I grew up in the back of a Land Rover Defender – almost literally, since my dad, like many dads, was a Defender obsessive. There was a cream-coloured short-wheel version that my siblings and I bounced around in when small, sitting on its bonnet for picnics and point-to-points.
Next came a bigger, green, long-wheelbase monster, which was most memorably used for journeys between south London and a cottage on the west coast of Ireland. Dad packed suitcases between the side-facing seats in the back, spread a duvet over the top, and we children – five now, including my step-siblings – were encouraged to lie down and sleep across this lumpy bed like tin soldiers (which worked until we grew into teenagers, started trying to kill one another and had to be placated by Game Boys).
After that, another short-wheeler for a long, dusty track in Catalunya that led to a ruin, bought when my parents tired of the dismal weather in Ireland. I crashed this one as a teen, cruising up the drive listening to Kylie Minogue and wrenching the steering wheel too suddenly, which took a front wheel up and over a stone wall. Impressive, any car that takes a stone wall like an Irish hunter. Although Dad wasn’t entirely delighted and it needed a new axle.
Point being, I feel terrific nostalgia towards those old toads of the road and am therefore intrigued about whether the “new” Defender – the Ineos Grenadier – can match up.
Quick legal explanation: although the Ineos Grenadier looks very much like a Defender – that boxy off-roader launched in the 1940s – it isn’t made by Land Rover. The clue’s in the name: the Grenadier is made by Ineos, the chemical company owned by Britain’s second-richest man, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, who I’m disposed to like already because he’s named his car after a pub. The Grenadier is a proper, old-fashioned boozer tucked down a Belgravia mews where, one lunchtime a few years ago, Sir Jim and a couple of pals were lamenting the demise of the Defender after Land Rover stopped production in 2016. I don’t think my dad was there, but he might as well have been. This was a sad conversation going on in many pubs across the country at the time, from Belgravia to the sheepier parts of the Lake District and into the Highlands; burly, Argyle-sweater-wearing types sighing at the loss of their favourite vehicle.
So, over his pint in the Grenadier, Sir Jim suggested they simply build another Defender, which is the sort of thing you can do when you’re a peppy and imaginative billionaire (he subsequently bought the pub, too). Production duly began, and the very first deliveries were made at the end of last year.
In the meantime, in the vague manner of a dreadnought race, Land Rover has also produced a “new” Defender for around the same price (a Grenadier starts from £64,500; a Defender £57,540), but whenever one cruises past me in Chelsea, I have to look twice to check it’s not a Discovery. Don’t Land Rover’s trophy 4x4s all look the same now, whether a Range Rover, Discovery or Defender? They’re all curves, like a girl poured into her shapewear, more suited to the King’s Road than even thinking about a stone wall.
But I can understand why Land Rover has grumbled about appropriation when it came to the Grenadier (it took Ineos to court and lost, having never trademarked the Defender), because the first thing I think when I squint at the 2.8-tonne, five-seat monster parked in my suburban south London driveway is, “Cor, that’s identical.” Shinier than an old Defender, true, but otherwise it’s almost a replica: same boxy shape, same upright windscreen, same wheel on the back. As the Grenadier’s head of design, Toby Ecuyer, explained on the rationale: “We thought, well, we’ll replace it … [but] let’s build a better one, something that doesn’t leak and is comfortable. After all, this isn’t 1948.”
Luckily not, because I’ve got a six-hour drive to Devon ahead of me, a bad back and I’m quite keen on doing it comfortably. I open the double doors at its rear end and feel the shadow of my father as I slide several suitcases into its roomy boot. Fortunately there are no children, just a friend travelling with me, plus a dish of homemade potato dauphinoise for dinner when we reach Devon that night, and a case of Champagne. I don’t imagine Sir Jim was worrying much about the transportation of dauphinoise and Champagne when he was thinking of a car that could transport one from Belgravia to Dhaka, but the footwells behind the front seats stow them nicely.
Off we go. Unlike the exterior, the inside is different to any Defender I’ve ever driven or crashed. Begone, the aged smell of engine oil and dust. This smells of posh leather seats and comes with two eye-popping control panels – one in front of you, one mounted just above the windscreen – with so many buttons it feels like a cockpit. Ignoring the “offroad” button and the “wading” button, I concentrate on the heated-seat button, which keeps my back pain-free for the duration of the A303 – even the tiresome stretch where everyone slows to gawp at Stonehenge.
It is immensely comfortable, this car, and quiet for something so powerful. Says one farming friend who already has a Grenadier (and says it’s the best car they’ve ever had), “You can actually hold a conversation inside it”, which wasn’t a given in the old Defender.
There’s also a touchscreen that syncs with Apple and Android, which is certainly an improvement on a cassette player. Dad’s Defender used to play a grainy old Rod Stewart tape, so I put on Vagabond Heart for old time’s sake and am tickled to hear the lyrics over the turbo-charged engine.
No power steering, though, which initially made me feel like an elephant on ice skates, drifting cautiously between other drivers. According to Ineos Automotive CEO Lynn Calder, this was a deliberate choice. “We set out to build an uncompromising 4x4 that can do everything – no gradient it won’t be able to climb, no terrain it won’t be able to cross,” and what this required was a solid, “old-fashioned” axle system, which makes getting round tight bends – or out of a busy Waitrose car park in Exeter – something of a biceps workout. Still, once I get used to it, I feel more like a maharajah on top of an elephant, looking out from my great height and benignly surveying all those poor people below me.
It was a magnificent beast for a week in Devon. Intimidating enough that everybody else on the narrow roads stopped immediately and careered into the hedges to let me past; tough enough to bowl down a rocky estuary at 30mph; big enough to fit several of us and a spaniel to get to the beach. And handily, because there are drain plugs in the boot, you can hose it down afterwards to get rid of sand and the smell of wet dog.
‘It will be a godsend in shooting season,’ adds the chum who’s already bought one. There are all sorts of practical bars to strap items to the roof with, and a ladder on the back to clamber up, or to tie things to, like dogs, or ponies, or wayward children. I like the two window hatches above the front seats, too, which can be removed entirely if you want to stand up and poke your head through in the event that you spy a giraffe while roaring along a B-road.
Also, and again it’s not necessarily something Sir Jim was thinking about, but it increased my pulling power by close to 100 per cent, because every man I met wanted a go (on the car, not me). “Sorry,” I told them tartly, “but you can sit in the front and go ‘vroom, vroom’ if you want.” People don’t half stare when you drive one of these. “Nice truck,” said an excitable man at a drive-through Costa on the way back up. “I haven’t seen one of those on the roads yet.”
Really, my only irritation was the doors, which you have to slam like Desperate Dan to close properly, otherwise you drive off and a chime kicks in, bleating that one of them is open.
And I probably should sound concerned about the environment. Although I managed to get down to Devon from London and motor around all week on just one tank, this is obviously a very large, petrol-guzzling 4x4 (diesel available too, if you want to stick two fingers up at Sadiq Khan), which is coming on to the market at a time when we’re all supposed to be thinking about electric cars. How can anyone justify making such a vehicle in an age when we’re all supposed to be rinsing our yoghurt pots and putting them in the right bin or face a spell in prison?
“We started out on this project six years ago,” says Calder, by way of explanation, “and the main thing we wanted to achieve was an indestructible vehicle that could do anything we asked, which required a combustion engine. Things have changed very quickly since but it felt very natural for this vehicle.” Like the rest of the automotive industry, she says, they need to work “really hard” to move towards zero emissions, and they’re currently toiling over a smaller electric 4x4, as well as investigating hydrogen possibilities. Will the electric version also be named after a pub? Lynn laughs as if I’m joking. “It won’t be the Ineos Dog and Duck, no.”
There will be plenty who still scoff at the idea of this car coming out now, but for others who want something that looks like an old Defender, scares everyone else on the road, can be used to carry potato dauphinoise or dead pheasants and winds up ponces who drive Range Rovers, then this might be just the ticket. My back and I loved it.