How to drive like James Bond… sort of
Not sure about you but I’ve always wanted to be a spy… and Land Rover gave me a taste of that a few years ago when it taught me how to drive like James Bond… sort of.
DEPENDING ON WHO you talk to driving a safe vehicle can mean different things. But, mostly, we’re told, a safe vehicle is one that carries either a five-star ANCAP or EuroNCAP rating. And fair enough, too.
But what about if you needed something that offered a little more protection than the ordinary five-star car, or if you were a celebrity, or a politician who lived in fear of being assassinated. Well, then you would need something like the vehicle you’re looking at right now.
Feel free to get out a magnifying glass and take a real close look at the pictures hereabouts and then tell me what you see… Nothing, right? And that’s the point.
I’ll bet you didn’t notice the bulletproof glass, or the heavy-duty wheels with run-flat tyres, or the tamper-proof exhaust, or… You see, this is an armoured Range Rover. Sure, it’s an older model car, but that’s because I drove this one some time ago…
Because it’s a Range Rover you won’t find anything so crass as chequer-plate, slits for windows, gun ports, or a half-track under its bum.
“This isn’t a battlefield weapon,” Land Rover’s Armoured Vehicle Driver Trainer, Ian Halton, tells me as he walks around the armoured Range Rover pointing out all of the toughened bits of the car the Land Rover watchdogs won’t let me show you… for security reasons.
There are overlaps on all the doors, even on the rear boot lid, to ensure ‘splash’, or molten metal/shrapnel can’t penetrate door shuts or handles; the petrol tank is wrapped in armour; and the battery is stashed inside an armoured box in the boot; even the exhaust pipe is fitted with mesh to prevent tampering.
The body provides full 360-degree protection with ballistic and blast steel, and kevlar armour hidden beneath the Range Rover’s skin. Indeed, the outer skin is a facade only and so it can be stone-chipped, dented by a shopping trolley or even two-bobbed. “It’s designed not to be noticed, which is probably its greatest defensive asset,” says Halton. Only the plasma-cut, fixed-in-place, 40mm-thick toughened and heavily tinted glass is noticeable; and only then if you catch it in the right light and at the right angle.
So, to the untrained eye there’s absolutely nothing to suggest this car could step into the ring with two handfuls of hand grenades or an AK-47 and come out looking like anything other than a smoldering ruin. But it can. See, the Range Rover you see here has been armoured to within an inch of its life which is the not-so-technical speak for B6-plus. It’s a virtual bunker.
And to prove that point, Halton flips open his laptop, runs a film and starts narrating: “that rig next to the Land Rover Discovery (armoured to the same level as this Range Rover) holds 15kg of high explosive…” Then he’s silent… nothing… nothing… nothing… then KABOOOM!
It’s the sort of explosion you see in a Hollywood movie, or hear about on the news; the sort of explosion that would reduce four or five, or maybe even more, regular cars to black smears on the ground. Only when the smoke clears the Disco is anything but a smear. Sure, the glass is crazed, the bonnet has been blown off and is god-knows-where, the outer skin has been shredded, and the tyres look rooted, but it’s still standing.
“That car was able to be driven away from that explosion and the passengers would have survived,” Halton says as my jaw slaps into the table.
We’ve moved inside for the theory part of my driving instruction. Because, in case you’ve caught on to where this is going, yes, I’m being taught to drive like James Bond, or Jason Bourne, or… any other cool super-spy you can think of.
But before we get to the J-turns, Halton has to reduce me to a gibbering mess as he runs through a raft of examples where the security driver stuffed up and got their VIP killed. And the stories don’t all just come from the Middle East or the former Eastern bloc. Nope, he tells me sphincter-tightening tales from the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, and even from kidnappings in Central London.
Once he’s told me his stories, he starts running various news grabs showing the car’s of VIPs being surrounded in protests just to emphasise that the things he’s talking about are real and happen right now. Today even…
The class I’m taking right now is the same class that everyone buying an armoured vehicle from Land Rover has to sit. And that’s only after your desire to buy one of these vehicles has been approved by the British Home Office, and plenty of punters, Halton says have been turned down, “for one reason or another”.
Once the vetting process has been finished, Land Rover appoints a dedicated security consultant to work with the customer to ensure the vehicle is built to meet their requirements. All vehicles are sold with a warranty, and driver training as part of the package; added extras are regular visits with a technician to ensure the vehicle is in tip-top condition. And, in case you’re wondering, not a single armoured Rangie or Disco has been sold in Australia…
Over the course of a few hours, Halton reminds me about the importance of constantly altering my route and of mapping out routes that offer escape routes. He also talks about running a dummy vehicle if the particular VIP is very important and has received threats… he also talks about not trying to attract attention to the VIP which is why, even if you stood next to one of these armoured Range Rovers you wouldn’t know it was anything out of the ordinary.
An few hours later, and with my head filled with stories of assassination attempts and kidnappings (there were 442 kidnappings in London alone, in 2005), and my note pad full of situational awareness, route selection and risk assessment techniques, I pick my jaw back up off the floor and am led out to the armoured Range Rover. Play time is about to begin.
Well, at least it will as soon as I can get the door open. So heavily armoured is this thing that it takes all of the strength I have just to pull open the doors. Once inside, and with my breath back, I kick over the armoured Range Rover. Three times…
See, with almost two tons of armour wrapped around the body you can’t hear a thing from inside the cabin. Indeed, you’ve got to use an intercom system, hidden in the cup holders, to talk and listen to people outside.
On the move, the armoured Range Rover rides and handles just like a, well, just like a Range Rover. And that’s all down to its 5.0-litre V8 thumping out 276kW and 510Nm and a Prodrive-tweaked chassis, air suspension, braking system and heavy-duty wheels. So, because it still behaves like a proper Range Rover, you can clamber up over gutters, down steps, or even push through walls if need be. Not that we got to do any of that.
“The Range Rover’s armour and all-road ability can mean the difference between life and death; but all it does is buy you a few vital seconds,” Halton says.
But, he adds, as strong as the armoured Range Rover is it all comes down to the driver: “most of our training revolves around familiarising the driver with the extra weight of the armoured Range Rover and how to handle that extra weight in a life-threatening situation.” Because, he adds, if you start getting ham-fisted with it, even a vehicle as capable as the Range Rover can be rolled.
And that’s why, right now, I’m driving a figure-of-eight around a very large, and very empty car park. “The key is to be firm but smooth, it’s when you panic and yank at the wheel with too much speed that you can tip it over and you don’t want that when you’re being shot at.” Um, no.
But the best technique for getting away from an ambush, and one of the hardest to master, he says, is the high-speed reverse. And that’s because you’ve got to master three different ways of doing it: either the wing mirrors only; the rear vision mirror only, or looking backwards over your shoulder. And all the while bullets might be slapping into your car…
Using just the rear vision mirror I ended up way off course, running over the witches hats simulating a line of parked cars against the gutter. Game Over. Reset. Start Over… using the wing mirrors I stayed straight, but was slow, too slow, according to Halton. But looking back over my shoulder and locking my hand onto the top of the wheel, I managed to stay straight even with the throttle mashed into the deep pile carpet.
From there, Halton runs me through a ‘brake and steer’ exercise designed to simulate avoiding an obstacle or even a gunman that’s jumped out from behind a parked car at the last minute. It’s simple enough to do, but it’s absolutely terrifying, because if you brake too late with too much speed on board you could understeer into a parked car, or building, or… and end up as a sitting duck. Worse still, you could turn too hard, be too soft on the brakes and roll the car. Catastrophe.
With this two-and-a-bit-million-dollars-worth of bunker needing to be sent off to the detailers, in the next hour, before being delivered to its new owner tomorrow, there’s just enough time for one more exercise.
And that is the high-speed brake test, which would theoretically then lead into the high-speed reverse. So I pin the throttle to the boards, the big girl picks up her skirt and hammers to 100km/h; I immediately get on the brakes with both feet. The armoured Range Rover’s run-flat EMT tyres grip into the road and the Rangie screeches to a halt. I slam it into reverse… gunman avoided. VIP safe. Phew. And there, sadly, endeth the lesson.