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

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