A six-day trip to the Falkland Islands to test the Freelander 2? All part of the job, explains Steve Cropley
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In the wider world, car journalists are known for two things: road testing and visiting exotic locations for car launches. However, the brutal truth is that, over the past 18 months, the shape of these events has changed completely.
These days, if a car is important, there’s a Zoom launch that embraces hundreds of attendees at a time. If it’s a mere update, you get invited (in small numbers) to a half-day chat-and-short-drive, either near your home or at the headquarters of the new model. Long trips away aren’t offered or permitted. And in my head, at least, they’re not missed.
Still, there was some nostalgic talk among colleagues this week about the special junkets we used to attend, expensive, long-winded, far-flung or all three. For a while, it was a close-run competition, but I believe I was eventually able to trump them all with tales of my participation in what must have surely been Autocar’s greatest solus car launch ever: the extraordinary episode back in 2006 that took three of us plus a couple of brand-new Land Rover Freelander 2s to the Falkland Islands – in the middle of the South Atlantic – where we stayed for six days to prepare material for a 24-page supplement.
Our crew consisted of Dan Stevens (news editor of the time), Stan Papior (still one of the finest photographers around) and me. Why did we choose such a bleak and remote part of the world, where the average ambient wind is 15 knots and there’s no such thing as an indigenous tree? Because I had recently heard the Falklands billed as “the Land Rover capital of the world” on account of the fact that the vast majority of cars on the roads there were Landies; and that the archipelago (there are hundreds of islands, not just the two main ones) has just one car dealer, the Landie man.
Land Rover volunteered to get two new Freelanders to the Falklands, air-freighting them to Chile, then shipping them to the Falklands in effect as deck cargo on a trawler. Going via Argentina, the closest mainland country, wasn’t an option for obvious reasons.
Our crew of three took an even more circuitous route: London to Morocco, Morocco to a dusty airfield in the back-blocks of Argentina (the only place a British aircraft was allowed to land, well away from Buenos Aires), then another hop to the Falklands. It was a 48-hour trip if you chucked in all the waiting.
The Falklands and its people were instantly our friends. The cars were much admired and we were heroes, featuring in the local newspaper (the Penguin News) every day, hitting it off with the local police (who had previous-model Freelanders). They let us view the mega-damage to Stanley’s main cop-shop that during the war had been hit by a missile. We even took tea with the Governor General, a nice, down-to-earth bloke who sampled our Freelanders but reckoned they couldn’t stand comparison with his official transport, a London-style black cab.
At that stage of its history, the Falklands’ population was about 2500 (including at least 500 squaddies), but cruise ships had started to use Stanley as a staging post, so every few weeks, the population would double when the tourist-occupants of some floating behemoth came ashore for eight hours or so. Enterprising locals set up tea stalls in the main drag and charged tourists silly prices.
We drove our Freelanders all over East Falkland, as much by compass as by road, because roads to key places were still being built. War wreckage was still scattered about; we visited some of it. Some expanses of key countryside were still mined, too. But apart from avoiding minefields, there was just one hard-and-fast driving rule: don’t aim your car at what looks like a puddle, because it might be an artillery shell-hole filled with water six feet deep!
Just about everyone who drove in the Falklands seemed to be an off-roading expert: one local pub even had a so-called “bog wall” where those who weren’t able successfully to negotiate the islands’ most celebrated mud-holes were featured in photographs with wry and profane captions (we were featured). We visited famous battlegrounds such as Tumbledown and Mount Longdon, and the Freelanders coped with it all very well.
The local Landie dealer was like no car trader you will ever meet. A former hostage of the Argentines during the Falklands War, he absolutely loved the product and knew every detail. He was fascinated by the Freelander but reckoned (wrongly) that it seemed a bit “soft” for Falklands duty.
He explained why he didn’t need a showroom: every two or three months, he would get an intake of stock, some pre-ordered, some not. He would park the new cars in the street and over the next few days they would be sold. Then he would park the swappers in the street and they would be sold, too. Then he would go back to selling spares for another couple of months.
The evening before we left, I reckoned I had better do something to prove this theory about the Falklands being the world’s Landie capital, so I stood on the main drag in Stanley and counted 100 cars. Of those, 92 were Land Rovers, 65 of them Defenders or older. That proved the point, I think.
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