Origin Story: I Found My Heart in San Francisco

I had my first encounter with my friend Doug’s beloved Range Rover in May of 2013.  It was parked in the Castro garage where I prepped my bike for the AIDS LifeCycle fundraiser ride, a 545-mile tour from San Francisco to Los Angeles.  I peeked into the windows, I skulked around it; I was smitten. 

It’s a 1993 Range Rover Classic. Alpine White over tan hides, short wheelbase. Doug and I have spent hours waxing poetic on the original Range Rover’s universal appeal and cachet relative to all other vehicles.  When it comes to what your car says about you, nothing makes a better statement than a classic Range Rover.  

Turn up at a country club, and you will be the sole arbiter of good taste and restraint. The valet will probably display your $2,500 rig right up front next to the Bentleys and Geländewagens.  Swing by the garden centre on your way home for a few bags of mulch, and you’ll get nods of approval from even the most grizzled landscapers. It’s universally cool. 

It was two years before I got the chance to drive the pristine white Rover.  Using my unparalleled powers of persuasion, I convinced Doug to ship it to Jersey City, NJ, where we’d share it for a while. I was out of town when the beast was delivered and parked in my garage spot.  I returned to find it there, in all it’s blocky aluminum glory. Sploosh.

Behold, the 1993 Range Rover Classic. 

I knew this moment was coming, so I’d purchased a pair of tortoise-shell Ray-Ban Wayfarers to complete the look. I pushed the key, my copy of which was made at a hardware store, into the lock, and turned it.  The vacuum-operated central locking system let out a massive exhale, forcing the locks open. I hooked my fingers into the door handle, which is not unlike the seatbelt buckle on an airplane in its operation, and popped the door open.  

I climbed up into the driver’s seat, and took in the low, wide dashboard, introduced in 1987 in the first US-Spec Range Rovers.  The roof is high, the pillars are razor-thin, and the door sills are low.  So low, that I was concerned pedestrians would be able to see just how excited I was. The only other Range Rover I’d spent any real time with is my partner’s former 2013 Evoque, which features door sills at roughly shoulder-height.  Here, I am seated on a chair in a box fastened to a ladder with wheels. 

A digression: Like any self-respecting gearhead, I’ve owned many cars over the years. Four Volkswagens, three Audis, three Hondas, and my current Mercedes-Benz C300. Only one of those cars, a 100hp, eight-valve MK2 Jetta, felt like a machine.  It was charming and engaging, and it required attention and athleticism to drive it.  I loved that car.  Modern cars, by comparison, are smooth and effortless to drive.  You can eat a burrito and Snapchat Bae and retweet a gif of a narcoleptic dachshund while negotiating an offramp.  Soon, the car will take over entirely. Pity, that. 

I twisted the Ace Hardware key in the ignition, and the all-aluminum 3.9 liter V8, closely related to the motor in the 1961 Buick Skylark, cranked over and roared to life.  Back when everyone was getting up and dancing to a song that was a hit before your mother was born, engines didn’t just start.  No, it would make you wait a half-second before it gave you the satisfaction.  The 22-year old lump under the hood of this Rover was no exception.  It rumbled and burbled with a satisfying baritone that echoed in the garage.  The exhaust smelled like, well, exhaust. 

As I moved the modern-looking gear selector to “D” the transmission engaged with a medieval CLUNK. I eased off the brake, and steered out of my stall, and it became clear that I would not be texting Bae while driving this vehicle.  I hauled the big, leather-wrapped 2-spoke steering wheel around a few times to make the turn out of the garage and pulled out onto the mean streets of downtown Jersey City.  

At first, it felt as though I was driving some kind of leather-lined farm implement.  Even with power steering, the Rover takes work to maneuver around town.  The Third Reich had a name for it; “Freude durch Arbeit” or “Joy through Work,” although I think they were describing something else entirely. 

The British beast and I threaded our way through the city streets, headed for the highway.  The coil-spring suspension (this example was not fitted with the famously unreliable air suspension system introduced in 1993) absorbed the post-apocalyptic pavement with remarkable composure for a machine that was designed when my parents were in grade school.  The fundamentals of this truck remain impressive in their own way today, in a way that few other vehicles can claim. 

As Range Rover celebrates 45 years of production, I’m excited to share that my partner Dave and I will be buying Doug’s Range Rover this month. The lease on my C300 will end soon, and I’ll be using the Range Rover as my daily driver.  I’ve tentatively named him Barry White.

We’ll pick ol’ Barry up in San Francisco in a couple of weeks, and set off on a “Home for Christmas” cross country road trip that will take us 5,500 miles through 19 US states and 4 Canadian provinces.  Will the Rangie get us to New Jersey for Christmas?  Stay tuned…