The world of classic vehicles is often an emotionally-charged one. History of a particular vehicle or an entire marque will strike a chord with certain owners, while cars from childhood memories will often end up on personal wish-lists – regardless of reputation or reliability.
Little wonder therefore, that the auction just before Christmas of the two millionth Land Rover Defender attracted a packed sale room and resulted in a record-level winning bid: this is an excellent example of a vehicle that means more to some people than just a means of getting from A to B, and in terms of history and reputation is quite possibly unrivalled.
As soon as I stepped off the Christmassy London streets into Bonhams’ auction house on New Bond Street, I was greeted by huge blow-ups on the walls of those who were notable for having got behind the wheel of a Series Land Rover or Defender. As a picture of the ‘King of Cool’, Steve McQueen looked out at me from the ‘catflap’ rear door of a Series II, I could already hear the buzz in the saleroom ahead and it became obvious that there was an excitable tension based around the sale of this unique vehicle.
As Kim Palmer, Public Relations Manager for Jaguar Land Rover explained that no-one really had any idea just what the Defender may sell for, a flurry of photographer’s flashes lit up the walls behind as Virginia McKenna and Joanna Lumley entered the room – McKenna being one of the co-founders of the Born Free Foundation, with Lumley being a founder Patron. Their presence was rightly important as the foundation would share the proceeds of the auction with the International Foundation of the Red Cross.
As a short film about Land Rover’s history came to an end, this particular owner will admit to feeling proud that, tucked into my pocket were the keys to my own trusty Series IIA, and minutes later, the aforementioned pair took to the stage in order to address the room – some ready to bid; others ready to witness a potentially significant sale.
McKenna’s opening words raised a knowing giggle throughout the crowd. “It’s VERY clean, isn’t it?” She announced with a hint of ridicule. “The ones we used were always covered in mud” she confirmed, and you could almost pick out the owners in the room for whom a mud-adorned Land-Rover was deemed an essential part of their lives rather than a fashionable accessory.
Before long, Bonhams’ Chairman Robert Brooks took his place and began proceedings and in the time it took to swallow a mouthful of complimentary champagne, the bidding was already at an astonishing £160,000. The verbal sweepstake that myself, James Page and Greg MacLeman had had on the way to New Bond Street meant that two out of the three had already been eliminated and only my estimate of £220,000 still stood. Not for long though and from there on in, the projection ahead looked more like the display at Waterloo station – the digits in various currencies ticking away with astonishing regularity before coming to rest at around the £350,000 mark.
The tension in the room then turned into playful excitement as those who had clearly enjoyed several refills began to cheer the bidding on towards the next obvious milestone – that of £400,000. And it must have worked, as before long Brooks was giving ‘fair warning’ to the two remaining bidders before bringing the hammer down on £400k to much applause.
Of course, few know who bought it just yet: “Someone far, far away from here” was the only clue in Brooks’ summing up, and while secretly I hoped that the winning bidder would, upon taking delivery, immediately go and drive it up a muddy greenlane, there is more chance that it will have next to no miles put on it and kept in immaculate condition.
As the auction excitement fizzled out and the attendees made a beeline for the opportunity of getting a ‘selfie’ with Joanna Lumley, my attentions turned towards an unassuming individual who had been stood just in front observing proceedings. He also seemed to go almost unrecognized, despite appearing in the pre-auction footage, but I was determined to seize the opportunity to have a chat with Tim Slessor – author of First Overland and key member of the 1955/56 expedition from London to Singapore.
I say unrecognized, but after he had signed a couple of auction catalogues that had been thrust under his nose, he appeared genuinely surprised when I politely asked if he would sign my copy of his aforementioned book.
“Is this YOUR book?” he asked with a smile, before going on to ask what I drove. “Series IIA? Ah, a proper Land Rover” he joked. I explained that his book and the expedition was a direct catalyst for my urge to use the Land Rover for more than just a daily commute at which point surprise seemed to take over once more.
Quizzing me on my usage, he exclaimed “You do HOW MANY miles in it?!”, before scribbling furiously away on the book’s title page.
Over the next 10 minutes, we chatted about the expedition and about his enthusiasm for doing it all again (cue my turn to be surprised!), but I left a very happy man. Sometimes meeting a hero isn’t always guaranteed to be a disappointment and this was one such occasion.
The conversation on the journey home later that evening naturally gravitated around the result, who would pay that much for a Defender and what it would be used for, but as the swank of London’s Regents Street disappeared behind us, we decided to bring the true spirit of Land Rover back to the fore by rejecting another helping of tempura prawns and plates of sushi and instead grabbing the perfect antidote to post-champagne hunger-pangs: a steak and ale pasty - the ‘Cornishman’s kebab’ if you like.
While ritually burning the inside of my mouth and still mulling over the hammer price, I jangled the Land Rover keys in my pocket and smiled. My IIA may have cost me a 400th of the cost of a unique Defender, but I can guarantee I’m smiling as much as the individual who just handed over a sizeable chunk of cash as well as the deserving charities that benefitted. Well done all.