Motoring: Get going when the going gets tough: He who hesitates is lost: the timid on-roader gets stuck when he tries to handle the soft stuff. Jonathan Glancey reports on an off-road driving lesson
Until recently, the phenomenon of the superior Jeep used as a smart town carriage was confined to cities such as London and Bath. The Range Rover has for years been an upper-crust taxi cab; but the Range Rover is very expensive (the cheapest versions cost pounds 28,895). A Nissan Terrano costs around pounds 16,000, the same as a civilised and road-bound Renault Espace, and brings the assumed virtues of Range-Rovering in town to the mass of the British middle classes.
'I've never driven the car off road,' said Phil Beeson, a computer software manager from Peterborough, as he prepared to point his clean and gleaming Mitsubishi Shogun off the road into the sodden depths of wildest Norfolk. 'I bought it because I wanted a tough, dependable and safe car that would take the family and the dog anywhere we wanted to go.
'As it is, I've only used the low- ratio gears a couple of times, once to show a friend how they worked and the other time when I was taking the car for a test drive.'
So why did he not choose something more sensible, such as a Volvo estate or a Renault Espace?. 'Well, they couldn't do this, could they?' Mr Beeson retorted, as he selected low-ratio second gear, raised the clutch and set off across a broad belt of sand into a ploughed and rutted field.
Ben Kirby, a well-travelled Land Rover driver, sat alongside him, explaining how best to hold the steering wheel as the car rocked like a cross- Channel ferry in choppy water.
Mr Beeson and a handful of others had turned up to take part in an off- road exercise on the Kirby farm on the Norfolk coast, for once letting their immaculate Nissans and Mitsubishis get their boots muddy.
Mr Kirby, the instructor for the day, warned: 'The trick is not to grasp the wheel even if you want to: if it kicks back when the tyres hit a pothole or thump a rock, it could break one of your thumbs.' 'Really?' said Mr Beeson, grasping the wheel a little tighter.
'And another thing,' Mr Kirby went on: 'Don't brake as we go down the hill at the bottom of the field; if you do, we'll skid in the mud. Select a lower gear instead, and let the car take itself down; if you are in the right gear, it will
all be a piece of cake.'
Down we went, with Mr Beeson gingerly prodding the brakes and the car slithering around like Chubby Checker on speed. 'Now, turn into the ditch and keep the car going through the water; it's quite deep, but as long as you give it a bit of stick, it'll get through, no prob.'
We almost did, but not quite. Our shell-suited driver lost faith in the car's ability, lifted off the throttle, stalled the engine and left us stranded. Rooks cawed mockingly from the high trees. Oh well, nothing for it but to clamber out into the Norfolk ooze and push. The mud- splattered Shogun refused to move. We slipped about in the mud, getting covered in it; Mr Beeson put his hand in a cowpat while staving off a fall. 'I'm covered in the stuff,' he said sadly, 'and just look at the bloody car]' It was in a sorry state.
A battered, two-door Range Rover headed our way, and Bob Wilson, a farmhand for the Kirbys, saved the day by towing the distressed Shogun out of the mire and back on to the rutty field.
'We can't get back in covered in shit,' protested Mr Beeson. It would certainly not do much for the seats, which are not made of painted metal (as in wartime Jeeps), slatted timber or even wipe-clean plastic. Instead, they are covered in a smart beige fabric that would show the slightest stain.
'We put the labrador into one of those outsized doggy-bags after she's been for a run,' said Mr Beeson. 'I don't like to see the car dirty.'
With no body-bags available, there was little chance we would get a ride in the Shogun now: Mr Beeson's grey-and- Day-glo striped leisure gear was decidely the worse for wear, and the rest of us had jeans soaked in muddy water and boots caked in slime.
But the Shogun looked amusingly bucolic: all it needed was a straw dangling from its grille.
Wendy McFarland, a schoolteacher, proved to be a lot more game. 'It's a bit like riding,' she said, as she gunned her Nissan across the field, bolted down the hill, sailed through the ditch and the watersplash and tackled the stretch of old railway sleepers. Mrs McFarland and her Japanese warrior lurched, lolloped and swaggered across every obstacle Mr Kirby had put in her way.
How did the superstore run prepare her to be a mistress of off-road driving? 'Never go to them. I use the car to tow the horses. I take it on to some bumpy and muddy fields sometimes, but until today I've never put it to the test.'
For the rest of the afternoon, a muddy band of four-wheel-drive adventurers took to the Norfolk fields, proving that Norfolk is not as flat as it looks, that sophisticated Japanese off-roaders, new and not so new, are only as able as their drivers, and that the vast majority of four-wheel- drive owners are not at home in mud, dung and rain.
But privately organised events such as Ben Kirby's are becoming popular (some dealers are also arranging them) because owners are curious to find out what their vehicles can do.
Leaving the Kirbys' farm, looking by tea-time like a Flanders field in 1917, it was difficult not to gawp at Mr Beeson, in fresh shell-suit, watching as his teenage sons arrived to swab down the Mitsubishi. Equally, it was fun to watch Mr Kirby's dad plugging across the field in a battered red Cortina pick-up, a border collie slobbering over the windscreen, and weaving his expert way up to the slippery tarmacked road and on down to the local pub. Now, that's off-roading.
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