As part of its ever-expanding Special Operations division, Jaguar Land Rover Classic is now offering the public the chance to drive some of its most historic vehicles, both old and new, as part of a new experience day at Eastnor Castle.
Land Rover has a long history with the Herefordshire site, as many of the tracks that cross the estate have been used by the company to develop its four-wheel-drive systems through the decades. Now open for public experience, the day gives customers the unique opportunity to use either classic or modern Jaguar Land Rover vehicles on some of the 60 tracks that are spread across the 5000-acre estate.
It will come as no surprise that the old Jaguars won’t be able to take the off-road paths, but they can be driven on the roads surrounding the castle in the very picturesque Malvern Hills.
Yours truly sampled Eastnor Castle's grounds in some of the cars on offer. Below, I count down my top five worth trying at the drive experience.
5. 2017 Range Rover Velar
To be fair, it could be any of the newer Land Rover fleet but, as it was there, I went for the Velar. This was my first experience of the new Velar, which, contrary to its on-road bias, was away from Tarmac. True, it isn’t quite as easy as a Land Rover Discovery - blame the slightly reduced ride height for that - but by no means did it embarrass itself. In fact, the Velars have only been on site with for a couple of days, so the drivers are still getting to know them.
The Velar we drove was a D300 and had smaller 20in wheels shod with Michelin Latitude Sport 3 tyres (if you’re interested), compared with the standard 21in wheels HSE cars normally come with. At no point did I feel that I’d need to get the wellies I was wearing dirty; just keep your foot on the throttle and let the computers juggle the power around to whichever wheels have grip. If nothing else, it's useful to be able to compare just how the driving experience of a modern four-wheel drive compares with that of the classic off-roaders.
4. 1965 Jaguar Mk II 3.8
The driving experience of a classic car is one of the major appeals of ownership, but so too is other people's appreciation of it. The Jaguar MkII's popularity is clear from the reception it received. Everywhere we drove, people were craning their necks to get a better view of it. When we parked up, a group of cyclists taking part in the local time trial actually turned back to come and have a chat with us about the car. That’s how fond people are of it.
This example has had some minor upgrades to demonstrate what the SVO classic restoration team can do; there are electric windows and seats from a Jaguar XJ40. It still drives like an old Jaguar, though, with an extremely long throw to the gearlever, as well as that wonderful straight-six engine. You keep changing down a cog to listen to that exhaust note as you accelerate.
3. 1971 Range Rover Classic - suffix ‘A’
This unrestored two-door classic is an early Range Rover - known in Land Rover circles as suffix ‘a’ cars, because there’s an ‘a’ at the end of the chassis number. It’s incredibly spartan; a world away from today’s cars. It was aimed at surveyors and land owners who needed a more refined off-road vehicle to cope with the advent of the motorway network yet still needed the hose-out interior utility of a Land Rover.
To cater for that brief, this Range Rover has vinyl on the floor, no stereo or power-steering; not even a heated rear screen. All-round coil springs with long-travel suspension means it has a peerless ride off-road, dismissing bumps and uneven surfaces in a manner similar to a Rolls-Royce. Then there is the power - or, more importantly, the torque – of that 3.5-litre V8 engine, which enables you to easily make progress.
If you ignore the lack of electronic gadgets, you realise that the Range Rover’s unique selling point of being a more refined off-road vehicle is as present in this early car as it is in the very latest offering.
2. 1966 Jaguar E-Type ‘Coombs’
Not only did John Coombs own one of the early Jaguar E-Types, he sold them and raced them as well. Because of that racing know-how, customers would often drop off their new car with Coombs to get engine and suspension upgrades. This distinctive roman purple coupé is a 4.2-litre car. As standard, the 4.2-litre put out 265bhp; however, technical data is scarce surrounding the Coombs upgrades and the classic team didn't have the heart to perform a complete engine strip-down to investigate. Early Autocar reports from when the Jaguar E-Type was launched suggested that race-spec 3.8-litre engines could put out significantly more than that 4.2-litre figure. After stretching this car a little, I would guess that 300bhp is a more likely number.
The Coombs E-Type is possibly the best version of ‘E’ you can drive, as all the upgrades give it the feel of something much more modern; even the brakes feel really strong. A remarkable feat for a car that is more than 50 years old. The suspension, even with the tweeks, is nice and compliant. Then there is that sonorous straight-six. It’s a real delight to drive.
It’s a drive that is likely to be exclusive to the classic experience, as this is the only Coombs-prepared car known in existence. If you are an E-Type connoisseur, it might be worth the admission price alone.
1. 1949 Land Rover Series I
“This is going to sound counterintuitive, but when we go over the crest, you must take your feet off all the pedals. Don’t touch the brakes.” These were the words of wisdom from my instructor as we prepared to head down a particularly steep hill; the sort that has a number of very solid-looking trees at the bottom of it and reminds you that this steering column in front of you is actually one solid shaft and one that is attached directly to the front axle. If we happen to hit any of those trees at speed, that column is only going one direction: my chest. Of course I want to use the brakes.
So here we are, in a near-70-year-old Land Rover, its 1.6-litre side-valve engine sputtering away because it’s running a bit rich and needs the occasional throttle blip to clear its throat to prevent it from choking on too much petrol. The instructor, reading the trepidation on my face, is hoping his words have sunk in. And, sitting there, I wonder if it's too late to engage reverse.
I slowly ease my feet from the pedals and we creep forward, inching ever closer to the edge. I feel the front wheels go over the top and, against my will, I take my foot away from the brake as the nose dips. I feel like I am on a roller-coaster ride as gravity drags the car over and, for a heart-stopping moment, it feels like we’re free falling. Then the engine braking kicks in and, unlike a roller-coaster, you slow down, like you’ve been caught, and the Land Rover just trundles down the hill as easily as if it were crawling through traffic. I never should have doubted it.
The Series I is now, financially speaking, out of the reach for most of us. When you stop to consider why, it’s hard to justify. The vehicle is small, cramped and uncomfortable inside. The engine, transmission and drivetrain are all rough and unrefined. It reeks of unburnt petrol and I am sure the canvas top will leak as well. You can also see the ground beneath the car through the holes the pedals come through. The list of flaws goes on. But the drive is so engaging and so honest that, for those who understand it and can appreciate it, early Land Rovers have a way of getting under your skin. The Series I is so far removed from any four-wheel drive you can buy today that you have to make a beeline for it if you get the chance to experience it.