I was 23 and it was six (that’s twelve in British car years.) I was old enough to know better, but I’d fallen for it at first sight; its boxy beige body exuded strength and adventure and its quirky styling set it apart from the more conventional Land Cruisers and Blazers. I had wanted a Range Rover since 1987, when they were first imported to the U.S. Finally, twelve years later I was standing in front of one that I could buy—a 1994 Range Rover County LWB—and I handed a crisp blue cashier’s check to the private party seller I’d met in the parking lot of Stanford Mall. We signed over some paperwork, I took him to the Caltrain station, and the beast was mine. I leaned back into the Connelly leather seat, rolled down the massive window, which receded with a resounding “thunk” and listened to the throaty V8 roar to life as I pressed the gas.
As with any honeymoon phase, in the first weeks everything was perfect. The Rover, as I affectionately referred to it, learned to cope with my hard-accelerating tendencies and I in turn accepted the small imperfections I came to notice about it; the dashboard that didn’t fit together quite perfectly, the slightly worn, coarse places in the leather on the side bolster of the driver’s seat, and the small wispy crack in the lower right corner of the windshield. There were some creaks and rattles and shaky idles sometimes, too, but I knew that these were all part of owning a British car.
“The trouble with those is, they drink too much,” said my friend Jeff, an auto mechanic who specializes in less-eccentric American-made models such as Jeeps and Chevrolets. I thought he meant the truck’s gas-guzzling ways or its penchant for burning oil by the quart, until he continued, “The people who build them drink too much.” Apparently, he was referring to the rumored commonality (at the time) of British autoworkers having a pint—or more—with their midday meal. I could only hope most of the important parts of mine had been assembled before lunch.
In the following months, the Rover and I went for long drives, lugged bikes around in the back, did some light off-roading, shrugged off “soccer mom” stereotyping from my own mother, attended search and rescue drills and EMT classes, and endured a small string of first dates, first kisses and last drop-offs. Everything was fine until the back driver’s side wheel well seemed to sag a little too low over the tire. I tried to ignore it, but soon the ride grew harsher and I was forced to take it for the first of many visits to Exclusive British European. (I’m certain that the Rover and I put one of the owner’s children through their first two years of college. Including boarding and meal plan.)
”Well, let’s hope it’s a solenoid,” said John, the head mechanic. “Because if it’s the compressor, that’s about eight thousand dollars to replace.” Even when I regained my ability to speak, I was afraid to ask what a solenoid was, or how much they cost. Seven hundred dollars later, we were back on the road, with a shiny new solenoid and a level rear-end once again.
DIY. By necessity
Everything I know about auto repair, I learned from the Rover. Or at least, because of it. On a vehicle that could require thousands of dollars in parts and labour (yes, “labour.” You get the cachet of an extra vowel for your premium repair costs) for any given problem, I decided a shop manual and a willingness to learn were good investments. I fixed the fog lights when they went out, and installed some better speakers in the doors. In my less-technical moments, I bent a car key trying to dislodge a jammed CD changer magazine (which helped neither the CD jam nor the key’s ability to fit in the ignition) and stripped a few strategic lug nuts. Nothing serious.
One morning as I was driving to work, the steering felt exceptionally heavy. I struggled to turn into my office driveway, and resolved to lift more weights and stop drinking during the week. But when I started to drive home at the end of the day, the problem was worse. John at Exclusive British said I needed a new steering box. Even my shop manual couldn’t make that a home auto shop repair project, so reluctantly I handed over another eleven hundred dollars for the college fund.
I learned that a well-developed sense of humour (like American “humor,” only drier. And darker.) is essential for owners of British cars, and I tried to laugh about the continuing maladies of my Solihullian steed. (Solihull=the town where Land Rovers were built in that era.) A friend gave me a t-shirt emblazoned with the griffin logo of Lucas Electric, notorious maker of most of the UK’s automotive electrical systems. The text beneath the logo read, “’A gentleman does not motor about after dark’ -Lord Lucas, Prince of Darkness.”
Not to be outdone, the Rover developed a sense of humour of its own, albeit a bit more sadistic than mine. In a parking lot one day, a small white Honda was about to back into me. It kept coming while I tried desperately to locate the horn, strangely situated on the end of the turn-signal stalk. I tapped and tapped, which was not as satisfying as pushing fervently on a larger, center-of-the-wheel horn. On my third tap, the turn signal stalk snapped at the base with a sickening “crack.” I stared dumbfounded at the dangling plastic lever.
The following week the truck made a fool of me yet again. I went to a friend’s house for dinner, and when I left I rolled the driver’s side window down to clear it of mist. It went down fine, but ground to a squeaking halt when I pressed the button to put it back up. It was a long, cold, humiliating drive home, and my irritation was matched only by my fear at what it might cost to repair this latest issue. The next morning my small garage looked like a chop shop as I took the entire door apart to try to fix the window mechanism. After several days, it became apparent that it was beyond my skill set, and I sheepishly took all the pieces back to John at Exclusive British. Whose kids were probably eyeing graduate school at that point.
I started to realize that as much as I loved the Rover, I had spent almost as much on repairs as its Kelley Blue Book value. I found I could lease a new SUV for about the same as the yearly repair costs. Sadly, I handed over the keys one Saturday and watched my Rover drive away for the last time. I have a newer, faster, more technologically advanced, under-warranty SUV now, which most people would choose over an older Range Rover without hesitation. But when I see a Range Rover classic on the road, or page through the shop manual on my bookshelf, I miss it in a way that is completely irrational and impractical. I wonder where it is, how it’s running, how many miles it has. Maybe I’ll go to CARFAX and look it up one day…