70 YEARS OF LAND ROVER
Did you know about the Land of Land Rovers? We head over to Maneybhanjang in West Bengal
CIRCA 1947. WORLD WAR II is over. But it has led to low demand for Rover’s luxury cars. The demand for steel is growing although the British government disapproves. Bring in the money from overseas sales first, they say. Maurice and Spencer Wilks, owners of Rover, are looking for respite. They spend most of their time at their Anglesey farms in a Willys Jeep, playing around with it, constantly trying to make it better. But they feel that it has certain shortcomings. Their idea first sees light of day on the Anglesey ocean trail as Maurice traces rough sketches of their 4x4 in the damp sand. Next the siblings bring in another Jeep and calibrate it with a Rover engine and ’box. The initial idea is to make a tractor-like vehicle for agricultural use; basically, a Rover for the land. Having worked for 12 months on the project, the legendary Series I is born, also known as ‘Huey’, and bodied in aluminium as steel was still in shortage. Not even a month has passed since its debut and Rover has hit the bull’s eye as customer demand has led to production numbers growing from 100 to 500 per week. Before the advent of the two-door Range Rover in 1970, more than 20 million heritage Landies were sold in over 40 countries and astonishingly, 13 million examples are still in regular use! And, to celebrate 70 years of Land Rover, I’m driving one right here in India!
Welcome to Maneybhanjang in West Bengal for Land Rover’s Indian birthday party. Maneybhanjang is also known as the 'Land of Land Rovers'. The tag does not feel gimmicky when you consider the streets in this sleepy town are ruled by Landies, ranging from Series I to Series IIA Lightweight – not the ubiquitous Maruti Suzukis. In fact, there are 42 Landies here and the popularity has given birth to the Singalila Land Rover Club. But how did this remote part of the country come to be populated with so many heritage Land Rovers?
Back in the days of the Raj, Rover had a showroom
in Calcutta. As Land Rover made its mark across the globe, more than 300 Series I were imported to this part of the world in the fifties, to cater to British tea plantation owners who stayed back and also the wealthy north eastern community. Considering the fact that the Series I cost 450 pounds in the UK, the landed cost of the Landie must have been exorbitant in Indian rupees. However, that did not take away from the popularity of these workhorses, especially here in Maneybhanjang where transporting goods to the higher towns bordering Nepal was a major task. Only ponies were able to tackle the terrain consisting of steep climbs and rocks. The 31km trail to Sandakphu, the highest point in West Bengal and Sikkim could only be served by animals then. One single trip would take days. However, one of the thoughtful blokes bought a Series 1 in 1958 and took it to the mountains.
As Spencer and Maurice would have it, their workhorse managed to climb the treacherous terrain without any hiccups and there has been no looking back since then. The Landies have become a part of local pop culture and several members consider the 4x4s as family, not willing to give up on them even today, after 60 years. One of them is Samantha Dong, one of the most skilful drivers I’ve ever met during my entire journey on four wheels.
Samantha’s grandfather bought the Series II A Lightweight, also known as ‘Airportable’ way back in 1971. The Series II weighed 1202kg, lighter than the regular Series II by 150kg, which allowed the Royal Marines to air-drop the 4x4. Not via Wifi and Bluetooth but from a rope dangling from a Westland Wessex helicopter. Unlike the Series 1 that had petrol engines the Series II had a 2.25-litre diesel motor, helping Samantha’s grandfather bring down 600 kilos of potatoes to the town from Sandakphu. And they say grandpa Dong used to traverse the path five to seven times a day! Today, the route has been concretised for the major part,
The steering is more like a puzzle, requiring three locks for a hairpin turn
yet it took us over three hours, one way. Samantha has been driving the Airportable for over ten years and tells us that servicing the 4x4 isn’t a problem at all. There are three mechanics in Darjeeling who have a large enough inventory of recycled parts. If maintained well, the old workhorse rarely needs any repairs she says. The car has made fortunes for families and given their life a new meaning. “You never put a price on your family member, do you?”, she says when I enquire about selling the Landie. Another chap who has been frequenting the Maneybhanjang-Sandakphu route is Tenzin Tashi in his 1953 Series 1. Unlike the Series II, this one has the 1.6-litre petrol – it made a modest 55bhp back in the day and must have lost half those horses over the years, yet it climbs like a mountain goat.
As we fought elements, the convoy reached Chitrey, the point where I slid into the driver’s seat. Unsurprisingly, it did not come with any seat adjustments, never mind seatbelts. Never has a steering wheel fouled with my knees, but here it does and I have to sit legs splayed out. The pedals are hard enough for a good leg workout, while the spartan dashboard comes with natural air conditioning, thanks to manually opening slits below the windshield. And it lets in all the engine heat, good enough to grille some tandoori tangdis on the move. “Put it into 4-low,” Samantha says. Erm, how do I do that? She points at the yellow stick protruding from the floor; I give it a slight shove and we’re set. There’s so much torque available that she asks me to slot it into second, and I oblige. When you’re dealing with someone’s family, would you ever take risks? Depress the clutch and the Series II begins crawling through the trail without even accelerating! The steering is more like a puzzle, requiring three locks for a hairpin turn, but once you’ve found the right pieces, it’s a lot of fun to play with. Rocks, slush, pavement, grass, potholes, pits; it ponies over everything. You feel every mechanical bit working to keep it moving
and that, in today’s times is a surreal feeling as cars become easier to drive with each passing day while some even have a mind of their own. With its simple and raw nature the Airportable has an inexplicable charm. And I love it to bits! Goes on to explain why Landies are still used as cabs today in this region, packing in more passengers than the legal number.
On the way back down, I was forced to drive the Discovery Sport. Okay forced is probably the wrong word, but the old girl was so much fun I did not want to drive the new Landie. And I was in for a shock after the bare-bodied Series II. Here you are cocooned with bucketloads of gadgetry, oodles of leather, bags full of creature comforts and truck loads of driving assists. “Wow, it has air-conditioning and seatbelts even!” said photographer Rohit, leading to an awkward silence in the SUV we were sharing with other journos. What hasn’t changed even today is the go-anywhere trait of the Land Rover. It still straddles different classes and despite the world moving to soft-roaders, it retains its go-anywhere ability. Though the blueprints on the Anglesey shore have long washed away, the legend is still alive. Not just on the road, but also in people’s hearts. ⌧
Right: Rover origins still visible on a few heritage Landies.Below: Samantha is an exceptional driver, while your correspondent is an exceptional passenger.Facing page, top: The 1953 Series 1 showing the Discovery how its done.Facing page, below: The Series II tackling some mud; basically a walk in the park for it