Avoidable Contact #80: Nile Rodgers, me, and about 247 other optimists

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Avoidable contact range rover vitesse front three-quarter
Jack Baruth

Nile Rodgers, they say, has sold over 100 million records. I don’t doubt it—from 1977’s Chic to 2013’s “Get Lucky” with Daft Punk to a 2020 selection of collaborations with current Queen frontman Adam Lambert, his music has been omnipresent in the American background. You don’t have to be interested in R&B or hip-hop to know his work; remember that earworm song that went “The Looooooooooove Shack“? He produced it, along with work for Mick Jagger, Duran Duran, and Spike Lee. As a recreational guitarist, I can attest that 99 percent of his actual playing is trivially easy to recreate but virtually impossible to imagine having existed without him, as opposed to the average heavy-metal or rock record, which simply consists of scales played really, really fast.

Last week, Mr. Rodgers told his social-media followers that he was selling off much of his vehicle collection, via an impromptu video where he strolled through an underground garage. Much of the response centered around the ultra-desirable iron showcased in the second half—is that a light blue metallic Berlinetta Boxer I see?—but the first car shown by Nile, and the first one to sell, was a lightly-customized yellow 1997 Range Rover 4.6 HSE Vitesse. If you didn’t recognize it as such, I don’t blame you. The Vitesse was a one-year-only model with a total production of 250 across just two colors. I recognized it immediately, however … and with a bit of a shudder.

In the late ’90s, your humble author was quite the Land Rover loyalist. I leased a stick-shift Discovery in 1997, then convinced my father to get a 1998 Range Rover 4.0 S. At this point, the “P38” second-generation Range Rover had already acquired a reputation as a maintenance and ownership nightmare, so Land Rover North America (hereafter LRNA) was doing everything it could to keep people interested. The 4.0 S was a flashy, loaded-up variant that just happened to cost a lot less than the 4.0 SE and 4.6 HSE models that were already silently corroding in dealer showrooms. The amount and nature of trouble that truck gave my father would fill a novella, but there was one indisputable virtue it possessed that made the hassle worthwhile: sitting in the black leather driver’s throne, with the doorsill below your elbows and all of Christendom spread out before you on the pre-crossover-infested roads of the day, it was difficult not to feel like royalty.

Shortly after, I got into a business partnership with one of history’s truly unique individuals. Most of the stories I could tell about this fellow simply don’t sound like they’re true; at one point he’d been a forthrightly brutal Cleveland vice cop who drove a convertible Eldorado—the infamous “El Dog Rag” of the rap songs—before he realized that there was a lot more money to be made elsewhere. He maintained a personal fleet of mostly undriven cars, assembled without rhyme or reason; an Andial-tuned 930 slantnose might sit next to a GMC pickup, with an SL Benz next to that, all of them featuring 24k gold trim and vanity plates.

In 1997, when LRNA announced the “Vitesse” option package for the 4.6-liter Range Rover HSE, this fellow promptly ordered a Monza Red example. Getting a Vitesse meant that you got all the normal HSE equipment, plus a monochrome exterior, body-color piping for the leather seats, and an uprated sound system. A total of 250 examples were made, split in unknown percentage between Monza Red and AA Yellow. It was unashamedly aimed at (LRNA’s stereotypical idea of) the African-American market that had recently added the Range Rover to its list of highly desired vehicles. The Vitesse made its way to a garage in Powell, Ohio, at which point it rarely stirred except for unscheduled maintenance.

My partner didn’t particularly enjoy the Range Rover; at the time, he spent most of his time driving an aubergine W140-generation S500 sedan with massive chrome wheels, and that just suited him more. What suited him even more was the blonde hairdresser he met at a nightclub one evening in early 1998. He moved her in almost immediately, then set about getting her a respectable automobile. The sharp fellow who ran the local exotic-car dealership had an absurd suggestion: “We ordered a second Vitesse when you picked yours up. This one’s the yellow one. Do you want it? It would be cheap.” And that’s how the garage came to contain two of the 250 Vitesses ever made.

The new girlfriend was terrified of the Rover. Wouldn’t drive it. Said she couldn’t see all the corners. What she really wanted was a BMW convertible, which promptly appeared. Now there were two dusty Vitesses sitting around. “Baruth, I got an idea. You want to wheel this thing around for a hot minute until the lease expires? I’ll make you a deal.” How could I say no?

To be in my late 20s and driving this bright-yellow modern-day pimpmobile on a daily basis was, as Samuel Johnson would say, the height of felicity. Not even the ridiculous license plate—“TWEETY,” believe it or not—could take the wind out of my sails. If only it had been that easy to keep the air in the suspension. Given any appreciable amount of idle time, TWEETY would settle to the bottom of the airbags and only rise with vigorous revving of the engine. Assuming, that is, you could get it to start. It was far more troublesome than Dad’s four-liter, which is kind of like saying someone parties harder than Andrew W.K.

As the 36 months of the lease ground to a conclusion, the Vitesse demonstrated more and more homesickness for the cozy confines of the dealer service department. I don’t recall seeing it very much in the final year; I do remember that the end-of-lease inspection happened without our knowledge because the truck had spent the previous 45 days in the Rover store’s custody. My father soldiered on with his four-liter until 2002 or thereabouts, at which point he exchanged it for a Volvo C70 convertible. The frankly temperamental Volvo didn’t faze him; he’d already seen the heart of darkness where vehicle reliability was concerned.

My younger readers, raised to expect impeccable service from all consumer products regardless of cost or provenance, will no doubt be flummoxed at this idea that grown men bought $70,000 trucks and just let them sit in the service department for months on end. All I can say in defense of it was that Range Rovers were far from unique in that respect. My father’s Jaguar XJ6 was notorious for being towed right out of the garage over and over again. I worked for David Hobbs during the so-called golden age of BMW, and I learned in a hurry that some cars just seemed happier with us than with their owners. My best friend has toiled in Benz parts from 1987 to the present day. All those “indestructible” W123 and W126 and R107 cars that we venerate today for their supposed bulletproof nature? They could generate four-figure shop bills on a whim while they were still younger than the average bottle of strawberry Moscato. I had a 2000 Saab 9-3 Turbo that was darned close to a coin toss as to whether it would start in the morning.

At the time you just kind of had to put up with nightmare reliability. It was considered to be part of the package, the way one understands that custom tailoring may occasionally require rework to meet standards. The alternative was to drive a Town Car, which did not break down but was also a social stigma too strong for some to even consider bearing. Conventional wisdom says that Lexus put an end to all this drama with the LS400 in 1990, but if you ask the average LS owner of that time you’ll hear some scary stories as well.

The more truthful answer is that the entire auto industry got serious about quality control and industrial process measurement around the turn of the century and never looked back. At the same time, the wider availability of repair and parts information via the Internet made it easier to keep the vehicles on the road. P38 Range Rovers are now recognized as a pretty decent way to get around. You swap out the suspension and buy a few uprated parts, then you have a 250,000-mile vehicle. This is even true for the infamous Vitesse. A few of them have come up on auction sites lately with astounding odometer readings. Their owners have been people who understand the vehicles front to back and who have no trouble with diagnosis and repair.

Your humble author is out of the luxury-car game nowadays, unless you consider my Flex-via-Lincoln to be such. Most days I drive that old Honda of mine, greywashed into the chartered Thames of traffic like all the other little people. The idea of buying a Range Rover now strikes me as faintly absurd. Yet it was not always so. Age is nothing but the narrowing of potential and possibilities into reality. There’s no use complaining about it. Yet I can close my eyes and remember 20 years ago as if happened yesterday. To think that at one point, I was out there in the same car, at the same time, as a music-industry superstar! That we experienced the same aristocratic thrill of piloting that big yellow barge through the nondescript freeway flotsam, that we similarly enjoyed the London-bus steering wheel and the self-consciously dignified “tock” of the turn signal! We were united in the brotherhood of men who land at the airport with no clear idea if our Range Rover is going to start. It was a life perhaps no better nor worse, but merely turned up a little bit, all senses amplified, the awareness of driving something special at a time when there were still penalties as well as rewards for doing so. How did the man make his money? Oh yes, it was by telling us this:

Good times
These
are
the
good
times

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