The summer of 2019 was a strange, squishy pile of hot, wet months spent making $20/hr to deliver a wide range of modern supercars and vintage sports cars for the Classic Car Club of Manhattan. I was broke and working hard to carve a path as an automotive journalist; turns out, that’s a tough job to get. I got rejection after rejection all year long. It was brutal, but these little essays aren’t about whining. They are simply working through the dual nature of living life as a human. On this particular outing, I was tasked with delivering a 1994 Land Rover Defender 90 from NYC to Amagansett, a small town in deep Long Island with the same wealth as many small countries.
The Land Rover Defender wasn’t always a beach cruiser for the mega-rich. In fact, they spent the majority of their life, until recently, as the post-WWII British Jeep/tractor. The Land Rover 90 debuted at the Amsterdam auto show in 1948, but the origins go way further back and way simpler still than military vehicles. Land Rover first put tires on the roads of England in 1869; bicycle tires. As transportation history goes, they went from bicycles to motorcycles to cars/trucks. Now, the truck I’m talking about here is the Defender 90, which comes around in 1983 with designations like “90” and “110” to denote the wheelbase length. There’s a number of details that make the pre 1983 Land Rovers (Series III) different from the Defender models. As for the aesthetic, not much changed between the two models other than a few measurements: hood length, grill design, wheel arches, and a few other boring things. Mechanically there’s a little more happening. These models have some easy-to-understand cool features, like a more powerful motor, taller windshield, dedicated four-wheel drive, and they ditched the tractor-esq leaf springs, for more road-appropriate coil springs. Honestly, since then, not a lot has changed with Defenders outside of semi-modern motor updates.
Look, Defenders are cool. They have long been used by English police and military for their ruggedness and off-road prowess. They are cool. They are tough. I will never deny it, but over the last decade they have gone from cool, fun, uncomfortable, but affordable off-road toys, to a weekender status symbol. The 1994 Defender 90 (the shorter one) that I drove out to Long Island last summer is essentially a good looking, $60k tractor that is road legal. Crazy, right? I know, I know. But y’all — it’s a damn good time.
I made that same trip at the beginning and end of every week all last summer. I almost always did these trips alone but on this occasion, my good friend and master photographer Sam Hernandez came along for the ride. We hopped the Hampton Jitney to get from NYC out to Amagansett. The bus stop in Amagansett was about a mile walk to where we had to pick up the Defender. With decent weather, that walk is the best. Old trees line the street, cornfields and one-off boutiques pepper the town, making you wish it was a two-mile walk. We were excited about our plans to take the long way home and stop along the way for some photos. When we were about 10 minutes out from town, the bottom dropped out turning land into sea. It was a mess. Somehow we managed a couple of jokes and our shoulders dropped making the mile-long hike in the rain a warm memory.
Sam and I had spent our college years in Alabama dreaming about working together like this, driving old cars, and getting rad photos along the way. The rain was working hard to get us down. We finally made it to the house, where we then learned the roof of the truck had not been fully put back on. Soaking wet already, we got to work getting the soft top back on the truck. By the way, the soft top has over 70 snaps and ties that all have to be done in a particular order, or else it simply won’t do right. We snapped and snapped and tied our little fingers off and finally had the inside of the truck contained. We opened up the floor drains, tried to hand-rake the water out of the seats, start the truck up and — the engine won’t fire. We were on a roll.
After a bit of fiddling around, jigglin’ this and that, and holding my mouth just right, the bright yellow, $60k tractor fired up. Before we could leave, we had to snag a slice of pizza. I knew better. I knew I should leave a truck running that was having trouble firing, but I just didn’t. Not sure why, but I didn’t. We ate some pizza (it ruled), got back in the truck and more of the same. After more jigglin’ and more poking, it thankfully started again.
Sam and I used to live together in Harlem when we first came from Alabama. Since then, she’s moved out to Brooklyn and with work and the business of NYC, we haven’t been able to hang as much as we would have liked over the past few years. So. we took our time. We caught up on the long conversations that you can’t have with a bunch of folks at a crowded bar or over text messages. The kind of slow conversations that only happen in long rides driving through the country with no cell service. Sometimes we sat and said nothing, affirming that we still have the kind of friendship where that sort of thing isn’t uncomfortable. We stopped from time to time and took some photos. We found some mud holes to run through and pulled over to check out the scenic roads of Long Island (I know that sounds like a Billy Joel line, but LI can be really beautiful). It was much needed, uninterrupted time with an old friend. Something so simple that can still be really hard to find sometimes. It’s actually not something that you tend to “find” at all as an adult — you gotta make it.
The Defender is both rugged and crude, but these days, in the US, it’s a truck that is mostly owned by the folks wealthy enough to own something so crude that costs so much. It’s a strange contradiction. But that was last summer’s flavor, man. Duality, contradiction, confusion, as well as blessing, and beauty, and stillness. It’s all there. It usually is, but these things have a tendency to cancel each other out. We gotta feel both things. All the things. They are all there, all the time. I’m pretty sure the poem, “Motto” by Langston Hughes doesn’t apply to this story, but it’s in my head for some reason.
I play it cool
And dig all jive
That’s the reason
I stay alive.
As I live and learn,
Dig And Be Dug