In many ways America has gotten depressingly rational over the last two decades. We reject ideologues of left and right. We reject the mindless business conglomerations of the '60s and the mindless takeover battles of the '80s. More and more people seem to get ahead not because they are rapacious bastards who manage to con money out of others but because they actually produce something, or at least have superior skills, training, and education. What I call the Herrnstein Nightmare, in which the people with money really are superior, has come a bit closer. Americans mostly spend their money on things worth having; if they pay more, they expect to get more, and generally they do. Robert Wright has written a book, Nonzero, that more or less depicts the entire history of the planet as a sort of rational progression, a cultural evolution toward greater complexity and sophistication, with inferior societies losing out and the fittest surviving--the fittest at the moment being American capitalism.
Through all this, there has been one glaring exception, a consoling example of utter, absurd irrationality. I'm referring, of course, to Land Rovers. How smart can the rich be if they are willing to spend $65,000 for a cheap-looking, 70's-style box of an SUV that is "so unreliable," Jeremy Clarkson of the London Sunday Times has written, that it's one of those cars about which it can be said: "You know they're going to break down"? When for $10,000 less the rich could buy an equally luxurious Toyota Land Cruiser that would run reliably for decades? In African countries, where the difference between a reliable and unreliable vehicle can be the difference between life and death, they are not fooled; used Land Cruisers go for a considerable premium over used Land Rovers.
I would have thought Land Rovers--especially the expensive Range Rover models--would have fallen out of favor with the rich at some point, if not from a Darwin-style extinction then from a Warhol-style fashion cycle. They haven't, even though the Range Rover was celebrated as a status symbol as long ago as the 1992 movie The Player. BMW, which bought Land Rover in 1994, apparently figured the con couldn't go on forever: Last week they unloaded the company to Ford for a reported $2.9 billion.
But maybe BMW made a mistake. Last September, there was an instructive little item about Internet billionaire Ted Leonsis' experience with his Land Rover as he was leaving a Washington Redskins football game with his wife and children. Here is Leonsis' account, as told in Lloyd Grove's Washington Post "Reliable Source" column:
"I left my house in Great Falls around 11:15 a.m. and traffic was bad all the way," the 43-year-old America Online mogul told us yesterday. "I was literally locked in traffic like you couldn't believe, and I couldn't get into the Gold parking lot. So I went into the Red lot and my car"--a green 1998 Land Rover with 9,000 miles on it--"overheated. ... I went to the game." Big mistake.
"I left the game with eight minutes to go, and I knew I had some car problems. I got two exits down the highway and the car started to smoke. I pulled into a gas station in Forestville and then the car burst into flames, right there at the pumps. They had to evacuate the gas station and my car was totaled." Leonsis laughed merrily, as only a guy with $950 million can afford to do.
The last sentence is the giveaway. Could it be that Land Rovers are popular with the rich not despite their reputation for unreliability but because of that reputation? To the outside world, they seem to say, "I've got so much dough, I can afford to drive an expensive car that might burn to the ground at any moment! Hey, they'll just chopper me out!" The very uselessness of the vehicles makes them a status symbol, like the useless giant antlers carried around by male deer (the point of which is to show females you can carry them around).
And here poor BMW tried manfully for years to actually make Land Rovers better, before giving up! If Ford somehow makes the cars run like Toyotas, and the rich find out, sales will probably dry up overnight.