Just how extreme is a classic Land Rover? I drove one over a cliff to find out

just how extreme is a classic land rover? i drove one over a cliff to find out

David Williams puts a Land Rover Defender 110 through its paces at the Land Rover Experience near Skipton, North Yorkshire - Andrew Fox

Perched at a crazy angle on a rocky outcrop, axles twisted seemingly to breaking point, tyres scrabbling for grip… This is not where you’d expect to find a valuable, increasingly collectible, 1953 Series 1 Land Rover.

Nearby, a 1997 ex-Ministry of Defence Land Rover Defender 90 – nicknamed Wolf, and as sinister as its name suggests thanks to the SA80 assault weapon gun rack, matt green paint and bonnet-mounted trenching tools – plunges headlong off a high, near-vertical cliff. Its brakes only just hold it in check as it slithers down the rock face.

“If it slides, take your feet off everything. Keep the steering straight and let the engine braking take over or you’ll have a faster descent than you planned,” lead instructor James Hutchinson shouts through the window. “Roll the window up just in case…”

This is vintage Land Rover nirvana, where old warhorses go – not to die, but to be driven to the limit over remote Yorkshire hill and dale, through deep swamps and cloying mud, offering novices and dyed-in-the-wool off-roaders the thrill of their lives.

Heritage hardcore

You can forget all about Hill Descent Control, Terrain Response and other electronic aids fitted to modern iterations of Land Rover and Range Rover models. It’s back to basics with the Series 1, for which powered steering or assisted brakes were unheard-of luxuries.

just how extreme is a classic land rover? i drove one over a cliff to find out

David Williams with a line-up of vintage Land Rovers, from left: a Defender 110, Wolf and the Series 1 - Andrew Fox

There’s a choice of high or low-range gears thanks to two long levers, and a “proper” ratchet handbrake. Four-wheel drive is engaged by getting out and getting your hands dirty by turning the freewheeling hubs on the front wheels. Want air-conditioning? Just take off the front doors.

Skill and quick thinking, combined with deft control of the accelerator and clutch pedals, are the order of the day.

“It’s proper old-school driving, and people love it,” says Hutchinson. “We teach the same techniques in the new models, but with the old ones it’s more DIY. It’s all about trust; trusting the older Land Rover to do its job, trusting yourself, trusting your instructor – and having fun.”

The Land Rover Experience North Yorkshire, on the Broughton Hall Estate near Skipton, has been providing thrills since 2015 with its fleet spanning the entire, latest Land Rover range.

Now they’ve gone back in time; 70 years back. The first senior member of the four-strong heritage fleet was Ernie, the aforementioned 1953 Series 1, picked up for a not-inconsiderable sum from a private owner; they’re no longer easy to come by.

Already in “nice” condition, says Hutchinson, it needed minimal fettling before being let loose on the 3,000-acre Experience site with dramatic, lofty, sweeping views over the Dales.

The second pensioner to join the party was Wolf. Its precise military origins are shrouded in mystery, but it’s heavily modified for covert communications on the battlefield. It has a wading depth of 500mm (compared with Ernie’s more matronly 300mm) and inside it’s veiled with hush-hush radio wave-defeating mesh. Powered by a gruff, 2,494cc turbodiesel, it feels unstoppable.

just how extreme is a classic land rover? i drove one over a cliff to find out

The 1997 ex-Ministry of Defence Land Rover Defender 90, aka Wolf - Andrew Fox

The next recruit was a white 2015 Defender 110 XS with a 2,198cc turbodiesel engine, boasting stadium seating and those iconic, high-level Alpine windows in the rear. It’s the kind of vehicle still lovingly nursed by families and farmers seeking the ultimate workhorse.

Finally, and taking pride of place in the swish reception area, there is an immaculate 1949 Series 1 80-inch wheelbase model that was only driven by its owners for high days and holidays. With Series 1s increasingly rare and prices rocketing even for later old-style Defenders, it’s hardly surprising they’re reluctant to test it on the torturous slopes and river crossings dotting the sprawling estate.

Visitors can throw a modern vehicle into the mix – the new Defender is a popular option – for comparison purposes.

“We start with the old ones on a Heritage Day,” says Hutchinson, “then travel forward through time to see how technology has developed.”

It’s all relative. When the Land Rover was introduced in 1948, it was tech-light; almost an alternative to the tractor. It used surplus aluminium at a time when steel was in short supply.

Most were adapted and patched up by their owners over the years; it’s rare to find one with a single straight panel unless they’ve been expensively restored. Ernie is no exception.

just how extreme is a classic land rover? i drove one over a cliff to find out

David Williams drives a Defender 2022 short wheelbase Land Rover around the course at Skipton - Andrew Fox

On a Heritage Day, younger visitors start by peering under the bonnets, gazing at wonders such as carburettors and distributor caps, before being told how to start a cold petrol engine with the choke (“What’s that?”) and the need to push – hard! – on the brake pedal, if they actually want to stop.

Historics or hysterics? Maybe both

Bonnets snapped shut, we rattle Ernie over jolting dirt tracks to the valley below to tackle the rock crawl; a craggy, broken limestone assault course which – if you had any sense – you wouldn’t even attempt to walk over. Selecting low-range (that’s as much tech as Ernie offers) we skip, bounce and plunge wildly, gingerly powering the creaking septuagenarian and its 1,997cc petrol engine over to the old railway line, where Hutchinson is keen to demonstrate its lean angles.

Nearside wheels deep in a rut, offside wheel high up a slippery bank, we inch nervously forwards. It feels every bit as though Ernie will roll over, but he plugs along and – after a nail-biting, gravity-defying minute – we’re out the other side, grinning from ear to ear. And still upright.

Next hurdle is the swamp. Gloomily overhung with branches and buzzing with horseflies, you wouldn’t be surprised to see the African Queen steam past. We plunge into the water in second gear, creating an impressive bow wave. It feels as though we’re floating downstream, with Ernie’s tyres tip-toeing the riverbed. Finally – feet still dry – the vehicle’s nose points skyward and a prod of the sensitive throttle sees Ernie scramble back out, sending water cascading along the banks. It’s exhilarating.

By contrast, the Wolf is a barely civilised brute; powerful, gutsy, its short wheelbase and 250mm of ground clearance making mincemeat of the spine-jolting mogul course that’s designed to push axle articulation to the max.

Perilously steep climbs are dispatched with ease by its military-issue engine and formidable grip from its G90 10-ply tyres. We admire its semi-concealed external comms ports, beefed-up chassis, 24-volt electrical system and heavy-duty axle casings that are modified for action in war zones.

Who needs technology when driving off-road old-style is this much fun?

just how extreme is a classic land rover? i drove one over a cliff to find out

Ultimate workhorse: the 2015 Defender 110 - Andrew Fox

Then it’s back to tackle the rugged jungle-like track which, studded with wooden sleepers, snakes through dense woodland, to put the family favourite, the long-wheelbase Puma-engined 2015 Land Rover 110 through its paces.

Highlight of the day? Nudging – ever so slowly – the 110 over a 40-degree cliff, holding it nervously on the brakes and staring into the abyss until it breaks loose, before snapping up the clutch and letting it plummet to the bottom. It feels as though we’ll roll end-over-end but – with a bounce – she sails serenely on.

“It’s just you and the vehicle on a Heritage Day,” says Hutchinson. “Only proper driving will get you to the top of the hill and down the other side. There’s no technology coming to your rescue!” Having said that, you are always accompanied by an instructor, so there is at least that peace of mind.

Sure enough, it seems the old ’uns can go pretty much anywhere the new models can, with the exception of the deepest swamps where the newest Defender’s 900mm wading depth rules the waves.

The other limiting factor – for Ernie at least – is the steepest inclines. It turns out that petrol stops running in the right direction through the carburettor at extreme angles, leading to the engine cutting out at the most inopportune moments.

OK, so maybe there have been some technological improvements over the past 70 years, after all. Even so, what if it’s raw, off-roading fun that you want? Go historic, every time.

With thanks to the Land Rover Experience North Yorkshire. Those wanting to drive back in time can choose from two vehicles over a half-day for £395, or four vehicles over a full day for two people for £695.

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