Land Rover Canada celebrated 70 years with an (on-road) convoy

December 21, 2018

After a pleasant drive from Mississauga to Niagara-on-the-lake, Land Rover Canada president Wolfgang Hoffman explains why celebrating with fans and customers was the only way today could have been.  

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1948 – The first-ever Land Rover – ‘Series I’ – makes its debut at the Amsterdam Motor Show. Dating back to a sketch drawn in the sand at Anglesey, Wales, by Rover engineering director, Maurice Wilks in 1947, the Series I builds heavily on the ‘durable simplicity’ philosophy used on the Willy’s Jeep since 1941.

To commemorate 70 years in business, 2018 has been a ‘year of celebration’ for Land Rover. In January for instance, it was announced that one of only three demonstration vehicles that got the Series I ball rolling on 30 April 1948 would be fully restored from the skid plates up having been abandoned for the best part of six decades. In February, snow artist artist Simon Beck outlined a Defender stretching 250m at almost 2,700m altitude in the French Alps, a tribute to Maurice Wilks’ original beach sketch. Mid-summer, Terry Grant set a new Guinness World Record for the fastest run on two wheels up Goodwood’s famed Hill Climb in a Range Rover Sport SVR, just four months after the SVR set a new record on the obscure but pant-filling 11.3km Tianmen Road in China. The company even launched a limited edition 405PS Defender Works V8, of which only 150 will be made, to commemorate 70 years in production and over 7m vehicles sold worldwide.

By comparison, a 110km ‘Anniversary Convoy’ from Mississauga to Niagara-on-the-lake feels more than a little underwhelming, an observation Land Rover Canada president Wolfgang Hoffman is quick to correct when I put it to him at the end of the drive.

“Land Rover has always been about ‘going places’, so a road trip seemed more appropriate,” Wolfgang explains. “We also wanted something very down-to-earth. In this day and age, we sometimes forget that and make these ‘events’ flashy with great Powerpoint presentations, etc. For me, today is about fans of the brand getting together, enjoying a drive together, and talking with each other as true enthusiasts. A real family affair. Something definitely grassroots. So an event like made perfect sense to us.”

1958 – By the end of its first year, the 50hp Series I is available across 70 countries worldwide, leading to a second-generation model arriving in 1958 with a revised body and interior, plus gruntier 90hp engines. 10 years later, the updated Series IIA features circular headlamps in the front wings for the very first time.

Definitively grassroots. There’s absolutely no arguing with that given our current surroundings. Indeed, amidst the aroma of burgers and hot dogs emanating from nearby barbecues, the almost complete lack of marketing pomp, bar a couple of black-on-white ‘70’ banners, is a welcome breath of fresh air. Apt too, given that, much as was the case in the late 1940s, it’s the vehicles themselves that will do the talking today.

Post-convoy, there must be close to four dozen Land/Range Rovers in the car park too. Most, as expected, are new or new-ish generation Defenders and Range Rover Sports with the occasional Velar thrown in for good measure, although there are some rugged heritage models dotted around too. Standing next to a convertible Evoque for instance is a short-wheelbase Series III, complete with foldaway bench in the rear cabin, jerry cans lashed to the roof rack, and a ‘Don’t follow me, you won’t make it’ window sticker that elicits a few smiley faces on Instagram.

Peaking over the top are the roof-mounted fog lights of a bright yellow ’95 Defender ‘90’, which sports an external roll cage, snorkel, winch, and, bravely, no doors. The owner admits that winter runs are few and far between – “the heater works about as well as you’d expect” – but otherwise, durability is bulletproof. He then tells a hackle-rising story about the time a valeting company mistook brake dust-removal chemicals for liquid soap. The damage to the bright yellow paint took eight months to rectify.

1970 – Secretly developed as the ‘Velar’, and signed off by new owners British Leyland, the first-ever Range Rover debuts. Though still respectful of the company’s humble ancestry, this new, more ‘civilised’ product, featuring the company’s first V8 engine, would successfully re-open doors for Land Rover in North America in the mid-80s after a period of bleak investment and reliability. There would not be a second generation Range Rover for 24 years, and the ‘Velar’ name would not be in production again until 2017.

Still harrowed, I move on to a third gen Range Rover, one that, as the A3-size laminated map on the windscreen explains, completed an incredible 14,794km, 157-hour journey from Mississauga to Dempster Highway in the Northern Territories via Skagway and Dawson only a couple of years ago. All without picking up a puncture, and just “because it can.” Even more incredible, it’s the second time the owner, Gerd Wengler, has made the pilgrimage, though wife Dorothy and their dog didn’t accompany him the first time, 25 years ago.

Definitively grassroots, indeed.

“To be honest, today has exceeded my expectations,” Wolfgang continues, the queue for the bouncy castle just behind him now starting to build as the glorious sunshine rises ever further.

We figured, worst-case scenario, one car shows up! But my gut told me that Land Rover owners are a different breed, and would relish an event like this, so we were quietly confident. We had, a few days ago, over 200 people say they wanted to come, and now, if you look in the car park, we must have more than 65 customer cars here. That’s tremendous!”

1989 – Featuring design cues and technology from the Range Rover, the brand new Discovery, the first ‘family’ Land Rover, is unveiled in Frankfurt. Though a certifiable hit, problematic reliability and build quality lead to the third generation being labelled the ‘LR3’ in North America. One year later in 1990, THE Land Rover is re-launched as the Defender.

I can’t help but wonder though if Land Rover has missed a trick with today’s road-going convoy, given the company’s ‘Above and Beyond’ spirit. Standing stage left to Wolfgang and I in Niagara for instance are two Camel Trophy-liveried and equipped Defenders – one a short-wheelbase ‘90’, the other an LWB ‘110’ – indicative of the off-road event synonymous with Land Rover between 1980 and 1998. And this is just one chapter in a catalogue of off-road adventures.

Barely had the silks dropped in 1948 than Colonel Leblanc, a future envoy to Land Rover in the Middle East, drove an 80in Series I to Ethiopia to prove its capabilities. One year later, seasoned British-Australian travel writer Barbara Toy ventured almost 7,500km solo from Gibraltar to Baghdad, Iraq, in her open top Series I, ‘Pollyanna’. The story of Grizzly Torque is one we’re familiar with, while odysseys like the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition in 1955 (over-land from Europe to Singapore) and the British Trans-Americas Expedition in 1972 (17,084m from Anchorage, Alaska, through the Darian Gap to Terra del Fuego) were envisioned “just to show our expertise as a nation and what we can achieve.” Victory on the first-ever Paris-Dakar Rally further demonstrated this in 1979.

And today? Our admittedly picturesque back-road route through Grimsby and Lincoln to Niagara and the monotonous opening 40km highway leg from Etobicoke don’t exactly fit the precedence…

2004 – Three years after the third generation Range Rover is launched (the first incidentally with a monocoque bodyshell), the silks are pulled from the ‘Stormer’. Low slung and ‘unusually dynamic’, this was both the genesis of the first-ever Range Rover Sport, which debuted in 2005, and the design language that would carry Land Rover into the next generation.

“It was very tempting, but we had to be mindful of your customers’ cars. Just because you have a car that CAN go anywhere doesn’t mean you have to. Plus we had to consider safety and keep the atmosphere very family-friendly, and in the end we decided a picturesque drive was a much better way of doing things. A lot of our customers are familiar with our drive experience programmes anyway, where instructors can really show them the capabilities of our products in a safe environment. But, who knows, maybe next time we could bring some of our equipment that simulates an off-road situation.”

Hello hello. Next time? Might this provisionally one-off excursion turn into an annual event?

2011 – Built to capitalise on both the growing premium small car market and a rising appetitive for SUVs, Land Rover launches its most ‘lifestyle’ model yet, the Evoque. Against type and drawing the ire of purists, the production version of the ‘08 LRX Concept goes on to become one of the best-selling models on Jaguar Land Rover’s books, even inspiring a radical convertible model for 2015.

“We have talked about that internally, yes. Let’s have this event, get feedback, see what we want to improve, and then go from there. Obviously Canada is a massive country, and that’s got us wondering what we can do in Vancouver, Montreal, etc, etc. In an ideal situation, we’d love to do something like this every year, or every other year. Plus I like consistency, so let’s see how we can make that happen!

“At the moment though, I wouldn’t change anything. I’ve really enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere, and, yes, there will be some people who say, ‘we should have done more of this, or more of that’, so maybe next time we could bring more of our corporate fleet and offer more test drive experiences. But today has got nothing to do with selling cars. We just wanted to celebrate our 70th anniversary with some of the people who made it possible.”

2016 – Production of the Defender – formerly named the ‘Series III’, the ‘90’ (SWB) and the ‘110’ (LWB) – finally comes to an end after 68 years due to ever-tightening European emissions restrictions. The lineage is set to return though in 2020, a year in which Jaguar Land Rover aims to stop launching new models solely powered by internal combustion engines. A new chapter in a 70 year history is about to begin…