Archaic, uncomfortable, unreliable and dangerous
One Life - Lose It
We had planned this trip for a long time. An epic journey via the Augrabies waterfall to Alexander Bay, the westernmost point of South Africa, and from there to the Richtersveld, an inhospitable are of unsurpassed natural beauty and home to the quiver tree and halfmens trees, (Pachypodium namaquanum). From there we would meander through the Namaqualand region where early rains have again turned the semi desert into a large flower carpet.
The next stop would be at the gannets of Lamberts bay and we would go on to photograph the oystercatchers at Paternoster.
There was a mandatory family stop in Somerset West and then back home via Robertson, a surprise visit to a favorite artist, more family on Bloemfontein and back to our home in Pretoria.
The trip was planned with two scenarios in mind, depending on my wife’s workload. Either I would be taking my two sons in the Cruiser for the Augrabies, Richtersveld, Namqualand part of the journey, and meet up with my wife who would fly to Cape Town, or we would again, like the previous year, use both the Cruiser and her Landy.
In order to cover both eventualities the Landy was comprehensively serviced by the agents and I attended to items like new windscreen wiper blades and, as we had to leave in darkness on the first leg of the trip, I took care to fit new headlight bulbs and properly aligned the lights. I had also purchased a plane ticket for my wife to fly to Cape Town if she was unable to do the whole trip.
Two days before setting off on the journey I became apparent that my wife’s work allowed her to do the whole trip, and she was overjoyed to do yet another journey in her favorite vehicle, her 2007 90 Defender with the 2.4 Ford Puma diesel engine. This was the best Landy 90 she had had, having previously had a TD5 version for more than five years. Besides having done may trips in her 90’s she had also done the Land Rover advanced driving course and was a careful and competent driver with no accidents to her 34 years of driving.
Our style of traveling, where photo opportunities dictate the pace, means that we very rarely plan to do more than 500 km per day, and on this trip there were two legs that exceeded this limit, being the routes of the first day and of the second last day.
Late on 1 August 2013 my two sons flew in from Germany and after an early evening landing, we were all off to bed early as we had little time for sleep before we embarked on the longest journey of the trip, the 900 km to Augrabies waterfall.
After hitting the road at 03h00 the first day went very well and we made an afternoon stop in Keimoes at the famous Pienk Padstal where the Barnard family, old friends of my wife, with whom she participated in overland safaris in Botswana, during the 1990’s, were visited.
We reached the Augrabies waterfall at last light and did a quick photo reconnaissance to determine possible shots and positions for the next morning.
We sent Saturday exploring and photographing the Augrabies National Park and on Sunday 4 August we followed the same routine, with an early start to catch some daybreak photos at the falls.
We returned to a cursory breakfast of coffee and rusks, meaning to have a proper breakfast at Pofadder, and loaded the vehicles for the 500 km journey to Alexander Bay.
My wife and my oldest son boarded the Landy and my younger son and I got into the Cruiser and we set out on the trip to Alexander Bay.
Shortly after joining the main road we spotted an old Fiat mounted on stilts next to the road and, as we had the whole day, we spent some time fooling around and took some photographs.
The next event was a dead bat eared fox in the road. My wife really favored these small foxes and as she has on occasion used road kill photos in her work, we once again stopped and spent some time photographing the scene.
There was no traffic on the N14 on this lovely early spring Sunday morning and it was possible to get down right next to the dead fox, without having to be concerned about vehicles.
We were taking matters very leisurely, as we had no time pressure, and would stop a Pofadder, the next town, for breakfast.
Some distance down the road there was a slight right hand bend with a hillock to the right that was covered in quiver trees. Using the inter vehicle radios I pointed this out to my wife and she replied with appreciation.
The road now stretched out in front of me like a diminishing line, an absolutely straight strip of good quality tarmac, devoid of other traffic, reaching to the horizon.
As we had no time pressure we traveled at a fuel optimizing speed, below the speed limit, and in general life was good, and our journey was off to a fantastic start.
With the dearth of traffic I kept one eye in the rearview mirror observing the Landy behind me.
Suddenly I saw the Landy veering towards the left hand shoulder of the road. This course was corrected and the Landy went into a semi skid towards the right.
At this point I shouted to my younger son, in the Cruiser with me, that my wife was going to capsize the Landy and I braked hard as I watched the havoc unfolding in my rear view mirror.
The next move of the Landy was a violent left hand swerve and I saw blue smoke coming from the right hand side tyres.
The right hand side tyres then bit into the tar, as happens when a motorcycle highsides, and the vehicle overturned and started rolling.
This particular model of Defender 90 had no roll over protection whatsoever. There is no roll over hoop, airbags, or any structural members, that are able to take any significant impact. The main structural member seems to have been the glass in the front windscreen
The first time that the left hand roof, at the A pillar, corner hit the road, the front windscreen shattered and the roof pillars and assembly collapsed, and my son, being strapped in and held upright in the seat by his safety belts, was instantly killed as he suffered a base of skull fracture.
My wife, who was also strapped in, was flung from underneath her safety belt, to the centre of the vehicle as well as forwards towards the windscreen, where her head impacted the roof lining as was evident by the blood smears.
With her body having slipped from underneath the safety belts she was being flung around the interior of the vehicle and on the second roll of the vehicle the momentum of her body broke the roof off the Landy and she was ejected from the vehicle. As I was watching the unfolding tragedy I saw the Landy bonnet flew off towards the left hand side of the road and then the white roof of the Landy flew off to the right hand side of the road and my wife being ejected straight form the wreck and landing parallel to the side of the road.
With the roof now missing, the vehicle shape became more round as the side panels collapsed, causing the violent rolling to be continued.
My wife came to rest parallel to the yellow line on the right hand side of the road with her head towards Kakamas.
The Landy stopped on the left hand side of the road, right side up, at an angle of approximately 45 degrees to the road edge, partially blocking the left hand lane.
The positions of my wife and the Landy were opposite each other, severely restricting vehicle traffic.
When my younger son and I got to my wife she was still alive, unconscious, but breathing on her own.
My oldest son was still strapped into his seat and a quick check for pulse, breathing and pupil response, indicate that my son had died.
We managed to bring my wife round and she was very badly injured and in deep shock. I held my wife in my arms as she passed away, half an hour before an ambulance arrived.
Why did this accident happen?
The main cause of the accident was loss of control over the vehicle.
Careful observations of the accident markings on the road surface, as well as the state of the wreck, did not indicate any mechanical failure, no evidence of tyre, suspension or steering failure.
The root cause of the accident stems in my opinion from the 1948 design of the vehicle, which has not sufficiently evolved. Even the fitting of electronic aids, like ABS, has not been able to address the inherent flaws of the vehicle.
The wheelbase of the Defender 90 is 35% longer than the vehicle width.
Compounding this with the fact that there has been the adoption of modern engines, which are shorter than the pervious engines, which has resulted in the centre of mass moving towards the rear. With both the engine and passengers being located between the axles, in close prosimity, means that the Landy 90 has no real polar moment of inertia. If it gets into a spin there is no heavy lump of engine, located close to an end of the vehicle, to determine where the vehicle will go.
Add to this tyres that are significantly wider than the original equipment, of years ago, and you have a vehicle that is inherently unstable, does not naturally have the ability to recover from a spin, and can no longer slide sideways due to the higher grip of the wider tyres.
Throw in zero roll over protection and a superstructure fabricated in brittle aluminium that shattered like glass, and you have an almost perfect killing machine.
Land Rover is perfectly aware of this situation and have since 1997 been barred from importing this vehicle to the USA, but they do have published the following safety information:
Options & Upgrades for this model of Defender 90 Hard Top
▪ SPEED LIMITER - 56 MPH / 90 KPH
▪ SPEED LIMITER - 70 MPH / 113 KPH
▪ SPEED LIMITER – 75 MPH /120 KPH
If you have one of these vehicles it could be in your best interest to carefully read this narrative, and think about these matters, lest you too have a holiday that ends in funerals.