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Chelsea tractor

noun [countable] British

a large, four-wheel drive vehicle such as a Land Rover™ which is driven in towns and cities for ordinary domestic purposes

'Drivers of 4x4 vehicles would face higher taxes in an attempt to persuade them to switch to more environmentally friendly vehicles, the Liberal Democrat conference was told … Matthew Taylor, the chairman of the Liberal Democrats' parliamentary party, said the so-called "Chelsea tractors" used more fuel and were dangerous to pedestrians.'

The Telegraph 22nd September 2004

There are currently around 1.2 million 4x4 vehicles in the United Kingdom, and in the United States, sales of four-wheel drives and trucks outnumber those of traditional cars. A typical 4x4 vehicle does around ten miles to the gallon (or 3.5 km to 1 litre), compared to about 40 miles to the gallon (or 14 km to 1 litre) for an average car. 4x4 vehicles occupy more space on already crowded roads, disperse a greater level of harmful emissions than standard domestic cars, and are more likely to cause serious or fatal injury, yet the appearance of 4x4 vehicles bearing names such as Defender, Explorer, Discovery and Shogun is an increasingly familiar sight on residential streets and in supermarket car parks.

the Chelsea tractor is very much a city vehicle, used for short trips such as collecting children from school … or shopping sprees

Amidst the observation that such vehicles are fast becoming a middle-class status symbol, despite the environmental hazards they potentially pose, Chelsea tractor has begun to establish itself in popular use during recent months.

Although the use of the word tractor relates to the original use of vehicles such as the Land Rover™ as a means of transportation for farmers in rough terrains, the Chelsea tractor is very much a city vehicle, used for short trips such as collecting children from school (mum truck might also be used in this context) or shopping sprees. Chelsea tractor has very disapproving overtones, coined by environmentalists to refer to the latest fashion in gas guzzlers (a well-established term for cars that are expensive to drive because they use too much fuel). An equally disapproving term often used is the phrase Yank tank, referring to the fashion for domestic use of these vehicles spreading from across the Atlantic. A more neutral reference to this type of vehicle is the term SUV, short for Sports Utility Vehicle.

Chelsea tractor is fast becoming a buzz word in UK environmental policy, with the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives recently unveiling plans to impose an extra tax on such vehicles should they win power at the next general election.

Background – Chelsea tractor

Chelsea tractor was coined by environmentalists to reflect the popularity of four-wheel drive vehicles with middle-class families living in wealthy areas. The use of tractor relates to the original use of vehicles such as the Land Rover™ by farmers in the countryside. Chelsea is a district of London popular with the rich and famous. Its use in the phrase was possibly inspired by the fact that the Chelsea district encompasses Sloane Square, itself the basis of the 1970s term Sloane (Ranger), a derogatory reference to young, upper-class, English women, which puns on Lone Ranger, the title of a popular 1950s TV show.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 14th February 2005.

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