK and covers a huge territory that encompasses London and the Home Counties, ranging from Oxford to Essex and Dover to Portsmouth, an area that is home to no less than 32 JLR retailers. Every buyer of a new or approved used Land Rover from each of these retailers is given a free invitation to attend an LRE off-road driving course. Over a third take up the offer, and the JLR retailers also make use of LRE London’s facilities to ensure their own teams are fully up to date with the off-road capabilities of the latest Land Rover vehicles. It all adds up to over 10,000 people coming to LRE London and the delightful surroundings of the Luton Hoo estate for off-road driving experiences every year.

We’re keen to find out more about the vehicles we’ll be driving. Our Range Rover is the HSE D350 Mild Hybrid model, the Range Rover Sport is the Autobiography P510e Plug-in Hybrid, and the Defender 110 is the X-Dynamic HSE P400e Plug-in Hybrid.

We’re going to spend over three hours driving them, with the three of us rotating from vehicle to vehicle several times to ensure we get to experience each of them across a wide variety of terrain. I’ve visited LRE London previously, when Richard Beddall kindly allowed LRM to use it as a location for an article we were preparing on first-generation Range Rovers, but until today’s visit I had no idea of the extent of the site’s facilities.

Steep ascent over a blind summit followed by a steep descent was particularly entertaining, especially with downward-facing camera technology

​​​​​​There is a purpose-built ‘technical site’ located in a picturesque hidden valley with ascents, descents, axle-twisters, steep side slopes, rock crawls and, of course, deep water to drive through, all of which has been carefully designed to demonstrate to drivers the capabilities of the vehicles and the in-car tech.

There are extensive tracks around the estate – some around field boundaries and some through woodland – that offer a wide variety of rutted tracks, water and several interesting obstacles. It is all laid out with careful consideration to the surroundings and respect for what is also a working farm.

Some of the areas we will be driving are on different parts of the estate, so the bonus is that we get to drive the vehicles on tarmac as we transit from area to area. It all creates the feeling of a mini expedition rather than just repetitive circuits around the same area, driving over the same obstacles from different directions. All three of us are impressed with the site, and it means we really do come away with a sense of what it would be like to live with these vehicles as daily drivers.

As you would expect, all three vehicles reflect JLR’s ‘Luxury Reimagined’ strategy. They positively ooze comfort and are undeniably very fashionable and stylish, and their on- and off-road performance is exemplary. I am almost embarrassed to be clambering in and out all day with muddy boots. But not even the Defender comes close to being a utility vehicle.

There are some critics of the the tech and electronics, but LRM's Gary Pusey loved it

They are also loaded – some might say overloaded –with tech, which is basically the same in all three vehicles, although there are a number of detailed differences. But this is what the vast majority of customers want to see when they are deciding whether or not to buy a particular vehicle, even though it is well known that most owners use only a fraction of the in-car tech that is provided.

The number of three-letter abbreviations in the vehicle spec-sheets and the number of icons on the dash-mounted touchscreen are always reliable signs of how much of what you’re driving is being either influenced or controlled by the in-car tech, and during our drive we encounter ATPC (All Terrain Progress Control), CBC (Cornering Brake Control), DSC (Dynamic Stability Control), EBD (Electronic Brake-force Distribution), GAC (Gradient Acceleration Control), GRC (Gradient Release Control), HDC (Hill Descent Control), RSC (Roll Stability Control), and TPMS (Tyre Pressure Monitoring System).

We also have a Head-Up Display on the windscreen, Hill Launch Assist, Low Traction Launch, Dynamic Launch, Voice Control, 3D Surround Camera, Lane Keep Assist, Park Assist, Traffic Sign Recognition, Adaptive Speed Limiter, and Electronic Active Differential with Torque Vectoring by Braking.

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It all seems to work very well indeed, and the off- and on-road driving experiences are every bit as good as you’d expect from vehicles at this level. But you can’t help wondering whether the headlong pursuit of more tech has got to the point where it is delivering excessive complexity for diminishing returns. Nevertheless, it’s no surprise that these three models top the company’s order books by some margin.

On balance it was the Defender that won the busmen’s hearts

So, what were our individual conclusions? Philip’s most recent ‘modern’ Land Rover was an L405 fourth-generation Range Rover. “It took me ages to get used to the tech,” he says, “and just six years on the current models have so much more. It would take me a long time to learn it all and probably 80 per cent I would never use. The technology does take a lot of the fun out of playing off-road.

“The Sport felt just right although still far too much tech for me. I found myself constantly looking at the screen to see what was going on so, if I had one, I’d have to force myself to keep my eyes on the road. The full-fat Range Rover is too big for me. It is a huge car and I’d be nervous driving it around narrow country lanes.

“I’d be interested to see how it tows, although I imagine the rear-wheel steering might make reversing a trailer quite entertaining. The Defender was good, although obviously the only thing it shares with its predecessor is the name. I think it is more of a successor to the D4 and I’d like to try one on an extended test, including towing, to see if it would meet my needs. It certainly felt as if it had a bit less tech than the Range Rovers.”

The freezing conditions made some of the ascents and descents entertaining but the vehicles and drivers coped admirably

Richard Grafton loved the tech. “I know there are some critics of the extent of the technology and electronics used in these modern Land Rovers but I for one loved it,” he says. “There are some subtle differences in the interface between the three vehicles, but the similar menus started to become more natural as we went along.  I couldn’t resist diving into the manual set-up option in the Defender, where you can adjust all the settings yourself, but in truth I ended up concluding the vehicle would make better decisions than I would.  Most people, I suspect, will just let it choose the terrain mode automatically and I wouldn’t blame them.  As ever, the hill descent was impressive, both in forward and reverse.

“I came away thinking the ultimate luxury would be to have all three vehicles in your garage and decide each day which one you would drive. But having said that I would give the Defender nine out of ten against my criteria for a vehicle I could use as a family car on a holiday outing, an accomplished tow vehicle for work, and a solid off-roader for more extreme conditions.

“The sheer luxury of the environment and lofty driving position in the new Range Rover was almost too much of a cocoon for me but felt so comfortable and assured it was hard to remember you were knee-deep in mud. 

“The Range Rover Sport felt nimbler in many ways and the straight-line performance was impressive, with the facelift styling looking very attractive to my eye.  I also had to keep reminding myself they were still on standard factory-fitted tyres.”

And as for me, everyone knows that I’m one of the critics of the excessive electrickery that Richard Grafton refers to, so I won’t pretend I’m not. I don’t need the full-on luxury or the tech of the Range Rovers, so the Defender would be the one, although as I said, it is a long way from being a utility truck. Tech levels are still very high, and they need to be, because without the tech these vehicles could not perform anywhere near as spectacularly on the tarmac as they do.


Our test drive fleet

Range Rover HSE D350 MHEV
3.0-litre diesel mild hybrid
Transmission: 8-speed automatic 
Top speed: 145mph
Max power: 350bhp
Max torque: 516lb-ft
0-60mph: 5.6sec
WLTP fuel consumption: up to 36.2mpg
List price: £108,775

Range Rover Sport P510e PHEV Autobiography
3.0-litre petrol plug-in hybrid
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Top speed: 150mph
Max power: 510bhp
Max torque: 516lb-ft
0-60mph: 5.2sec
WLTP fuel consumption: up to 37.9mpg
List price: £108,600

Defender 110 X-Dynamic HSE
2.0-litre petrol plug-in hybrid
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Top Speed: 119mph
Max power: 404bhp
Max torque: 472lb-ft
0-60mph: 5.4sec
WLTP fuel consumption: up to 106.6mpg
List price: £79,945


Land Rover Experience London

​​​​​​With grateful thanks to Richard Beddall, Ed Flanagan and John Whitworth at LRE London, instructors Ashley, Dave and Andy, and snapper Peter Robain for a thoroughly enjoyable time in the mud. If you get the chance, it is well worth paying a visit to LRE London. You can find out more about its range of experiences by contacting the team on 01989 770932 or by email at [email protected].



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