Driven: Land Rover 40th Anniversary Ninety up the Goodwood hillclimb!

Taking to the Goodwood hillclimb in any vehicle for a record attempt is exciting, but to do so behind the wheel of Land Rover's only surviving 40th Anniversary Ninety left our staff writer wet. Here's why

There was an air of trepidation upon hauling myself into the cabin of the Land Rover. Normally, when jumping into the dog-eared interior of my own Series III, the door is slammed and the spindly gear lever punched into first; my shoes surrounded by crusty off-cuts of bulkhead and footwell. Yet, this one had the senses tingling with a foreboding sense of immaculate, historical awe.

Glinting with unblemished paintwork in July’s humid sunlight, adjoining an already impressive line-up of Solihull greats, was Land Rover’s sole remaining 40th Anniversary Ninety. To many this would appear to be an early, bog-standard example of a short-wheel base in rude health. Yet, for those of us already a firm member of the oval Church of Land Rover, the canvas-topped 2.5-litre diesel remains something of an urban legend.

See also:

What is the 40th Anniversary Land Rover Ninety?

This Ninety was produced to mark the 40th continuous year of Land Rover production in 1988. The original plan was to develop a fleet of 40 ‘celebration’ vehicles, each one with digits 4-0 showcased in its registration mark. However, the project was met with disapproval from those who bestowed new ventures with the financial green light.

‘The attitude at the time was one of moving forward. It was viewed as a poor business decision to look back, rather they wanted to be looking to the future', explained José Almeida of Portugal's Dream Overland.

Although two pre-production examples had been crafted, a strike at the Solihull factory led to an outright cancellation of the project. An undignified end for a Land Rover variant that would have been snapped up by enthusiasts and collectors alike. The second pre-production example was 'adjusted' and spent time as an amphibious testing craft.

Built towards the end of 1987, E40 KDU was completed to a special brief. Without compromising off-road ability or the technological advancements to that point, the mantra had to recall the charm of earlier Land Rovers. It takes a keen eye, but you can spot the throwbacks from the era of post-war austerity.

Firstly, there’s the soft-top roof, a specification that was no longer available in the UK by this stage. However, bearing the underpinnings of a bog-spec British-market Ninety, the canvas roof was not only supplied with the accompanying swing-out rear wheel bracket and door, but it was dyed in khaki, a mythical colour that hasn’t been used since the early 1960s.

Finished in Bronze Green, the paint job stretched to places where standard showroom models had only black plastic wheelarches, or ‘eyebrows’ as enthusiasts affectionately dub them. Under the bonnet was the latest turbo diesel engine, good for a 67bhp and a reported top speed of 75mph. The target price for hitting the market in 1988 was £13,910, which equates to £38,000 with current inflation.

While my 1977 88” remains treated with kid gloves – albeit made from real kids, the 40th Anniversary demanded outright respect. The door was closed as gently as possible, whereas the seatbelt was gently massaged into place. Joined by a representative of Gaydon’s British Motor Museum, who would be keeping an eye on the vehicle before returning it to storage, the gentleman in question was here for a reason. This was no mere test drive. I would be taking it up the Goodwood hillclimb; with 70 other Land Rovers…

To mark Land Rover’s 70th anniversary milestone, AutoClassics had been granted the opportunity to join the record-braking parade with this very special vehicle. Prizing the invite out of the editor’s cold dead hands, arriving at Goodwood on Thursday morning provided an extra dollop of surprise. Instead of wandering through the entrance gates, participants headed to the nearby dairy farm – where a mile long queue of angular metal awaited.

Like the starting gun at LeMans, told of which vehicle awaited us, us journalists ran like excited children to our allocated steed. Now, acquainted with the Land Rovers, we awaited the signal to proceed forward and line up two-abreast on the hillclimb start line. Except, I had the museum representative ask for a moment of my time.

Apparently, the clutch was iffy with a biting point shallower than Katie Kopkins’ ill-bred opinion. Told of the vehicle’s immeasurable heritage and value, my stomach churned with the responsibility. Young men don’t do responsibility. Yet, upon pressing the pedal down for the first time just before igniting the glow plugs, the biting point was healthier than my own Landy. Humbled, with the Land Rovers aloft of the windscreen moving off, the beast fired into life.

Engaging first gear and drawing forward, the realisation of what was going on hit home. There was little over 2700 miles on the odometer; this was a museum piece for god’s sake. And I was piloting it up the hill for a record attempt at Goodwood’s 25th anniversary Festival of Speed!

Even at single digit speeds on approach to the impromptu grid, the Ninety felt special. The trademark air of indestructibility was very much present, but with the open sky above and the knowledge of what this Land Rover represents, the hairs stood to attention on the back of my neck.

Lining up behind H166 HUE, the last Defender ever made, the factory V8 70th anniversary edition to my left and Bob Ives' glorious 1989 Camel Trophy winning 110 two spaces ahead, the atmosphere was tense with exhilaration.

Everyone sat behind the wheel of their Land Rover with incredible, ear-to-ear smiles. Unlike those of a racing calibre, we were going to be egging each other onwards with an injection of Land Rover brotherhood. This was going to be amazing.

Up the hill

Perhaps undertaking the slowest take-off ever witnessed at Goodwood, the pack was led by Phillip Bashall of the Dunsfold Land Rover Collection in his Centre-Steer prototype – a replica of the Wilks Brothers’ original concept vehicle. This was followed by the famous ‘Hue 166’ and 25 other Series vehicles.

To the burbling exhaust note of V8s, diesels and 2.25-litre petrol units, the convoy gradually edged forward and into a comfortable pace. Feeding the steering wheel slowly through my hands, it was easy to get caught up in the grand sense of occasion. Passing the crowds and listening to the intricate commentary omitted from passing speakers, ‘such action with so many Land Rovers may cause a wet summer!’, we joked.

Then the rain started. It lashed for a good five minutes, soaking my shirt, trousers, the chap from the museum and the cloth seats. Yet, it didn’t detract from our good mood. Up ahead was the One Millionth Land Rover – a 1976 Series III 88”, whereas a dozen cars behind was Julian Lamb’s Pre-production Discovery 1, Lee Haines' Range Rover P38, Richard Hopkins' ex-police force P38 (with special connections we will divulge later...) and Land Rover’s own Bahama Gold Suffix A Range Rover Classic. They were all here, even the Freelander – to the delight of all us Landy enthusiasts.

Acceleration was sprightly from grumbling, low-seated torque. The gear change was surprisingly slick and – dare I say it – precise for a Landy of such age. Keeping a steady speed proved something of a doddle, lapping up each blip of the revs and jumping between first and second gear with ease. Then there was that reassuring engine tone, balancing that perfect blend of tonka-toy refinement and agricultural charisma.

Crawling up the hill, slap bang in the middle of the record-breaking attempt, our Ninety performed flawlessly. Granted, this was no off-road trek and I was behind the wheel for barely three miles overall, but after scarcely turning a wheel for the best part of a decade and traversing the incline in sticky heat, lesser designed cars would have fallen at the first hurdle.

The rain continued to drench the pair of us, finally tailing off in time to cross the finish line. It had taken a mammoth 15 minutes to drive up Goodwood’s hillclimb, with many claiming to have pushed forward in low range, probably making for two records.

We were proudly told that, having successfully taken no less than 70 Land Rovers to the top – and beyond – of the hill’s crest, as a team we had the record in the bag. Furthermore, we had reportedly posted the slowest time up the hill. Although, to be fair, it could be the fastest.

A total of 70 vehicles taking 15 minutes? That’s only 12.9 seconds per Land Rover. However, all joking aside, upon departing the cabin, it very much appeared that I had wet myself. Almost everyone else had a roof, whereas our canvas hood had been left at Gaydon. I may have been excited, but not that excited.

As the sun baked my damp, sweaty clothes and the trees whipped up that dense smell of wet, cooking vegetation, I had to say farewell to the 40th Anniversary Ninety. Although the driving experience remains one of the shortest, it will also remain one of the most memorable.

Check out the display at the top...

Classic cars for sale now

Take a look at every Land Rover involved...

Pictures courtesy of Gillian Carmoodie and Land Rover Media

Classic Cars for Sale