15 June 2023
You don’t have to own a six-figure Series I to tour Land Rover Classic’s facilities and drive a wide range of historic heroes
Land Rover is different to most other marques in that the excitement of buying a new vehicle from a main dealer doesn’t end when you drive away from the forecourt; you get the chance to explore the off-road capability of your chosen steed, along with its stablemates, at a Land Rover Experience Centre as part of the deal.
Meeting your heroes is anything but a letdown on a Classic Experience day
In fact, you don’t even need to own a Land Rover to book onto one of the many exhilarating off-road driving days held at any of the Land Rover Experience Centres. And now, that ever-popular format has been extended to include the heritage side of the brand, in a series of exclusive Land Rover Classic Drive Experiences – which also include a private, guided tour of Classic Works.
70th Anniversary Works V8 90 is one of the delights on offer
Arriving at Jaguar Land Rover’s sprawling Fen End premises in Kenilworth, a Defender 110 awaits by the visitor reception to chauffeur customers to the Proving Ground off-road test track at the back of the Special Vehicle Operations workshops.
After a short drive through the facility, we arrive at the off-road test area. The grand entrance is flanked by a pair of 110 double cabs, and Land Rover Classic flags flutter in the breeze. Beyond, a firepit burns brightly, with guests warming their hands and laughing with the hosts over steaming mugs of hot coffee.
An impressive line-up
My attention is immediately grabbed by the line-up of Land Rovers parked along the treeline to the right of the entrance. Hand-selected from Land Rover’s Ryton-based collection, some of the rare and historic gems already have Warwickshire mud stuck between their tyre treads. ‘‘They all have to earn their place.’’ smiles Mike Bishop, Land Rover historian extraordinaire and JLR Classic specialist. While most manufacturers have their heritage fleet squirrelled away in a warehouse under dust sheets, it’s clear that these guys like to get their toys out of the box as often as possible – much to the delight of the guests, who can’t get enough of the stunning machines and the stories behind them.
Range Rover Classic tests it's suspension
After perusing the fleet and asking any questions, customers can pick a Land Rover in turn and take a scenic yet challenging drive through the winding woodland tracks of Fen End, while learning more about the history of their chosen vehicle.
They may be old, but they are not spared the tough terrain
Despite the rarity and historic significance of some of the Land Rovers, the JLR Classics team aren’t afraid to spare the horses when the going gets tough. Axle twisters and hillclimbs get low-box engaged and the suspension cycling, and the narrow tyres slice through the soft soil to firmer ground below, occasionally scrabbling for traction on areas of still-frozen ground.
With Land Rover’s amazing collection on hand, smiles are guaranteed
A gorgeous Bahama Gold Range Rover finds the limit of its ground clearance and becomes bellied-out in deep ruts, but there’s no panic or embarrassment here – to the grinning clients, it’s all part of the fun. A gentle tug from the G4 Discovery 3 frees the Range Rover, and everyone piles back in to continue the route. The enthusiasm from the Land Rover Classics team is infectious, and punters are clamouring to switch from vehicle to vehicle to get as much seat time in as possible. And with such delights as 437 DEL – a 1949 Series I, a 1965 Series II once belonging to Spencer Wilks, a 70th Anniversary Works V8 90, and a mint example of an early Discovery 1 among others, who can blame them.
Door-tops-off motoring doesn’t get much better
The JLR Classic heritage fleet still gets used in the way they were originally designed to be
After a very tasty packed lunch and a quick defrost by the fire pit, the Experience Land Rovers retire to their parking spaces and a brand-new Defender 90 V8 pulls up, piloted by one of JLR’s in-house test drivers. If the morning’s festivities didn’t get the adrenaline pumping enough, a hot lap of the off-road perimeter route in this 518bhp monster is bound to boost the heart rate.
A hot lap or two in the 518bhp Defender 90 gets the pulse racing
The first clients saddle up, and the L663 disappears off into the forest in a cacophony of eight-cylinder noise. Even on road-biased rubber, the Defender carves through the trees in total control, suspension flattening concrete ledges and water-filled holes without breaking a sweat, all while flicking frozen chunks of dirt high into the air. It disappears out of sight for a minute, before bursting into view at the far end of the off-road area. Screaming across the grass in huge off-camber drifts and obliterating any frozen puddles in its way, the 90 hurtles towards the waiting group of punters and pulls up in the parking area, mud dripping from the paintwork and steam rising from the massive blue brake calipers. Wearing expressions of awe and bewilderment at the capability of both the Defender and its driver, the guests clamber out and head to the picnic table for a cup of coffee to calm their nerves.
Puddle? What puddle!
I jump in next to see what all the fuss is about, and as my head gets pushed firmly into the headrest and the 90 cuts hard into the trees, wipers running flat out and V8 barking in my ears, it doesn’t take long. It feels like we’re on a Welsh rally stage rather than a test facility before we broadslide out onto the grass and launch over the yumps in the hillside, pulling up to the start line in a blur of noise and mud. ‘‘Want to go for another lap?’’ grins the driver. You bet I do.
Classic Works: Land Rovers, old and new
With the light fading, we pile into waiting L663s and head over to Classic Works’ headquarters at Ryton for a tour of the showroom and Collection. Swapping muddy boots for clean, we head inside the immaculate building and gaze upon the incredible stock for sale within. It’s heaven on earth for anyone into Land Rovers, and just as I’m calculating if a cheeky remortgage will let me stretch to a Works V8 90, we’re ushered through a corner door and into the huge, laboratory-clean workshop.
We meander through the bays, guided by Mike Bishop who’s keen to answer any burning questions and offers fascinating insights into how the Land Rovers are restored, and what goes into special projects like the Trophy II Defenders that are in the process of being assembled, sitting in various states of build.
Rack 'em up
Through another door, and into the Collection. Racks of Land Rovers span the huge building, from the £250k Range Rover Coupe that never made it to production, to a 44-inch-tyred Icelandic Defender, to a crashed Classic that starred in a Bond film and a bizarre electric Defender hybrid that runs Disco 2 axles cut-and-shut to give independent drive to each wheel, and hundreds more, it’s a mind-bending place, and one you won’t forget.
I could have stayed there for hours and chewed Mike’s ear about every vehicle in the place, but it was time for our day to end, though none of us wanted it to.
If you’re in the fortunate position to be a Jaguar Land Rover Classic customer and are on the fence about redeeming your Classic Experience, just do it – you won’t regret it, and you’ll leave wanting more. Similarly, if you’ve been tempted to take a tour of Classic Works or an off-road experience, go for it. It’s worth it just to visit the Collection. As Land Rover days out go, it’s hard to top.
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