Adventurer Ben Fogle is setting off on a journey across the UK to find out what makes the Defender so special
Ben Fogle is a man that needs little introduction. Whether you know him best for his writing or broadcasting, he is one of our nation's most loved modern adventurers. And if you were to pick a person that perfectly encapsulates the philosophy of Defender it would probably be him. Land Rover’s most infamous model is a British icon; it’s rugged, it has a tough, go-anywhere attitude and yet despite enjoying success over the years has remained largely unchanged. Can you see the likeness?
It’s rather apt then, that Ben is writing a new book dedicated to the Defender, which will be published in the UK on October 6 by William Collins. And it’s for this reason I find myself on the bank of the River Thames in Mortlake talking to him beside his Defender 90.
Who would have thought that when he launched the boats here for his Atlantic Rowing Race, he'd be back 11 years later having his Defender photographed for LRM. Having previously written adventure and travel books I’m curious as to why Ben has decided to go off topic. “This is the follow-up to ‘Labrador: The Story of the World’s Favourite Dog’. The Labrador was the first U-turn away from what I’d written about previously, and in many ways the Defender is very similar to the Labrador. Having evolved out of a work environment, much like the Labrador did earning his keep as a fisherman’s helper in North Atlantic, they have been used by the military, charities, search and rescue, and families.
“The history of the Labrador sold very well, so when my publisher asked what I would like to do next, I thought a book about the Defender would be a natural continuation. It is good timing from a commercial sense with the last one rolling off the production line this year, and I love Defenders. This will give me something to really get my teeth stuck into and learn more. It will document the history of the Defender and my own experience with them, but essentially it will be about me taking a road trip across the British Isles, meeting people who have their own extraordinary stories.”
This is where you, LRM's readers, can help. Ben wants people who have an interesting vehicle, or a fascinating, moving tale to get in touch. There is plenty written about the Defender, but no one has ever documented the stories of the owners, and that’s the aim of this book.
By his own admission, Ben is not a Land Rover expert or even a car fan, but he is a passionate owner and they have been a part of his entire life. “They were always in the background, on the farms that I spent lots of time on growing up I was constantly in and out of them, and then as I’ve got older I’ve driven Defenders all around the world. My first came as a result spending a year marooned on the Scottish island of Taransay for a television series called Castaway in 2000. There was a rolling chassis of what I think was a Series II – it was the closest we ever had to a vehicle and the local children used to play on it. I resolved to myself then, that I would buy a Defender.”
Sure enough, as soon as he returned to civilisation he had a 1998 blue SWB Defender 90 – sourced by his father online – delivered to the Outer Hebrides for him to drive back home. In 2003 he replaced it with a brand-new silver Defender 90, and a few years later – after he got married and made the mistake of driving his wife to Scotland and back in it twice – she politely suggested they should get something more comfortable for their growing family. That’s when he bought a Discovery 3.
“Although the Defender is unbelievably practical – it can go anywhere and it’s a real tough work horse of a vehicle – they’re noisy, uncomfortable, slow and lack mod cons. None of those things have ever been a priority of mine – and a lot of my work around the world, and specifically here where I use my own vehicle, involves driving off-road, but for some people there is not much going for the Defender I guess.” Something must have changed though, as the Discovery is now gone and he’s talking about the subject of our shoot today, an Icon 90 soft top, as though it’s the family car, Ben explains: “She does have another vehicle that she drives so it’s a compromise,” he confesses, “but this is the car we’re always in together because the children – who are a bit older now – love it. It’s the only car they want to go in and my wife secretly loves it, I know she does. A journey in this is less stressful than any other car because the children are always so excited. They feel like rock stars when they get dropped off to school in the summer with roof off. And it’s the most amazing holiday car as we can squeeze everything in it – the kids, the dogs, our bikes and all the other kit.
“I love the Series I, and the ultimate aim is to have one, but this is the closest I could get to a Series I that I could drive distances in and it was safe and comfortable. I love the idea of having one as a family car, but it wouldn’t happen with the miles that I do every year.
This Icon 90 has echoes of the Series I in its styling, but I like the modern twist on it. I’m not so hopelessly romantic that I want everything to be stuck in the 1940s and 50s,” he laughs.
Ben had a very specific vision of what he wanted and after spending some time researching a few of the UK’s Land Rover aftermarket specialists he decided to go with Nene Overland. “I really wanted a soft top, and the MD, Andrew Harrison Smith, managed to find me one that was just over a year old with very low mileage, as well as a good level of specification including air con, remote locking and electric windows”.
The pair of them then sat down together and discussed all the various options and configurations and came up with this one. “I really liked the fact that Nene could retain the heritage of the car and make a suitable compromise between old and new.”
I have to say the Keswick Green colour scheme, which has been carried through inside to the complete dashboard assembly, is really beautiful, while the Melvill & Moon canvas seat covers, made in South Africa, give it a nice on-safari feel, and the chrome spoked Heritage steering wheel covered in green leather adds to the classic look perfectly. The soft top and roll cage are very practical as well as fun to use, and the quality and fit of Nene’s bespoke mohair sand hood means it’s not that much different to driving a hard-top station wagon in the winter months, so Ben has the best of both worlds. More importantly for Ben, it looks like it came straight from the factory like this. Much like the limited edition Heritage models, it’s not over the top, and still has an iconic look about it.
Of course, along the way, Ben has made changes – that’s the beauty of Land Rover ownership, after all. He’s fitted two benches for example, and changed all of the exterior trim and wheels centres from bright Alpine white to Heritage light grey. “If you ask a child to draw a car, this would be it –boxy and angular, reminiscent of the Tonka toys I grew up with. Today’s children may well draw Lamborghinis and Ferraris. For me though, this is the car of Action Man or Indiana Jones: it’s the perfect adventurer’s car.
“I don’t think there’s a country I’ve visited where I haven’t seen or used a Land Rover: Central and South America, Africa, South Pacific, Africa, the Amazon rainforest, Falkland Islands, even Tristin da Cunha – which must be the remotest Land Rover in the world, but that’s what I’ll discover when I write this book, and it doesn’t have to be about a car they currently own, it could be a colourful story from the past. I want to go in search of what makes the Defender so special, and uncover stories that will capture the people’s imagination.
BEN'S STORY”Do you have an interesting story to share about an experience you’ve had with a Defender? Whether it’s a Series I or the latest 90, a vehicle you owned or one that enabled you to do a job, if it’s compelling, Ben wants to know. Get in touch via: Email: Info@benfogle.com Twitter: Www.twitter.com/Benfogle Post: Ben Fogle, 1 Charlotte Street, London, W1T 1RD