In­side Land Rover’s 70th birth­day

Driv­ing Se­ries I and last-of-the-line De­fender

CAR (UK) - - Contents - Words Ben Miller | Pho­tog­ra­phy Alex Tap­ley

ICAN’T QUITE work out why I’m so happy. Some el­e­ments of my present sit­u­a­tion – the rugged, pho­to­genic land­scape of scrub, rock and crum­bling ru­ins; the sun-soaked late-sum­mer heat; the fact that there’s an en­gine and move­ment in­volved – are long-es­tab­lished good-time in­gre­di­ents. But oth­ers aren’t ac­cepted mood im­provers. Stuff like the heavy­weight vi­bra­tion, the mild poi­son­ing by en­gine fumes, the fact that my un-creamed skin is turn­ing an­gry with ex­po­sure to sun and wind, the ad­vanced de­hy­dra­tion and the fact that a 70-year-old slab of alu­minium is ham­mer­ing my back­side like a sheet-al­loy bat­ter­ing ram.

What­ever, I’m def­i­nitely happy. Where I nor­mally have to check my de­fault scowl, con­sciously sub­bing in a grin when­ever I re­mem­ber, right now there’s a big dumb smile on my face; a smile born of sim­ple plea­sures and an ab­sence of stress or worry. Like a chimp I’m cling­ing to the load­bay of Rob Sprayson’s un­re­stored Se­ries I as it bounds over end­less off-road tracks, the Land Rover by turns clam­ber­ing up climbs that are more scree than firm slope, blat­ting along dry riverbeds of tal­cum-pow­der sand and ca­reen­ing down hill­sides so washe­d­out the gul­leys could swal­low a boar.

Rob’s at the wheel, his dust-ad­dled beard, blood­shot eyes and filthy neck scarf mak­ing him look for all the world like an SAS Desert Rat two weeks into an op­er­a­tion. Rob works for Land Rover, as a sub­ject mat­ter ex­pert for Land Rover Clas­sic (a ‘su­per-nerd rivet counter’, as he puts it) but his fond­ness for the brand goes way be­yond that of even keen em­ployee – he bought and re­stored his first Se­ries Land Rover (which he still owns) be­fore he was old enough to drive. He and his love for Land Rover are in­di­vis­i­ble.

As well as driv­ing and restor­ing Land Rovers, Rob’s also a kind of young In­di­ana Jones for aged Soli­hull 4x4s – an al­lac­tion ar­chae­ol­o­gist who scours the globe for sur­vivor cars, chas­ing up a dozen dead-end leads for ev­ery barn-find Holy Grail. It’s the re­ally early cars, the first 1500 or so Se­ries Is built be­fore pro­duc­tion ramped up (with a tell-tale pressed front bulk­head) that re­ally float Rob’s boat, and the car I’m rid­ing in – and that’s busy bat­ter­ing my be­hind – is an elo­quent ar­gu­ment for the good sense of his en­deav­ours. It is gor­geous: an un­re­stored, 70-yearold jewel of au­to­mo­tive his­tory that runs like clock­work, spreads joy like free sweets and shows just 21,800 miles on its orig­i­nal in­stru­ments.

We’ve been climb­ing for some time, the Land Rover bound­ing ever up­ward to­wards the top of the ridge and the cloudless blue sky be­yond. Then our con­voy – a steady stream of ev­ery kind of Land Rover, from Se­ries cars through P38 Range Rovers and De­fend­ers to cut ’n’ jacked-up Dis­cos – grinds to a halt, im­ply­ing a tricky bit up ahead. Sure enough the track sweeps back on it­self in a vi­ciously cam­bered hair­pin be­fore climb­ing once more in the form of a steep-sided gul­ley that looks for all the world like a Los An­ge­les storm drain that got lost.

I jump out at Rob’s in­sis­tence: the Se­ries I’s rollover pro­tec­tion ex­tends to some very frail-look­ing hood sticks and, if you have one, a sun hat. I take up a van­tage point and watch a Land Rover Ex­pe­ri­ence in­struc­tor guide each ve­hi­cle through, his calm in­struc­tions a stark con­trast with the mael­strom of wheel­spin, scream­ing en­gines and tor­tured clutches his or­ders bring about. Sev­eral De­fend­ers strug­gle, and at one point, as he waits his turn, Rob’s ad­vised to turn back. No chance.4

AN UN­RE­STORED, 70 YEAR OLD JEWEL OF AU­TO­MO­TIVE HIS­TORY THAT RUNS LIKE CLOCK­WORK AND SPREADS JOY LIKE FREE SWEETS

In­stead he guns the lit­tle Se­ries I into the thick of it, its sweet petrol four-pot and very ob­vi­ous lack of weight, bulk or com­plex­ity prov­ing more se­cret weapon than Achilles’ heel. Af­ter the briefest of pauses for thought – and one lightly scuffed door – he’s through, scam­per­ing up and out of sight as us on­look­ers just shake our heads and ap­plaud. ‘What a car!’ pro­claims the guide. It’s hard to ar­gue.

I jump back in, gulp some wa­ter and try to spread the pos­te­rior pun­ish­ment to the other cheek as we loop back to­ward base. Quite sud­denly the maze of dusty trails comes to an end and we’re spat out into a great ex­panse of dirt that’d look like a quarry were it not teem­ing with tents, peo­ple and, as far as you can see in ev­ery di­rec­tion, Land Rovers.

Wel­come to Les Comes and La gran fi­esta de Land Rover, Land Rover’s big­gest of­fi­cial 70th birth­day party. New De­fender might be fash­ion­ably late but that hasn’t put a damp­ener on a string of an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tions across the globe. An an­nual event at an of­fi­cial Land Rover Ex­pe­ri­ence Cen­tre an hour out­side Barcelona, Les Comes is a heady blend of fam­ily-friendly Glas­ton­bury and Mad Max mo­tor mad­ness. Kids wear­ing price­less con­cen­tra­tion faces guide ra­dio-con­trol Camel Tro­phy De­fend­ers over a care­fully con­structed 1:10 scale rock-crawl­ing course. The breeze smells of dust, tastes like paella. From the camp­sites, groups of friends mount raids on the web of fab­u­lous trails that sur­round the site, bowl­ing into the rough stuff like a US army Humvee charge while fam­i­lies in Range Rovers pick their way through with less bravado, less dust and more po­lite con­ver­sa­tion in their air-con­di­tioned co­coons. It’s fairly ob­vi­ous that ev­ery­one’s hav­ing a blast.

Rob parks the Se­ries I, gets some wa­ter on the stove for tea and tells me about his car.

‘A bit of re­search and some cold-call­ing turned up a car orig­i­nally sold to a Brian Bush of Goul­burn, New South Wales – a big sheep-shear­ing town,’ says Rob. ‘He’d sold it to an­other gent, WM Chisholm, who used it on a few sheep sta­tions. But it did very lit­tle work, rel­a­tively speak­ing – it had an easy life. And in my ex­pe­ri­ence these cars tend to sur­vive if they made it through the first 10 years.

‘When they fin­ished with it, the Chisholms put the car up on blocks in a barn. That was 32 years ago, and that’s how I found it – as you see here; dusty but orig­i­nal but for a few failed spot-welds. The con­di­tion of the en­gine was con­sis­tent with the mileage – it was still on its orig­i­nal pis­tons – but I reckon it did quite a bit of power take-off work; you could tell from the gear­box bear­ings.

‘I shipped it back to Perth and gave it a com­plete me­chan­i­cal re­build; diff, gear­box, axles. Then I bed­ded it in around Perth and trucked it back to Goul­burn be­fore driv­ing it to Aus­tralia’s 70 Years of Land Rover cel­e­bra­tions; 1500 miles, in­clud­ing 200 miles of proper off-road­ing in the Snowy moun­tains.’

If, like low-level radiation, nor­mal life gen­tly buzzes you with the temp­ta­tion to buy an old Land Rover, a day at Les Comes is like a few hours wan­der­ing Ch­er­nobyl wear­ing de­plet­e­du­ra­nium trousers. If you can leave with­out hunt­ing through De­fender or Se­ries II clas­si­fieds as soon as your phone gets a sig­nal, you’re a stronger man than I. And if you al­ready own one, this is surely heaven on Earth – hence the glut of Bri­tish4

at­ten­dees, most of whom drove down, cross­ing the Pyre­nees on the miles of stun­ning trails that criss-cross the moun­tain range.

Land Rover Ex­pe­ri­ence trails are usu­ally to be driven only un­der in­struc­tion, usu­ally in one of the cen­tre’s ve­hi­cles (new own­ers are of­fered a day at a cen­tre, to learn that their car is a more ac­com­plished off-roader than they are) but at Les Comes it’s a free for all: drive the trails (colour-coded for dif­fi­culty, like ski runs) as you like. The per­fect car for the job? Some­thing that neatly book­ends the Se­ries I/De­fender story, per­haps. Some­thing mod­ern but redo­lent of Land Rover’s awe­some her­itage. Some­thing like a Her­itage Fi­nal Edi­tion 90 and the 2,016,930th – or fourth-last – De­fender ever built, per­haps. Per­fect.

At first I’m too tense. On the road you’re sen­si­tive to ev­ery move­ment of a car’s body; keyed in to ev­ery sub­tle shift and alive to ev­ery sur­face change and im­per­fec­tion. Off-road you have to learn to re­lax, re­mind your­self that all the bang­ing and crash­ing is nor­mal and learn to cut through the vi­bra­tion and white noise to the same fun­da­men­tal equa­tion: the grip and slip at your four con­tact points. I’m aware too of this car’s value (much more than a Her­itage 90 cost new: £28k be­fore op­tions) and prove­nance.

But right away the De­fender goes about putting you at ease, not least with its fa­mil­iar­ity: the driv­ing po­si­tion to give an er­gonomist night­mares, the lazy yet rest­less steer­ing and the cramped in­te­rior that soon has you in­ti­mate with the driver’s door at your el­bow. Then there’s the tur­bod­iesel en­gine, which is noth­ing to lis­ten to but that soon in­gra­ti­ates it­self with its puppy-dog en­thu­si­asm and im­pres­sive flex­i­bil­ity; chug it just off idle or buzz it hard – it doesn’t mind. The gearshift, un­like even a good Se­ries I, is slick and ef­fort­less.

The early trails, stray rocks aside, you could tackle in a Corsa. But it isn’t long be­fore the go­ing steep­ens. Let the speed die right away, then into low-range and lock the cen­tre diff via the lit­tle red-col­lared trans­fer lever next to the gear­lever. Now I can pull away in sec­ond, third feels like first and sud­denly no climb is too steep for a car of im­pres­sive ver­sa­til­ity: right now you’d need a mo­tocross bike to fol­low it, and yet the De­fender drove here in rel­a­tive (let’s not get car­ried away) com­fort.

I’m soon lost in the chal­lenge of bounc­ing across this Span­ish Sa­hara with­out get­ting stuck or scratch­ing the De­fender. The driv­ing’s mes­meris­ing, whether we’re care­fully pick­ing our way down great stair­cases of splin­tered rock, pot­ter­ing along dusty trails scented with wild rose­mary or paus­ing, en­gine off, to drink in the quiet and the car. You could spend hours look­ing at a Her­itage De­fender; the time­less 90 sil­hou­ette, the sil­ver bumpers that nod to the chas­sis of early Se­ries Is, the cute HUE 166 mark­ings (a nod to the reg of the world’s old­est Land Rover). Park it on top of a moun­tain just as the sun’s drop­ping to the hori­zon and the light’s go­ing warm and trea­cly and mag­i­cal and those hours could be­come days. And at that point, wor­ry­ingly, the ques­tion is no longer whether or not you need a Land Rover in your life but which one.

With thanks to Kim Palmer and Rob Sprayson for the use of their cars

Se­ries I doesn’t have Ter­rain Re­sponse but doesn’t re­ally have any weightei­ther

[Above] Other than this dis­play, the Ve­lar was con­spic­u­ous by its ab­sence at Les Comes – maybe its time will come

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