Behind the Steering Wheel [Courtesy of Rovers Magazine]
By Jeffrey Aronson
It’s every enthusiast’s dream and nightmare rolled into one. The newly-revived Downeast Land Rover Club put out a call in late January for a shop day, a chance to have your Land Rover poked and prodded by strangers who claim to know what they’re doing. Admit it, it’s hugely entertaining to work on someone else’s Rover, and equally frightening to watch your Rover pawed over by strangers.
Mind you, the shop day did attract genuine professionals to Walter Elwell’s three bay garage in rural Lincolnville, ME. You saw quickly that Walter had real skills; the fiberglass shell of a Damlier SP-250 occupied one bay; the burnished shell of a VW Kombi Double Cab filled the other. No one tackles those cars without considerable talent. Carey Knaus, a recent emigre to Maine who revived the Downeast Club, works as a service technician for East Coast Rover. Doug Foster and Richard Betts have spent much time improving and/or modifying their Rovers. Wisely they all stood back to watch the carnage, intervening only when our collective ineptitude threatened life or delayed departure.
The rapacious cost of a ticket aboard the Maine State Ferry Service kept my Land Rover on the island, but my Triumph TR-7, already on the mainland, got me to the event on time. I arrived to find Rick Bonnett’s late Series II-A soft top in the garage, hood up, like a patient at a dentist’s office. I changed into my boiler suit and jumped onto his front bumper, ready to get in the way – think “Little Shop of Horrors.” Walter watched for a moment, stared in disbelief at my TR-7, and noted “I wouldn’t let anyone who drives a TR-7 work on my car!” One point for Walter.
Rick’s first request involved the installation of an engine heater, an electric device that would warm the car’s coolant prior to starting, and swapping out his thermostat for a winter temperature one. Draining the radiator [minus a drain plug or spigot] meant removing the bottom hose and splashing antifreeze onto the differential, resulting in much of it missing the drain pan below. We promised Walter we would clean up the mess.
Rick then cut the bottom hose to install the heater, which subsequently faced the wrong direction such that if he started the car, the fan would instantly slice the electric cord in half. For a change, I caught this in advance. Disassembly was the opposite of assembly and this time, we got it right (we never actually plugged it in to see if it worked – two points for Walter).
I managed to remove the thermostat housing without breaking any of the long bolts but we found the thermostat thoroughly stuck in the housing. Fortunately, Walter had a sandblast cabinet, and by cleaning up the inside, the new Genuine Parts thermostat snuggled right into its slot (three points for Walter). We tightened up all the clamps and bolts, filled the system with fresh antifreeze, and started it up. Nothing leaked but the engine chugged and vibrated more than expected.
Rick said his efforts at adjusting his Weber had been unsuccessful in improving smoothness. So we turned to the ignition. After checking the points gap we borrowed a timing light from Walter. I felt a notch on the pulley, loosened the clamp on the distributor, and proceeded to set the timing. It smoothed out nicely at the right setting and we tightened up the clamp. Speaking from his years of experience, Walter recommended that Rick take the car on a hilly drive to test for lugging or pinging. Ten minutes later, Rick returned, beaming with pleasure. His three hour drive home to southern Maine promised to be a pleasure (four points for Walter).
We then set to work on Greg Black’s Series II-A 109” Military. Greg wanted to install his new differential guards, front and rear, and also wanted to have the group adjust his valves. It took Greg, his son Tristan, age 7, and I an inordinately long time to tighten four bolts on two diff guards, but from underneath the car, I popped up to check the valve clearances. Greg had wisely brought a new valve cover gasket, a sure sign that his old one would be in perfect shape – it was. The valves made no clatter upon starting the car, and testing a few clearances with a feeler gauge, showed them all to be in great shape. For a change, I touched nothing and returned the valve cover to its rightful place.
Tristan Black sagely noted that lunchtime had long since passed by and that his father had failed to meet the parental obligation to feed him. So we buttoned up Greg’s car and Carey Knaus led our convoy to lunch in his Discovery. Appropriately, I brought up the rear in the TR-7, just behind Rick’s II-A.
Rick enjoyed another one-tenth mile of carefree driving before his Rover belched a cloud of black smoke, released a grand backfire the echoed across the hills, hurled a ball of flame out the exhaust and shuddered to a stop on the side of the road. If you’ve been in Rick’s shoes, hours from home in region you’ve never seen before, you can feel his pain.
The others returned in a hurry as I peered into the engine compartment and opened the distributor. To my horror, the distributor shaft turned freely in either direction. Hooking up a tow strap, we returned to Walter’s garage; correctly assessing our collective talents, he had not locked up the shop after our departure (five points for Walter).
Removing the distributor we discovered the shaft and keyway were intact – so this distributor should work fine. Returning it to the car, we then realized we had no idea where top dead center was; we’d forgotten to scribe a line so we could return the distributor to its correct location. We tried several angles; one resulted in a tremendous backfire through the carb throat that echoed mightily off the hood as I leaned over the engine. We went back to the basics. Carey removed the #1 plug, stuck a wire into the cylinder and waited for the piston to rise as we turned the engine with a crank. Once discovered, we returned the distributor to its rightful place and started the car; sadly, we repeated this several times as the distributor kept popping out of its keyway. Finally, we realized that the distributor clamp, bent from decades of tightening, required removal and flattening out with a hammer. Walter undertook the fine metalwork and we returned the clamp and distributor to their correct places (six points for Walter).
The car started up quickly and ran very smoothly, thus allowing Rick to inhale after holding his breath for an hour. By now, lunch had long passed us by so we drove to a corner store for tea time. Rick faced a three hour drive home on a very cold night. We traded cellphone numbers in case of an emergency, and blissfully, Rick arrived home on time and with a smoothly running Rover. Considering what he went through he’s still talking to me, which is very kind. Oh, and Walter invited us to return anytime; he needs the laugh (seven points for Walter).
As absurd is it sounds to Series Rover owners, there’s a move afoot to induce hybrid cars to make more noise. A Florida hybrid owner wrote an angry Letter to the Editor after her husband had discovered their hybrid SUV running in their attached garage for four hours, filling the space with “carbon monoxide and overheating [sic].” The author admits she had been on a shopping trip and “preoccupied with unlocking the trunk, I failed to turn off the ignition.”
Clearly unlocking the trunk on contemporary hybrid takes a great deal of mental energy, at least for Floridians, so much so that turning off the ignition – often the first thing you do when you drive a car into a garage – falls off the radar screen. I would advise any reader who owns a hybrid that you practice locking and unlocking the trunk so that it becomes second nature to you. Then you can work on turning off the ignition.
Nanny state, anyone?
This has been a tough year meteorologically for our British cousins; it’s snowed and iced up a lot over there. To the embarrassment of its management, the Eurostar train broke down between England and France, clogging up the Chunnel that runs underneath the English Channel. As passengers sat in extreme discomfort, British travelers blamed the French and French officials blamed the British. No one could quite figure out why they could not restart the train, but a few days later, the official explanation became “drier snow than expected worked its way past the snow shields and formed moisture in the electric motors when they entered the much warmer air of the Chunnel. “
In other words, as every Series Rover and Range Rover Classic owner knows, snow worked its way past the hood seals and covered all the ignition components. Too bad the Eurostar officials didn’t call a Land Rover enthusiast to solve their problem.
The BBC called it the “worst winter since 1963.” Former Gloucester policeman Tom Taylor, now 68, remembered that one as “an unbelievable winter. I used to go out on the beat and on snow patrol in the Cotswolds, sometimes in a Land Rover recovery vehicle, and find people stuck in snowdrifts. Most of the country roads were impassable - the wind was horrendous. A snow plough would go down a road, but the wind kept blowing snow back on to the road and it would refill within hours - this went on week after week, It was bitterly cold - I used to wear my pajamas under my police uniform,"
There you have it, the answer to staying warm in a Series Land Rover – never remove your pajamas.
[Copyright 2010 Jeffrey B. Aronson and Rovers North]
"The Land Rover is not a vehicle, it's a way of life."