Un­earthing a clas­sic; as in, pulling it out of the ground

Wheels (Australia) - - Contents - WORDS MARK WAL­TON PHO­TOS WIL­SON HEN­NESSEY

ERIOUSLY, af­ter all this time, you’d think there’d be no more barn finds left to find. With the clas­sic car mar­ket froth­ing like cham­pagne in a blender, surely there isn’t an un­opened shed left in the world. Every­one’s dream is to lift a rusty garage door and dis­cover your el­derly aunt has been hid­ing a long-lost Fa­cel Vega, once owned by Elvis. In 2018, aren’t we at least a decade too late for all that?

Well, the sto­ries keep com­ing: in 2016 a Lam­borgh­ini Miura was dragged out of a tiny back-street garage in the US, cov­ered in dust, af­ter nearly 20 years in hiber­na­tion. In 2017, Steve Mc­queen’s Bul­litt Mus­tang, no less, turned up in a Mex­i­can scrap­yard af­ter be­ing lost for nearly 50 years.

And now this car. Not just any old Land Rover. Not just one of a hand­ful of su­per-col­lectable pre-pro­duc­tion cars. This is the ac­tual launch car from the 1948 Am­s­ter­dam mo­tor show, where the Land Rover was first re­vealed to the world, 70 years ago. An in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant car that un­til re­cently was aban­doned in a back gar­den about five kays from where it was built in Soli­hull, Eng­land.

In some ways this story is even more re­mark­able than those of barn-find Lam­borgh­i­nis and long-lost Fer­raris. Not be­cause of value but be­cause Land Rovers are for nerds, ob­ses­sives and trainspot­ters. The early Se­ries 1s have got to be among the most en­er­get­i­cally re­searched and doc­u­mented cars of all time: chas­sis num­bers are cat­a­logued, ar­chives are trawled, for­mer en­gi­neers are tracked down, dragged out of old peo­ple’s homes and pumped for in­for­ma­tion. No one es­capes the Se­ries 1 In­qui­si­tion! So how could the Am­s­ter­dam show car dis­ap­pear for so long?

To an­swer that, we need to go back to the be­gin­ning – and if you’ve heard this story a thou­sand times, feel free to skip a cou­ple of para­graphs…

The Land Rover story be­gins in 1947 in An­gle­sey. Mau­rice Wilks, the tech­ni­cal direc­tor of Rover, owns a farm there, where he uses a de­mobbed army Jeep as a farm hack. Raw ma­te­ri­als are scarce in post-war Britain, and the gov­ern­ment is only sup­port­ing firms that can ex­port the na­tion out of its knee-high fi­nan­cial

ma­nure. Wilks knows that, as a lux­ury car maker, Rover isn’t go­ing to be build­ing lux­ury cars any time soon, so he has an idea: how about an agri­cul­tural ve­hi­cle, a light­weight car­trac­tor? A Bri­tish Jeep, in other words, that im­proves on his old farm hack?

So, us­ing another ex-army Jeep as a guinea pig, Wilks de­vel­ops a sin­gle, crude pro­to­type with a Rover P3 en­gine and gear­box, three seats and a steer­ing wheel in the mid­dle (which at the time seemed like a good idea for ex­ports, but proved to be a ter­ri­ble idea for legroom).

Mov­ing with suit­able we’re-all-about-to-go-bust post-war haste, Rover quickly pro­gresses from that sin­gle proof-of­con­cept to the pre-pro­duc­tion stage: 50 chas­sis, of which 48 are built up into com­pleted cars, all num­bered 01, 02, 03 etc, pre­fixed with ei­ther an R or an L de­pend­ing on whether it was right-hand or left-hand drive (the cen­tre-steer idea was dropped as soon as some­one tried to drive it).

The re­mains of those 48 pre-prod cars are now holy relics to the Land Rover fra­ter­nity. Mike Bishop, Land Rover Clas­sic’s Se­ries 1 ex­pert, tells me around 20 pre-prod cars have sur­vived. “There are a cou­ple where lit­er­ally a buff log­book is all that’s left,” he says, “but at least we know when their lives fin­ished. Of the com­plete cars, they rarely come up for sale – R12 sold about eight years ago, but it wasn’t re­ally pub­lic. They tend to sell from one col­lec­tor to another.”

I ask him how much they go for. “I’m prob­a­bly not the best per­son to an­swer that, be­cause I own R16!” Bishop ad­mits. “But it’s easy to spec­u­late it would be in six fig­ures nowa­days for a pre-pro­duc­tion Land Rover.”

The most fa­mous of the early cars is the first, chas­sis R01, known as ‘Huey’ af­ter its num­ber plate, HUE 166. Huey’s a celebrity – the fi­nal, lim­ited-edi­tion De­fender Her­itage mod­els in 2015 all had HUE graph­ics. Huey was built in March 1948, and he was saved for pos­ter­ity by Mau­rice Wilks him­self. “In 1949, Huey was put to use on a farm near the Wilks’ home near Ke­nil­worth,” ex­plains Bishop. “It was there un­til 1955, when Wilks res­cued it and put it in the Birm­ing­ham Sci­ence Mu­seum. It was used for Land Rover’s 10th birth­day cel­e­bra­tions in 1958, when it was placed on a mas­sive cake. It’s now owned by the Bri­tish Mo­tor Mu­seum.”

Just six chas­sis af­ter Huey, Rover built the car you’re look­ing at now. Su­san Tonks takes up the story – Su­san’s an en­gi­neer who has been with Jaguar Land Rover for 18 years, the last six months of which has been with Land Rover Clas­sic, and she’s now this car’s restora­tion project leader. “It was orig­i­nally left-hand drive, so the chas­sis was stamped L07,” she ex­plains. “It left the fac­tory on 27 April 1948, and was driven to Am­s­ter­dam in time for the car’s of­fi­cial un­veil­ing on the 30th.”

Ha! Any­one who’s driven a Se­ries 1 Land Rover for three kays will guf­faw at the idea of this car, can­vas flap­ping and gear­box dron­ing, driv­ing nearly 500km to the Nether­lands.

“They put chas­sis L05 on the stand, in­side the show it­self,’ con­tin­ues Tonks. “This car was the driv­ing demon­stra­tor, used out­side by the press.”

Of course, we know how well the show went – Rover’s post­war, stop-gap model be­came a gi­gan­tic suc­cess, and a global brand in its own right. But be­tween the launch in April and the first cars go­ing into pro­duc­tion in July, there was still a lot of work to do. “Af­ter the launch, L07 went to Rover’s en­gine depart­ment, where parts were changed, tested and up­graded to pro­duc­tion spec,” Tonks ex­plains. “We be­lieve this is when it was con­verted to right-hand drive, and you can see on the chas­sis where they stamped an R over the L to make it R07.”

It stayed at Soli­hull un­til June 1955, when it was sold to its first pri­vate owner, but here’s where its im­por­tance as the 1948 show car be­gins to get lost in the fog. On the dis­patch note it’s recorded as E07, pre­sum­ably be­cause it was the Ex­per­i­men­tal Depart­ment that built the pre­prod cars. Also, its first reg­is­tra­tion num­ber – SNX 910 – never showed up in Rover’s own records, be­cause it was

Rover’s post-war, stop-gap model be­came a huge suc­cess, and a global brand in its own right

reg­is­tered by its new owner the day af­ter he’d bought it.

So, like a rare Ro­man coin slipped into your pocket, R07 dis­ap­peared into all that loose change on Britain’s roads, and was lost. The orig­i­nal log­book (which mirac­u­lously still ex­ists) shows the car was sold on to new own­ers in Sut­ton Cold­field, then Strat­ford-upon-avon, be­fore end­ing up in Wales in 1968. It was parked in a field and used as a static power source for 20 years, its power take-off run­ning a farmer’s wood saw. Twenty years of sit­ting out in the rain and the frost, over­grown by net­tles and in­hab­ited by wildlife, un­til even­tu­ally the en­gine seized and its work­ing life was over.

In 1988 it was sold to a col­lec­tor of early Land Rovers who – iron­i­cally – lived just five kilo­mtres from the Land Rover fac­tory, back in Soli­hull. This en­thu­si­ast knew the car was spe­cial, pos­si­bly a pro­to­type, but didn’t re­alise its full sig­nif­i­cance. So the car stayed in his gar­den, await­ing a restora­tion that never came, un­til 2016, when he de­cided to clear it out. By then the car was up to its axles in mud, and it had to be jacked up be­fore it could be hauled out of its shal­low grave. Through a net­work of tip-offs, news of the car reached Land Rover Clas­sic, who bought it for an undis­closed sum.

It’s worth not­ing Mike Bishop al­ready knew the sig­nif­i­cance of the car be­fore it was found: “From doc­u­men­ta­tion and pho­to­graphs, we knew the only cars that were built and avail­able to go to Am­s­ter­dam were chas­sis 01 to 08, and we knew they were left-hand drive, which means they were odd num­bers [apart from Huey, right­hand-drive chas­sis were evens]. By a process of elim­i­na­tion, we knew the miss­ing L07 was one of them.

“Other early cars had been traced though old MOT records, that kind of thing,” ex­plains Bishop. “But 7 was one of the few pre-prod cars we didn’t have the reg­is­tra­tion for, so we had no knowl­edge of what had hap­pened to it. For it then to just ap­pear, out of the wood­work, was fan­tas­tic. I was at home late one evening and a friend of mine who’s a Land Rover his­to­rian rang up and said, “You’re never go­ing to be­lieve this, I’ve got some­one who’s got chas­sis num­ber 7!” He sent me a photo and as soon as I saw it, I knew; I could tell by the pre-pro­duc­tion fea­tures. I went to have a look at it about a week later, and con­firmed it – we’d found the miss­ing num­ber 7.”

Hand on heart, I can­not claim that an au­di­ence with the 1948 Am­s­ter­dam show Land Rover is like be­ing in the pres­ence of a Mille Miglia-win­ning Maserati or an ex-senna Mclaren. If you didn’t know any bet­ter, you’d think you were look­ing at scrap.

But if I could get po­etic for a mo­ment (cue rous­ing mu­sic) there’s some­thing beau­ti­ful in the scars and scrapes, a no­bil­ity in its flak­ing paint and sag­ging sus­pen­sion, the hall­marks of a life lived to the full.

It’s called patina and it’s worth a for­tune. The paint is like some kind of Jack­son Pol­lock, a ran­dom mo­saic of three dis­tinct colours, with an al­loy base-layer be­neath. “The

light green is the orig­i­nal paint from the Am­s­ter­dam show,” ex­plains Su­san Tonks. “It was then painted dark green, and at some point in its life it was painted blue.”

Most of the pan­els are orig­i­nal, and just by tap­ping you can hear the thicker al­loy in the outer wings and the one, sur­viv­ing pre-prod door. “The curves on the front guards are slightly dif­fer­ent too – they were ob­vi­ously try­ing things out on the pre-pro­duc­tion cars,” says Tonks.

The rear tub is also pro­to­type, though the rear lights are later ad­di­tions; the tail­gate is pre-pro­duc­tion with a lot more re­in­force­ment than the fi­nal spec. The bon­net, wind­screen and axles are all orig­i­nal. The en­gine is seized, but it too is orig­i­nal, stamped num­ber 6. The brakes were an ex­per­i­men­tal Lock­heed sys­tem, later con­verted to pro­duc­tion-spec Gir­ling. The plan is to re-make the Lock­heed sys­tem from scratch us­ing archived draw­ings. Amaz­ingly, the steer­ing wheel is orig­i­nal too, its Bake­lite proudly pol­ished up by the Clas­sic team. How on earth did that brit­tle plas­tic sur­vive 70 years of ne­glect and hard­ship? There are so many de­tails that make you shake your head in won­der. “It’s un­doubt­edly the most orig­i­nal sur­vivor of all the pre­pro­duc­tion cars,” says Tonks.

Most amaz­ing of all, though, is the con­di­tion of the steel chas­sis. Hand-made back in 1948, it was gal­vanised, un­like the later pro­duc­tion cars that were painted (gal­vanis­ing was dropped for mass pro­duc­tion be­cause of the fin­ish­ing re­quired, drilling the zinc out of all the blocked-up bolt holes). Climb­ing un­der the car for a closer look, the chas­sis is amaz­ingly solid given it spent the best part of four decades planted in the ground like a car­rot: here and there you can still see the sil­very gal­vanised fin­ish; else­where there’s a white, salty look­ing crust, but no rust and no ragged holes.

That can’t be said of the bulk­head, the ver­ti­cal steel wall be­tween the en­gine bay and the cabin. This is the weak spot of all Se­ries 1s, so much so they’re re-man­u­fac­tured and gal­vanised nowa­days, for re­stor­ers. This car wasn’t so lucky – again, it’s clearly hand­made and crudely formed com­pared to later pro­duc­tion cars, and it was painted. The weather has rav­aged the steel, and there are big holes in the footwells.

Of course, it can be fixed – cut out the rust and weld in the new – but the bulk­head ques­tion goes straight to the heart of the chal­lenge fac­ing the Land Rover Clas­sic team: how far should they go to re­store this car? Should it be re­built at all? And if so, to which spec? Left-hand-drive Am­s­ter­dam? Or Welsh farmer sawmill? The bulk­head is key: there are lots of early Se­ries 1s com­ing over from Aus­tralia these days with a lovely patina. But it looks re­ally odd if the faded pan­els are left but the rust­ing bulk­head is re­stored to a glossy, greeny new­ness. Patina is as frag­ile as a snowflake – touch it and it melts away.

“It def­i­nitely won’t be a Re­born car,” says Tonks, re­fer­ring to Land Rover Clas­sic’s fac­tory-fresh Se­ries 1 pro­gram. “The idea is to pre­serve the patina – though to re­turn it to a proper, func­tion­ing con­di­tion we do need to de­cide, what do we re­place or re­pair? Do we re­pair then ‘age’ the bulk­head, so it looks in keep­ing with the rest of the car?”

Which­ever way the team de­cides to go, the plan is for the car to take cen­tre stage in Land Rover’s 70th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tions this spring, and then it’ll be painstak­ingly dis­man­tled, doc­u­mented to death and re­built within 12 months (some­how).

But if you think that’s the last one, don’t worry. The other car at the Am­s­ter­dam show in 1948, chas­sis L05, has also never been found – it might still be out there, sit­ting in a field or a gar­den, up to its axles. Even more in­trigu­ingly, the where­abouts of the orig­i­nal cen­tre-steer pro­to­type has never been con­clu­sively pinned down ei­ther. Was it torn apart, or turned back into a Jeep and sold, or did Mau­rice Wilks save it and park it some­where?

I’ve de­cided to go to An­gle­sey this weekend, to start open­ing barn doors.

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