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WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHS Russ Atkinson
I’m not sure that Conrad Yates, the man behind the @islandrovers handle on Instagram, considers himself a tribal leader by any stretch, but I suspect he may have unwittingly stepped into the digital shoes of something akin to a village elder as his feed has gained popularity over the past three and a half years.
With a truly global following of loyal Land Rover enthusiasts, what began as an escape from the stress of the nine-to-five has evolved organically both in terms of interest in his posts and how he plans to evolve his hobby. A keen photographer as well as a Land Rover enthusiast, Conrad was sharing his photographs on Flickr long before he combined the interests two by setting up the Island Rovers account on Instagram. Setting himself the task of posting one photo a day – which is a habit he still upholds – he also indulged himself another challenge; to beat the Flickr algorithm, giving his photos the edge when it came to visibility on the site.
It was only logical that his interest in algorithmic outmanoeuvring eventually be carried over to the ever-changing world of Instagram, although he assures me that while it can be an interesting game to play, it isn’t straightforward. Words to avoid, banned hashtags, post and comment lengths – they’re the fundamentals, but engagement is key nowadays, unless you pay to promote posts, and that’s something he’s never been one for. This all suits him absolutely fine though – Island Rovers has grown into its own community of like-minded people, sharing not only advice, opinions and experiences, but often a sense of belonging too.
I’ve no doubt that this savvy approach to social media has helped propel Island Rovers’ ascent, but also have a feeling that the immense popularity of the Land Rover brand, together with its loyal followers’ uncompromising passion for their vehicles has had more than a slight hand in it all. After all, these British behemoths aren’t solely objects of desire – customised and cherished – but often also depended upon as workhorses; a lifeline; a necessity, connecting both people and places out there in the big, wide world as well as online.
Every journey has a beginning, and for Conrad the wheels began turning when he returned to Jersey from university, placed an ad in the JEP reading something along the lines of ‘WANTED: Land Rover’, and proceeded to buy the first one he saw. His parents immediately questioned his choice of such an impractical daily-driver, but he dutifully drove it to and from work for at least a year in defiance of their opinion, until realising that it really wasn’t practical at all – especially during winter months, with its tiny doors and canvas tilt roof – and deciding to tuck it away in his Gran’s garage to hibernate. Twenty-five years down the line, this 1951 Series I – who goes by the name of ‘Her Majesty’ – lives in her very own palace (a wooden garage) at the bottom of his driveway. The seed was sown, however, much earlier in his life when his father bought a two-door Range Rover, packed the whole family into it and took them to Germany on holiday, and, owing to the fond memories amassed during this trip, he’s almost always also kept a Range Rover in the fleet to this day.
Around five years ago, at a time when his contemporaries had reached a point in their lives where they began buying bicycles and Lycra, he decided to buck the trend and invest in another of Solihull’s finest and some canvas instead. It was the style of this first proper project – the Keswick Green V8 Ninety soft-top – that began generating a lot of interest on forums, and continues to do so on Instagram. These were the days before Coolnvintage had become a name synonymous with retro-restorations and with little else like it around at the time it was always bound to draw a crowd. Personally, having seen this car out in the wild in the past, I’d always thought that it was a much more modern Defender rather than a Ninety, despite the Series-inspired lights, half-doors with sliding windows and folding windscreen, on account of the Puma bonnet, AC-spec front panel and what I’d mistaken for Freestyle wheels (they are in fact from a Range Rover). That was until one day I heard it drive past and recognised the unmistakable rumble of a Rover V8. This combination of ingredients results in a recipe that just works, and it’s no wonder that it’s the vehicle that still garners the most attention on the Island Rovers feed, especially when the sun’s out, the roof’s off and the screen is firmly folded down – with a number of people having asked whether it might be for sale over the years. It hasn’t been, and isn’t, of course.
Despite a long career involving public speaking, Conrad tells me he’s found listening back to the video footage of him talking quite tricky ever since making the conscious decision to move away from the anonymity he’d maintained until recently, but that he accepts that in order to grow the account and engage with the community that’s grown around it, having a face and a voice behind it all is a necessity. That’s the social aspect of social media, after all, and from what I’ve seen he’s been embracing it more with each passing day. As a medium for sharing experiences and communicating with others who share his passion, Instagram has proved to be an excellent platform – and one that’s catalysed some fantastic experiences; from an invitation to hit the dunes in Dubai that was extended by someone who’d seen his story post about having just arrived in the emirate on a family holiday, to driving up Mont Blanc in convoy guided by an ex-pat living close to his brother during a visit, again as the result of his Instagram story. Not every tale ends on a high note, however, as Conrad recounts a conversation with a Persian Land Rover enthusiast that turned to a disheartening account of how he dreams of a life outside Iran – and while he is fully aware of how privileged we all are to live in Jersey, he’s keen to point out that, as with the majority of images posted on social media, the images are filtered in both the sense of content and editing, and are purely for the enjoyment of people who like Landies; nothing more, nothing less.
Whether you aspire to own a Land Rover, are an ex-owner, have one stashed away somewhere, drive one every day or just enjoy admiring photos of them, you can be part of the Island Rovers tribe. From cementing your status as a member of the tribe by posting photos of your Island Rovers-stickered Landie (or non-Landie) or wearing an Island Rovers cap with pride, to commissioning an illustration of your Landie, asking for or offering advice and sharing experiences, or – most recently – joining in the fun by making your own pizza in the shape of a Land Rover, there are plenty of ways to share a little slice of Conrad’s passion, and he tells me that seeing these interactions appear on his phone is ‘always a buzz’. To the people who say they’d love to own a Land Rover, but just can’t justify it, Conrad muses that he’s never understood why anybody would actively avoid doing something which is going to provide them with enjoyment. It’s important to dream, but he asks; why do so many of us hold onto a dream without ever turning it into a reality?
Apparently, he says it’s fairly straightforward to convince somebody to buy one, or two, or even three Land Rovers once they feel ‘part of the tribe’, having inspired a few purchases directly both online and face-to-face. One in particular is a Series II now owned by an old schoolfriend that the two of them have spent time working on together, and it’s this sort of real-world interaction that Conrad is hoping to develop next. By that, I don’t mean he’s trying to get everyone in the world to own a Land Rover, but that he plans to spend more time taking people from around the globe up on their invitations to visit, and in turn creating more global content. There are also grand plans for the latest addition to the fleet – a 110 Defender Puma – with the intention to offer it for sale it once it’s received the full Island Rovers treatment, and I for one am very much looking forward to seeing the end result.
While it can be a tough line to walk, one thing that enables the creation of new content are the partnerships that develop with brands, and this is no exception when it comes to Island Rovers, although the way that some of these relationships have formed might surprise you. In short, Conrad built the V8 Ninety to his taste, purchasing the parts required to do so at full cost, but soon found himself inadvertently assuming a the role of both customer services adviser and marketing assistant as a barrage of questions from his followers steadily flowed in. How does it go together? Where can I buy one of those? What did it cost? How does it work? Answering these questions takes time, and as much as he’s always been more than happy to help others, he eventually began to approach the brands selling the products he truly believes in and began to form partnerships with them. My theory is that it’s also a great excuse to buy more Land Rovers – after all, if somebody sends you some Series III parts to try out, you might as well buy the vehicle to match, right? And, roughly-speaking, that’s exactly how he ended up with with blue Series III in his fleet. Maybe it isn’t just others that are so easily influenced…
With over 31,200 followers I suspect that when it comes to Jersey-born social media influencers, he’s surely one of the most successful – but he’s quick to inform me that he’s heard the correct term would be micro-influencer, on account of him being a non-celebrity; a real person doing real things. He feels there’s a genuine appeal for something that isn’t too polished, and has no desire to spend hours labouring over a specific post – it’s just about offering his experiences to the people who want to share them with him. Conrad makes no bones about Island Rovers being a ‘reset’, and we talk about the mental-health aspect of both having a creative outlet to enjoy as well as fellow enthusiasts who can share your pain, offer advice and keep you motivated in the absence of a physical presence when it comes to your hobbies, and it’s at times like these that these niche virtual communities can prove invaluable – something I’ve experienced first-hand speaking with other petrolheads online.
I was curious to find out just how long it takes to create the content and interact with the Island Rovers community on a daily basis, and the answer surprised me. While it took less time before his recent break from working – his reset – began, the answer is just two or three hours a day, on and off. Snap a few photos or shoot some video while walking the dog, load it up and check on comments and direct messages later in the day over a cuppa. Having two teenagers in the house, Conrad’s acutely aware that he can’t be seen to spend half the day on his phone, instead trying to lead by example. Justifying his creative outlet, he stresses that ‘there are creators and there’s an audience – I’d like to think of myself on the creator side’ and that while he does follow other accounts, it can be quite overwhelming following too many.
“I’ve always been keen not to simply say ‘I can’t do that’ – particularly if someone else says to me ‘you can’t do that’” says Conrad; “It just makes me want to do it even more”. On hearing this I can’t help but think that the slightly rebellious streak that jump-started his journey with the purchase of Her Majesty all those years ago is still very much alive within him, and I’ve no doubt it’ll remain that way for as long as the wheels of the world’s Land Rovers are still turning.