There's nothing like a younger sibling to remind you about how old you're getting or have become. So when my pretty awesome baby brother booked me a Land Rover Experience taster session for my 40th birthday, there might have been a few tears in my eyes; for finally joining the 4-0 club, the thoughtfulness of his gift and the reminder that he's still several years behind me with the rest of his 30's to look forward too!
We grew up surrounded by cars, quite literally in fact. We lived just outside of Allesley village in Coventry, where Jaguar Cars were based and made, and with the family business being in the motor trade, it was natural really that cars are in my blood. From an early age, both Adam and I were immersed in classic sports cars, racing cars, motorbikes and 4x4s, especially Range Rovers. Dad had a 70's Range Rover, sky blue with a beige interior, built like a tank and not just for the school run. Nope. This thing worked and it worked hard, just how these cars should be. From then on my love for Range Rovers was born.
Where we lived, we weren't far from the Land Rover factory at Solihull, so whenever a new model was rumoured to be on the horizon there was plenty of eagle eyes on the look out for suspect looking Land Rovers covered in black camouflage wrapping. And when the Land Rover Discovery was first launched, I remember a gleaming brand new one turning up on the driveway and falling in love with it. It helped a little that our family name is Land, and I remember one person gave me the nickname 'Land Rover' at school.
Although, I guess when I look back, having lost Dad 16 years ago, I probably look on more fondly at cars than most people would do, as they were his 'thing'; the thing that made him tick, that he worked everyday with and for. The same thought and feeling washes over me when ever I see an MG BGT; his classic! Announcing at 18 that I was going down the VW Beetle route was nothing short of blasphemy for someone brought up in the heart of the British motor industry. But still, he lovingly helped restore and paint my first Bug.
Can you see where my Brother was going with my birthday present now? I did as soon as it arrived and I opened it up. This wasn't just a gift to have fun with, it was treasured memories that only those closest to you know and feel. There's no question, the tears came pretty quickly.
Land Rover Experience exploring the Midland's Jungle
Fast forward nearly 10 months (it took me that long to use my voucher with work chaos) and to a beautiful blue sky day, we headed back up the Fosse Way to my childhood roots and the Land Rover Experience. Before heading to the factory, there was time for a catch up and spot of lunch with the Wandering Parents, Mum and Dave. I don't get half as much opportunity to see them now they're off enjoying retirement and travelling Europe; so pinning them down for a couple of hours is always a happy time.
The Land Rover Experience at Solihull is based within the factory grounds itself. Many a time I have passed by the gates wondering what lay on the other side. To me, everyone on the other side lived and breathed 'Landys', just like those that I knew who had worked for Jaguar, Browns Lane. Driving through the gates I was like a kid at Christmas, eager to get behind the wheel of a Range Rover... finally!
Pulling up at the Land Rover Experience Centre we were met by rows of the latest Range Rovers and Land Rovers, gleaming in the sun light; this was something special! Inside the centre was no different, there were nods to Land Rover's history and heritage all over and projected onto a wall was the most incredible driving video... ice driving in Sweden. Remember the ice chase sequence in James Bond: Die Another Day? Like that! And before I'd even sat in the car, I was pestering Ian to let me go there next, but for now it was Solihull...
Taking everything in and probably a little on Cloud 9, I was met by my instructor, Paul. He asked what I was hoping to get out of the session, and honestly I just said "to drive a Range Rover". As it turns out, a lot of people visiting the Land Rover Experience are owners looking to understand more about how to handle their vehicles, tow boats, go on expeditions and a bit like me, experience the historical and original test track, the Jungle Trail. Apparently the Land Rover owners club of Hong Kong had visited earlier in the summer, driving the entire distance just to be at the birth place of the Land Rover story. If it's good enough for them, then it is for me!
Before I was let loose and behind the wheel of a brand new Range Rover, we went for a little tour of the experience test track with Paul talking me through all the different functions and driving modes of the car and showing me exactly what could be done. We hit angles that had me thinking the car would tip over at any point, checked out cameras changing your perspective of the road, pirouetted around on a dance floor of concrete spheres like driving over boulders and then we let the car drive itself down the "Tilted Terrace of Doom".
When I mean drive itself, I really do! Except for Paul using the brake to control the descent speed and a few setting tweaks before we set off, the Range Rover did actually drive itself, shifting the 25 deg tilt from side to side as we descended. I swear that we were practically vertical. All the time, what was going through my head was oh cripes I am doing that, remember what settings he said and what happens if I can't control it. You see it wasn't like learning to drive, there were no dual controls, you were in complete control. Eeek!
Heading back to the Land Rover Experience Centre Paul announced it was my turn. We swapped sides. There was a lot of seat adjustment; it's a big car for a 5ft 1 person. Then I was briefed! Driving here was going to be done properly. No arm crossing or one handed wheel turning, hands at 10 and 2, feeding the steering wheel (I don't think I've driven like that since I passed my test). Paul explained that by feeding, we would be able to manoeuvre the car in the tightest of spots, twists and turns. Off I went!
I was relieved when Paul said I wasn't going to be doing what he'd just done. Instead we were heading over the road to the Jungle Trail, and it was a little bit special. Amidst all the factory and office buildings of the Land Rover site, there is a little nature wilderness; home to moor hens and buzzards, all sorts of wildlife. With streams, rivers and ditches, this was the historic Land Rover test track, opened in 1948 that the first Landys off the tracks at Solihull would have driven. In fact it's that important to the British motor industry, it's being awarded heritage status; and I was about to drive it.
The Jungle Trail takes you on an adventure through the undergrowth with lanes so narrow that there's only inches either side of your wheels, and as you approach the 90 degree bends the thing going through you head is how on earth am I getting round there? That's where Paul comes into, his knowledge and experience guiding you all the way; angling the wing mirrors to keep an eye your rear wheels, utilising the onboard cameras and the detailed heads up display that gives you your speed and angle of the wheels and axles. Within moments you forget about the size of the car you're driving focusing on just the details you need, keeping it steady up and down the bumps hitting no more than about 3mph!
Reaching an expanse of water in front of me, memories of when the house and Ian's car flooded in the 2007 floods, filled me with dread. Was I really going into that? For sure I was. Of course I was, the Range Rover can handle anything. Ian said he could feel the water lapping on the underside of the car, so we flipped the depth sensor on to find out we were in nearly 1 metre of water; it was over the doors and still the car took it all in its stride.
Emerging from the jungle a little while later, Paul said that before we headed back to base he'd get me to get up a rocky trail and we'd have a little go at something else. It was only when I go over the top of the climb that I realised where we were going... I'd clocked it earlier; a pivot bridge or tilting table! Agh! Under Paul's instruction I drove the Range Rover onto the table and when we felt it start to tip, my foot was straight on the brake as we tipped down and just held there. Getting off was the easy bit, in fact Paul said that your feet all the way off the pedals and let the car do the work. Once again the car was driving itself, nuts!
With it time to finish up, Paul gave me one last test - angles, driver on top and on the bottom! I'd just about got my head round having the car at an angle when I was in the passenger seat but this time it was me doing the driving and it felt so different. As I gripped the steering for dear life, another gadget in the dash confirmed that we were at a 32 deg slant, and yes, Ian was sliding from one side to another!
Back at the Land Rover Experience centre and I was back down to earth with a jump, 5ft 1 people really do need a ladder to get in and out of a Range Rover when it's sat at a high ride height!
I know that I'm a big of a fan girl, but I really would rate the Land Rover Experience as a must for anyone interested in putting a 4x4 to the test, or maybe if you're thinking of investing in one. There is so much more that these vehicles can do than just pop to the shops and back.
I look at the all the Range Rovers driving around Cirencester and wonder have they ever been taken out of comfort mode? Ok so inside they are like sitting in a great, big comfy arm chair, but trust me when you've got the car at a 32 deg angle, you need it for keeping you in place. If there's any doubt, ask Ian who slid from side to side in the back.
The Land Rover Experience isn't just a "track day", it's not 3 laps and over and done with in 15 minutes; not at all. This was an "experience", an hour in the car, learning about the capability of the vehicle, putting yourself into situations you wouldn't have thought was possible and coming away with new driving techniques, all under the watchful eye and guidance of a Land Rover Instructor.
The only drawback... giving the car back!
With thanks to the Land Rover Experience, Solihull, my Instructor Paul and Experience Coordinator Gaby for organising. Now if someone would like to book me the Ice Academy for my 50th, that would be great!
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Disclosure: I received a Land Rover Experience from my brother for my 40th birthday. Thoughts and feelings are my own. Experiences and vouchers are available to purchase online for locations across the UK and the World. Adam booked me the Taster Experience, £129.00 at the Land Rover Factory and Head Quarters in Solihull.