Car review: Midnight Train a dream in darkness

ON THE ROAD

Read the full review of the Carbon Edition.

Land Rover has a problem.

Earlier this year it imported 27 custom Range Rovers from its Special Vehicle Operations house in the United Kingdom. These weren’t just normal factory-lineup clones but unique orders from the SV Bespoke subsidiary. Much like the name implies, these fellows specialise in creating vehicles designed to the customer’s specifications. What they want, they get.

The imports, which were headlined by 20 Range Rover Sport SVRs, were supposed to demonstrate this power the patron possesses. Each had a rare colour scheme, inside and out, and were given local names to signify their one-of-a-kind identity. There is iziKhaleni Plum (izikhaleni is isi­Xhosa for “place of thunder”). Its deep purple hue is supposedly inspired by the sunsets above Hole in the Wall near Coffee Bay. Bantry Blue mirrors the waters of the Western Cape’s beach of the same name. You get the idea.

This tailor-made philosophy — that not only can you have one of these but can design your own homage to a picturesque landscape or anything else you can conceive of — has not been widely taken on board.

Why is that the case? The simple answer is that SVR is inextricably associated with something else: going fast. Anyone with any familiarity with the badge knows it stands for nutty performance and the peak of what comes out of the British stable. When you hear that deranged supercharger screeching, everything else around you seems to fall away.

And so to really drive home the message (awful motoring pun intended) a special experience was arranged to accompany the standard media test experience. We were booked in for a session with a tailor for a suit-jacket fitting, the idea being that the experience of creating a ​​made-to-order apparel would replicate that which a Range Rover customer would go through when ordering one of these SUVs.

But first the test vehicle arrived.

Ours was called Stimela sa Sebusuku (isiZulu for midnight train). It’s easy to see why.

The entire body is dripping in darkness. Not a sheeny metallic black, but a deep, matte finish, one that almost melts into the night when the sun goes down. The dimmed theme is further accentuated with carbon fibre finishings throughout. Although it’s not brightly coloured, it’s a package that will attract as much attention as a luminous green or orange ever could.

It’s so unusual that, while driving back from Hartbeespoort, one traffic officer pulled it over and suggested it might not be a regulation colour. After some poking around he realised there was nothing untoward about it and waved us on. 

Inside, the cabin is decked in ebony and pimiento leather — which is to say that it offers a distinct red and black theme. Much like the exterior, it stands out, skirting around blatantly ostentatious territory.

The fitting itself took place in a Bryanston shop called Frank Bespoke. After some brief pleasantries we began the appointment.

As advertised, the crafting of the jacket was personalised. We combed through piles of fabric books for the base material, scrolling through never-ending colour palettes and patterns. Then it comes time to choose the design: narrow or wide lapel; broad or tight fitting; a longer tail or the standard symmetrical shape. Finally one finishes with the details such as the types of pockets and buttons. Heaven for those with an eye for sartorial minutiae. 

How this pertains to the Range Rover itself can be seen on the test vehicle itself. There are bespoke badges to be found throughout — most noticeably on the door sills, the dashboard and a shiny plaque that connects the front and rear seats.

Although these details were more general — obviously, given that it does not belong to any one individual — a buyer can go as crazy as they like when ordering their own. Perhaps you’d fancy your name written in the centre console? Or the badge of your favourite football club embossed on the headrest? The British shop claims to be willing to do almost anything.

For more examples of what’s possible, you can look up the Range Rover Sport that was designed for the Springboks ahead of their 2019 World Cup win. Or, more recently, the 007 Defender V8 Bond edition released to coincide with that of the new James Bond film, No Time to Die.

There are two main evaluations of this Range Rover offer.

The first is that aesthetic free rein is a happy nice-to-have for any customer given that the motoring industry is distinctly impersonal. We’ve all become accustomed to seeing the same cars on our roads and it’s difficult to buy anything which might differentiate your personality (outside of tricky aftermarket upgrades).

The second is more of a glaring caveat to the above. SV Bespoke will let your imagination run wild … provided your wallet can keep pace. Land Rover does not play coy on the fact that hand-assembled customisation comes at a price.

The spec sheet for the Midnight Train makes for eye-swelling reading. The colour, labelled as ligurian black, is priced at a heavy R79 600. Then there’s a second listing for the “colour tone” coming in at R49 100. When you factor in the 22” 5-split spoke wheels, the carbon fibre additions, the technology packages and all the other bits and bobs, the options total is R394 500. That’s a highline Volkswagen Polo spent on extras.

Of course one might make the argument that such a bill is a non-factor for anyone playing in this market. The SVR as standard is north of R2.6-million and is part of an unashamed high-performance niche.

Beneath the bespoke gimmick it is still the same vehicle underneath, which is not a bad thing. Ours had a go at the Gerotek testing station and the familiar roar and velocity of its V8 engine provided reassurance that the SVR essence is not lost in any of the upgrades.

But once again the point of this SUV goes beyond any of that. And while out of reach for most of us, the intense level of pre-packaged personalisation is still an interesting concept. We can only dream that the idea might one day spread across the industry to other models.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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