The British countryside is not the place for glossy perfection. Nevertheless, the influx of aspirant new landowners has seen a shift in our perception of out-of-town style. Newly-minted lords of the manor employ interior designers to furnish, upgrade and paint in precisely the right shade of Farrow & Ball for their estates, but the reality of rural life is decidedly more shabby and rather less chic. However carefully you colour code your pantry and stock up on suitable antiques, the right type of wellies and a subscription to Country Life, imitation is no substitute for experience. And so it is with cars. The crumbling fabric of rambling mansions handed down over generations has a peerless bucolic insouciance; the shiny newness of a sleek SUV is not a suitable partner.
Perfection is irrelevant. Utility is prized. Function is extolled. You’re far more likely to find a motheaten Subaru or well-weathered Volvo on such a grand gravelled drive than something with a bit more pedigree and polish. The ever-green Land Rover Defender, a stalwart of the land-owning classes since it debuted back in 1948, is rarely seen without a coating of patina, from the tangle of dog leads in the footwells to the half-bale of straw that sits permanently in the back. Being seen not to care is a key part of countryside car ownership.
Even so, new money continues to seek new utility. Britain offers a combination of splendid terrain and social minefields, so maybe it’s time to bring in some non-traditional options. While the original Defender has finally – finally – ceased series production to pave way for an all-new model before the end of the decade, there are still ways of acquiring a practically new one. It feels counter-intuitive to look to the States for examples of best practice, until you remember that America not only invented the Jeep but pretty much built the first SUV (the 1935 Chevrolet Carryall Suburban has a strong claim, as does the 1949 Willys Jeep Station Wagon, launched the same year as Land Rover offered a deluxe covered body by Tickford on its decidedly agricultural Series 1 chassis).
Today, there are several specialists willing to splice the original’s hard-won utilitarian image with boosted performance and a more refined interior. These include East Coast Defender, a British-owned, Florida-based company that takes the trouble and possible torment out of importing a Defender to the US by comprehensively rebuilding only eligible models (those over 25 years old and therefore exempt from strict import rules). North America Overland will also rebuild specially sourced European cars, adding new engines, switching over the steering wheel and generally enhancing day-to-day usability.
Back in the UK, there are rather more exotic options. The quasi-ironically named Chelsea Truck Company will turn a stock Defender into something that commands attention, if not always respect, in the form of the Flying Huntsman 6×6 Pickup – £200,000-worth of widened and stretched Land Rover that brings an extra axle to the (shooting) party, along with a 6.2-litre V8 from a Corvette to keep up with the gun dogs. The Huntsman is extreme, harking back to the glory days of bizarre 6-wheel Range Rovers developed for falconry-mad clients in the Middle East. A slightly more sedate overhauler is Arkonik, which will buff up a non-runner into something showroom fresh and Overfinch, which occupies an increasingly elevated section of the market with its Range Rover-based specials, but who will still raise the relatively humble Defender into something more befitting a tailor-made price bracket.
Defenders aren’t the only utility cars to get modernist makeovers. TLC, a Los Angeles outfit founded by Jonathan Ward in 1996, has become a cult among well-heeled aficionados of ’60s and ’70s off-roaders. Their meticulous conversions of vehicles like the original Toyota Land Cruiser are concours quality in their detailing, fetishising every nut, bolt, spring and damper to create a functional masterpiece. Designers regularly harp on about their attraction to the genre. Paul Smith created a customised Defender in 2016 and Hong Kong-based Michael Young built a run of re-imagined Mini Mokes back in 2014.
The utility revival is still underway. It’s no coincidence that Mercedes-Benz is launching its very first pickup truck in 2018 in the form of the massive X-Class. Up until now, the only pickup that’s come close to passing the class test is Volkswagen’s hefty Amarok (although Australian manufacturer Holden make hilarious high-powered V8-powered utes). The inverse snob can surely find something off-the-shelf from mass-market Japanese, Korean and Indian brands. Another evergreen example of the classless car is Toyota’s Land Cruiser, first made in 1951 and now the de facto wagon of choice for everyone from aid agencies to rebel groups of all stripes thanks to reliability that goes far, far beyond what Land Rover can offer. The Land Cruiser’s ubiquity is all the more surprising given that top models can nudge £60k before extras.
Short of stepping into a Dartz, the taste-free transport of choice for paranoid self-promoter (a surprisingly common combination), perhaps the ultimate in out of town transport eschews wheels altogether. The Ripsaw EV2 has been called a ‘luxury tank,’ and the ludicrously specced, tracked vehicle is apparently derived from a military project. Designed and promoted with all the unsubtlety one would expect, it’s certain to give the neighbours something to talk about as you churn up the acreage and make an indelible mark on this once green and pleasant land.