Classic Sports Car
HAPPY BIRTHDAY LAND-ROVER!
C&SC marks 70 years of the world’s favourite 4x4 with a return trip to the Spanish site of the first demo runs
How many of man’s notable achievements have started out as a passing comment; a mad idea; or a scrawl on the back of a beer mat after a few pints of ale? Would the quest for doing something new or out of the ordinary ever have come about if it wasn’t for the simple ethos of ‘I will do it, just because I can’? Would mountains have remained unclimbed? Speed records unbroken? Remote territories uncharted?
Perhaps we’re not talking about quite the same level of endeavour, but when four years ago Land-rover enthusiast Tom Pickford suggested doing “something different” to celebrate the marque’s 70th birthday, he certainly didn’t mean a meet at the local tavern…
On 30 April 1948, three Land-rovers attended the Amsterdam Motor Show and, in doing so, gave what would become known as the Series One its debut to the buying public. Of those three 80in examples, two were ensconced in the main hall, surrounded by the latest offerings from Dodge, Panhard and Renault, but a third was driven from the UK, placed outside and listed as a ‘demonstrator’ – after all, this was a vehicle that would trade upon its practical ability, so it made perfect sense to rely on more than just a static pairing.
That vehicle was chassis L03, now owned by Tim Dines and the third of the pre-production 80in Land-rovers to come out of the Solihull factory. Along with L05 and L07, Dines’ car was charged with showing off The Rover Company’s post-war ‘stop-gap’ vehicle.
The fact that L03 was left outside may not have been entirely intentional, however; as the story goes, development driver Johnny Cullen and Ernie Bacon – son of the manager of The Rover Company’s London depot on Seagrave Road – were a little late arriving in Amsterdam. To save face, and absolve themselves of any blame, they duly reported that there was an issue with the gearbox – even going through the motions of crunching the gears while driving the 80in around the car park.
When the show was over, the pre-production model was taken back to the factory, fettled and registered for the road on Friday 21 May as GWD 431 – becoming the first Land-rover to be road-registered. Interestingly, it also had a new gearbox fitted – possibly due to Bacon’s suggestion that the original was problematic – but less than a month later, L03 was back on European soil at the 16th Barcelona International Trade Fair, this time destined to create its own little piece of history.
The Vallvidrera hills offer a spectacular view over Barcelona and the Balearic Sea, while spinning round by 180º provides a glimpse through the trees of Tibidabo – the tallest mountain in the area, topped by the Temple Expiatori del Sagrat Cor, a Roman Catholic church that was completed in 1961. On 19 June 1948, when the church was in the latter period of its 59-year construction programme, GWD 431 made its way to the foot of the hills and completed a brand first as it demonstrated its considerable capabilities to the assembled motoring press.
The run was arranged by local Rover distributor Romagosa y Compañia SA, and the Spanish
press was out in force, eager to witness the ‘Land-over’ (sic), as it was wrongly tagged by some local publications.
This sort of organised practical display would be commonplace now, particularly for a firm such as Jaguar Land Rover, but at the time this was a new concept. British Army Lieutenant Colonel Myhall and a Mr Waight from Rover carried out the ‘exciting exhibition’, and the reaction certainly appeared to be positive with Mundo Deportivo reporting on its ‘high qualities and excellent climbing behaviour’.
After returning to the UK, L03 became R03 later that same year – conversion to right-hand drive being common practice before most of the pre-production examples left factory ownership. It was destined to remain ‘in the family’ until 1950, however, being run by Geoffrey Wilks, brother of Rover engineer Maurice.
Not until 1974 did current owner Dines set eyes on the 80in, while on a trip to Devon as a 16-year old. “My uncle was an agricultural engineer and used to let me drive his Land-rover on private land when I was around eight,” he explains, “so years later when I spied this example in a farmer’s barn, I knew what it was.”
Unfortunately for Dines, who was keen to bag his first car, the Land-rover wasn’t for sale, but the farmer knew the history and happily told him of its significant past. “You could buy an old Land-rover for around £30 then,” says Dines, “but eventually my dad negotiated its release for the princely sum of £200 – worth it, considering its history.” That was a lot of money, of course, but through a combination of holiday-job earnings and a loan from his sister, the car was his.
Dines set about getting the Land-rover an MOT certificate and then just used it, but eventually it was put in a shed for a number of years before being restored for the 50th-anniversary celebrations in 1998. “I drove it back to show the farmer who had sold it to me,” says Dines, “and he was very happy to see that it had been looked after and was back on the road, but I really did put it through its paces – there’s no point having it if it’s not going to be used as intended.
“I had been sent some photographs in 1983 of my 80in driving up that hillside in Barcelona, but at that time R03 was still waiting to be restored and I failed to find out much more information before the trail went cold.”
Then in 2009 – 26 years later – Dines noticed a post on the Land Rover Series One Club forum asking for help in finding out which was the first Land-rover exported to Spain. Of course, L03 wasn’t exported as such, but he duly replied informing the author, Francesc Serra-graells – known as ‘Paco’ – that his was possibly the first Land-rover to be seen in the country.
That initial contact clearly captured Paco’s imagination and, to Dines’ surprise, kick-started an investigative process that Sherlock Holmes would be proud of. Before long, Paco had made contact with the Photographic Archive of Barcelona, the Classic Motor Club del Bages and the Barcelona-based Land-rover dealer at the time of the demos, and had begun to piece together the history surrounding the event.
Crucially, he had also returned to the Vallvidrera hills and found the precise location of the reported demonstration runs, and was amazed by how little the area had changed.
“After the restoration I really put it through its paces – there’s no point having a Land-rover if it’s not going to be used as its maker intended”
Happily, his dedication was eventually to be repaid, four years after a trip back to Barcelona was initially mooted. “Tom Pickford had posted on the LRSOC forum about possibly putting together a trip to Spain to commemmorate the Trade Fair, and naturally I registered my interest straight away,” says Dines. “Initially the excursion didn’t revolve around GWD, but inevitably that was how it evolved – again thanks to Paco.”
With his prior knowledge of L03’s groundbreaking demonstration run, Paco was soon on board with the trip. After a lot of negotiation, he agreed with park authorities that special dispensation would be granted to recreate that hill climb on what is now private land around the Torre de Collserola – the Norman Fosterdesigned tower built for the 1992 Olympics.
One familiar name that was immediately on the passenger list for a return to Barcelona was former Land-rover engineer Roger Crathorne. “One of the first overseas trips I did in the ’60s was to Barcelona,” he explains, “but I had no idea at the time that something so important in Landrover’s history happened a stone’s throw from where I stayed.” With Crathorne’s support and Paco’s organisation on the Spanish/catalan side, the trip started to come together and on 5 June, a group of seven Series Ones set off from the UK on a ferry bound for Bilbao.
An hour north of Barcelona lies Les Comes, home to one of the most picturesque Land Rover Experience Centres in the world, and as the intrepid travellers pull into the sun-baked courtyard of the 10th-century house on Friday morning, fresh from an overnight stop in a nearby village hotel, there is a triumphant air because they have all made it without major problems. All except one, that is: according to a flurry of messages, GWD 431 is having some fairly major steering issues. Is there really a possibility that the one vehicle that should be here may not actually be present?
Of course not. If there’s one set of qualities that Land-rover fans have, it’s grit, determination and an ability to cope – much like the vehicles themselves. An hour later, GWD is driven gingerly through the courtyard and straight into a waiting garage, where it is descended upon by half a dozen eager bodies.
This is no haphazard approach, however. Some excitable planning the day before means that spare parts – not easy to find for a 1948 production Land-rover, let alone one of the first pre-production examples – have been packed into the luggage of family members and friends joining the expedition by aeroplane. An hour in the workshop confirms suspicions that there is a problem with the steering nut and locker arm – the insert has disintegrated, allowing a quarter of a turn of play at the wheel.
With a replacement fitted and tracking adjusted, there is a spontaneous round of applause as Dines and GWD roll into the courtyard with rather more directional confidence. This success means that we can now convoy into the mountains that make up Les Comes, the sedate pace of second gear in low range affording plenty of time to take in the breathtaking surroundings as the dusty tracks wind their way through 518 hectares of sunburnt rock.
This is verging on heaven for any Land-rover enthusiast and as LR Experience instructor and Dakar Rally competitor Moi Torrallardona leads the convoy in a Heritage Edition Defender, it is almost impossible to absorb the sheer number of tracks spread across the landscape.
With Dines and family leading the Series One patrol in GWD 431, the couple of hours spent navigating the route fly by, in spite of the rising heat – graphically demonstrated by an eagle overhead taking advantage of the thermals to corkscrew its way upwards. All too soon the group congregates back in the courtyard as excitement builds for what has become the focal point of the trip: the opportunity to re-enact that famous demonstration overlooking Barcelona. Following an evening of fabulous food, vehicles, owners and passengers all retire with alarms set for an early wake-up call.
The morning of 9 June dawns in familiar fashion, as a slight haze across the mountains soon lifts to reveal a clear blue sky. A hasty breakfast is consumed before the team gathers to begin the hour-long drive into Barcelona itself.
After the empty roads and tranquility of Les Comes, the traffic and bustle of the city come as a bit of a shock; quite what it would have been like in 1948 is difficult to imagine, but remarkably the group manages to stay together. With the Vallvidrera hills looming ever closer, we begin to climb and aboard GWD a deft double-declutch brings a smooth transition into second as the incline rises and sharp turns lower the speed.
Exiting a left-hand bend suddenly reveals a set of steps ahead, carving through surrounding properties, and those in the know smile: these are the same steps that L03 drove up 70 years ago, on its way to the demonstration.
Another right-hand bend is rounded and without warning we’re faced with the hill, still unmistakable, and as Dines pulls in to the gated incline, the rest of the group buzzes past, aiming for the car park at the top of the hill.
Then there is a strange moment. With the rest of the convoy out of sight, we silently contemplate the gate that blocks our path. Paco has organised access and the fee of several hundred Euros has been paid, but there’s no sign of the key. No problem: making use of the verge as well as the Land-rover’s ability, we’re through with a few inches to spare, and there’s nothing left to do but to fulfil the reason for the trip. Slotting the pre-production Land-rover into low range and selecting second gear, Dines sets off as the rest of us record the occasion on cameras and phones. In less than 200 yards and 60 seconds, the 80in has reached its destination – another gate and, beyond that, trees that block its path.
There’s a sense of anticlimax. This Landrover has made its way from the south of England to the hills of Barcelona; it has recreated a moment in history; but what next? Simple: do it again, and slowly something wonderful happens. Those who had gone to the car park start to wander down the hill and a buzz starts to build. With every run, more people gather: residents of the houses at the bottom of the hill, locals enjoying their daily walk, plus the contents of another five local Land-rovers that have driven to see the spectacle. Suddenly, this is an “I was there when…” event. The hillside begins to look alive – and very similar to how it appeared 70 years ago, when it was packed with people marvelling at the sight of just one vehicle.
There are two types of classic-car owner: those who keep their pride and joy largely to themselves, closely guarding the keys; and those who, regardless of value, are happier to share the experience. Tim Dines is clearly the latter and over the course of the following hour it’s easier to count those who don’t get a chance to drive this historic vehicle up the hill than those that do; crucially, this offer extends to Paco, Pickford and Crathorne – the trio that was so instrumental in bringing the re-enactment together.
I, too, get a turn behind the wheel and, even though it’s over in a flash, the sense of fulfilment is huge. Many a journey in an old Landie can feel momentous, as if a mountain has been climbed, but in this instance that really is the case. It’s proof that what began as a stop-gap in a corner of the Solihull factory is still capable of doing what it was designed to do, 70 years on.
Thanks to Tim Dines, Paco, Roger Crathorne, Moi Torrallardona and Isa Kröger at Les Comes, and JLR
‘The hillside begins to look alive – and very similar to how it appeared 70 years ago, when it was packed with people marvelling at the sight of just one vehicle’