If you love Land Rovers, you love England. Not all things British, but England itself. In a motel room one night, I started Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island. He noted that “there are certain idiosyncratic notions you quietly come to accept when you live in England for a long time..one is that Britain is a large place.”
He continues that “if you mention in a pub that you intend to drive from, say, Surrey to Cornwall, a distance that most Americans would happily drive to get a taco, you companions will puff their cheeks, look knowingly at each other, and blow out air as if to say, ‘Well, now, that’s a bit of a tall order,’ and then they’ll launch into a lively and protracted discussion of whether it’s better to take the A30 to Stockbridge and then the A303 to Ilchester, or the A361 to Glastonbury via Shepton Mallet. Within minutes the conversation will plunge off into a level of detail that leaves you, as a foreigner, swiveling your head in quiet wonderment...”
I thought about my last visit to England for the ARC 50th Anniversary Celebration. The drive from London to the western Malvern Hills lasted about 3 hours, mostly on two lane roads. My British companions treated it as a cross-country expedition; I do that distance routinely for work assignments and I never get out of Maine. Californians consider that a daily commute; Texans do that to catch a good movie.
I returned to Bryson. “The fact is that the British have a totally private sense of distance. This is most visibly seen in the shared pretense that Britain is a lonely island in the middle of an empty green sea. Of course, the British are all aware, in an abstract sort of way, that there is a substantial land mass called Europe nearby and it is necessary to go over there and give old Jerry a drubbing or have a holiday in the sun, but it’s not nearby in any meaningful sense in the way that, say, Disney World is.” One of the pleasures of living in Northern New England is that same sense of private distance. Of course, we’re aware of a substantial land mass called The United States lies nearby, but often it seems irrelevant to daily life. When you’re a Land Rover enthusiast, you know that there are millions of car owners out there, but their idea of “car” seems irrelevant. We, too, live in a “private distance.”
My work puts me behind the wheel of my Land Rover throughout northern New England, and this season’s travels have required me to drive further than ever. This winter has been one of our snowiest and coldest in several years and I seem to feel the mileage more than usual. A mother and daughter from more tropical climes came to visit me in Maine and I met them at the airport in Portland in the II-A. She asked “does that thing have heat?” But of course, I replied. “Aren’t you cold in it,” she asked? This required a near-Clintonian response. I was wearing L. L. Bean boots, heavy wool socks, jeans, a cotton shirt and a wool shirt, a sweater, a Rovers North vest, an L. L. Bean jacket, gloves and a Rovers North cap. “Cold,” I scoffed, “not at all. It all depends what you mean by ‘cold.’ “The next thing she did was to empty her suitcase of every article of clothing and put it on; then, we began a long wintry drive. She was not a happy camper.
People pass by driving real cars - or Range Rover Classics or Discoverys. They don’t look like Frosty the Snowman in the car. They have shed their outer coats; I’ve even seen them in T-shirts.
It might help if all my window tracks weren’t worn away, or if I had replaced those scuttle vent seals I purchased last summer, or if I had installed all the new door seals. You can warm up a Series Land Rover, but you’ll never roast in one - until summer, of course. My weekend foray in a Discovery Series II, recounted elsewhere in this issue, and editing articles from owners of Range Rover Classics, can’t help but stimulate your thinking about these Land Rovers. The earliest Range Rovers are now the same age as many Series III’s; they’ve proven their worth as go anywhere, dependable, all-purpose vehicles. I might even have happier passengers.
It’s been one of those years for the QE I, my ‘66 Series II-A. Back in the fall, I took a date to dinner in the ‘66 II-A. Gallantly, I even put the soft top back up for the ride. “We’re going in THAT,” she asked incredulously? I answered her suavely that the Queen of England had several Land Rovers, “just like this one.” Well, truthfully, the Queen’s probably had less duct tape on the seats and fewer event decals on the windshield. It might carry fewer tools to rattle over every bump. Her door tops might not wave in the wind, either. However, this was a Land Rover, too. We conversed at that special decibel level reserved for Series Rover owners and jackhammer operators. I shifted into overdrive. I heard a gentle whine from the Fairey overdrive; she heard an Mettalica-level howl. When her voice gave out, we drove in silence until we reached the restaurant.
Her remarks made me think that maybe, after nearly 90,000 miles, it was time to think about the overdrive unit. More convincingly, the overdrive began to pop out of gear under load from a standing start. The unit would not be engaged, but it seems to go to its “neutral” setting without jarring. When it happened on a fall trip to Rovers North, I checked with Mike Searfoss for advice. He listened to the symptoms and suggested it was time for an overhaul. Mike suggested that the excessive noise was likely to be worn bearings, and the popping could be worn teeth on gears.
The Fairey overdrive unit is a mini-transmission, complete with its own shaft and selector fork. When I returned home, I removed the overdrive unit from the back of the transmission and took off the inspection plate. The gear teeth looked fine, without any chipping, but the inner teeth on the gears had clearly worn splines. As I probed deeper into the overdrive, the bearings looked as if they required a press rather than a “drift” for removal. I discussed the issue of an overhaul with Mike and Les Parker, and their solution gave me a used overdrive in excellent condition and a rebuilding of my current overdrive at Rovers North.
The new-old overdrive arrived and I crawled under the car to install it at a friend’s garage. All went perfectly until the final inch or so of travel. It would not slide into place. The Fairey instructions include one of those unbelievable solutions involving hitting the starter button while the car is in gear. Sure enough, one hit of the starter and the unit slipped into place. We filled it with hypoid, checked the bolts, and I drove the car away. Later that day, I shipped the old overdrive back to Rovers North for an overhaul.
It was two days later when I got to the mainland and could actually test the overdrive at speed. Oh, my, how quiet and refined compared to my previous one. This business trip would take me hundreds of miles to the Maine-New Brunswick border, and then all the way west towards Bangor - a fine rural drive - and south by highway to central Massachusetts.
In southern Maine, I stopped at a Maine Turnpike rest area to get some coffee. As I pulled in through some slush puddles, I smelled steam rising from underneath the car. I pulled up the center seat and the steel panel to peer under the car. The heat rose mightily from the overdrive. The dipstick bolt burned my fingers when I tried to unscrew it. My heart sank. I took a set of winch gloves to remove the dipstick and found the reservoir - gulp - empty. I took a pint of hypoid and filled the overdrive to its limit, and then stepped out of the car to steady myself and get that coffee. I peered under the car and watched a pool of hypoid spread itself on the ground. Carefully, I put my hand under the overdrive and that’s when I discovered the drain plug - the one had serves as a drain plug for the overdrive. Sometime during the 450 mile drive the drain plug fell out of the overdrive and emptied out the hypoid. The Fairey overdrive uses a unique thread pattern so local replacement was out of the question, but the dipstick looked to have the identical thread pattern. The dipstick for an overdrive is a bolt head with a tiny metal indicator stick; I cut it off and screwed it in as the drain plug. I filled it with hypoid again and drove it around slowly. The unit sounded as if it were grinding rocks.
Six years ago when I first purchased an overdrive, I kept the original final gear and transmission back plate in a bag and placed them in the parts box in the rear. Lying in the snow replacing an overdrive was not my favorite winter sport, but I bundled up and had the overdrive off quickly. The slowest part was removing the odd-sized castle nut from the end of the output shaft; while it was easy to access, its shape means that you have a special socket [unique to Series Land Rovers] or you take a drift and gently hammer away at the edges for a long time. Then you remove the overdrive roller bearing, put in the final gear and lock tabs, and gently hammer the nut back in again. I felt like Geppeto creating a new Pinnochio. Still, a couple of hours later, I drove the car away, sans overdrive. _________________ A hallmark of the Series Land Rover was its utility. The same vehicle that could haul farm supplies could also transport 7 people; 12 if you bought a 109". Without question, the Land Rover demanded a spirit of compromise from its owner. No one would ride in great comfort. It helped if all passengers were on good speaking terms with each other. Still, few other contemporary cars could accomplish so much.
Recently, my ‘66 Series II-A SW renewed its annual acquaintance with firewood as I had to haul several cord of wood from a thin forest area of the island to my rented house. Fortunately, most of the wood was old, dry spruce, which burns like Chernobyl but doesn’t weigh very much. I folded back the rear jump seats, removed the parts and tool boxes from the car, stacked the wood in the Rover, transported it to its new home, cut it to size with the chain saw, split it and stacked it for the season. When fully loaded, low range gearing prevented me from tearing up the thin forest surface and permitted me to leave an unobtrusive footprint.
One day I received a call from a buddy. His Gen-X daughter had set her heart on a car and he wanted me to look it over. The daughter had fired up the interest of her younger stepsister and four teenage friends. Could I accompany them and look over the car with her? Let me get this straight - did I want to relive high school fantasies and be the only guy with 6 lovely girls? “Yesss”, I cried with delight. I quickly swept out the rear of the car, checked the duct tape on the seats, and hosed down the floor mats.
Remember the movie Bedazzled? Remember how Brendan Frazer’s dream lives failed him -despite having Elizabeth Hurley as your personal devil? Just as in the movie, this dream dissolved in my mind. The car that had captivated this young woman was a late ‘90's Geo Tracker, with a robin’s egg blue soft top and matching painted wheels. And California strips along the side, in matching violet hues. As I looked into the daughter’s baby blue eyes, I saw that the Geo had already stolen her heart, that only a cad would even think of dissing this car. From my perspective, Geo Trackers begin as junk and go downhill from there; what if the car was worse than I thought?
Furthermore, it dawned on me that I had now reached a point in life at which you’re transformed from “single guy” to “old fart.” The metamorphosis from “single guy” to “old fart” was complete. Not one parent thought it dangerous - even inappropriate - that their stunning daughters, 6 of them, should accompany me, without a chaperone, on a trip to the mainland. So instead of “Born To Be Wild” running through my head, the lyrics to “7 Little Girls, Sitting in the Back Seat” ran through my head:
“Keep your mind on your driving Keep your hands on the wheel Keep your snoopy eyes on the road ahead...”
The day dawned gloomy and rainy. We stopped for some breakfast and the 6 girls poured out of the Rover - right in front of a local policeman who graciously chose not to count seat belts. A hard rain forced the back window to stay strapped in place during the 30 minute drive to the Geo. The daughter could barely contain her excitement.
Strangely, the lure of the Series Land Rover evaporated when the girls spied the Geo Tracker. After all, here was a color-coordinated car with a radio/CD player. I stared at a clean, but not steam-cleaned, engine bay. The oil looked changed and all the fluid levels seemed appropriate. The brakes, clutch and transmission worked smoothly and without bite. The chassis resembled that of an electric train but it had no serious rust. The starter groaned a bit, but otherwise, I was devastated and forced to pronounce it fit. The girls leapt in for a test drive just as the rain stopped; with the top down, the Geo proved irresistible and the daughter paid the sum of a perfectly serviceable Land Rover for the car. She made arrangements to pick it up in a couple of days and I drove them back to the island in the Rover singing “7 little girls, sitting in the back seat...” ___________
Land Rover once ran a print advertisement in the UK showing a new Land Rover owner waving good bye to a weepy salesman. The gist of the ad was that you should be profuse in your mutual salutations as, given the life of Land Rovers, you might not see that salesman for another 10 years. It pointed to the dilemma for Land Rover; under proper care the cars can last so long that repeat sales might not occur for many years. With traditional car dealers employing stereotypical car salesman engaging in stereotypical sales practices, a decade-long absence seems quite desirable. However, if a car dealer exists to sell cars, well, the problem is obvious.
A good example occurred once when Land Rover North America placed a thumbnail-sized photograph of a Series I in the front of that year’s sales brochure, featuring the Discovery, Defender and Range Rover. A customer once called a dealership and requested “a car just like the one on Page 2.” When the sales guide turned to that page, he found the photo of the Series I. It was several years before Series vehicles appeared in Land Rover publications again.
Indeed, for a while it seemed as though Land Rover sought to emulate the Kremlin of the Soviet Union and rewrite the history of the firm. All references to off-road prowess left the company’s advertisements; instead, you watched a Land Rover tackle a beach parking lot and transport a wet dog from the middle of a road. Zowie! Suddenly, the world turned and the challenges of the Land Rover Trek competitions are the center of attention. Stay tuned..Land Rover may be heading in the right direction after all. ________
At RoverFest 2000 and at the British Invasion, the 4 x 4 Center of Williston, VT, organized popular trials courses. With many families in attendance, lots of cars stuffed with families wended their way up and down the slalom courses. If you’re a kid, that stinks - only the adults could drive. If you can con your folks, have them send you to Scotland's Gleneagles resort. The $80, 45-minute Junior Off-Roading course in Perthshire lets kids drive mini Land Rovers ongarden paths and a circuit of obstacles. Instructors carry remote controls to prevent accidents. Sounds like heaven to me! ________________
The Wall Street Journal reminded us that former Prime Minister John Major once proclaimed thatBritain would remain a land of dog lovers, "invincible green suburbs" and warm beer. Sadly, warm beer seems to be falling victim to American trends. The Journal reported that Worthington Ale now admonishes imbibers to "Drink ice cold” right on the bottle. T&R Theakston Ltd., renowned for such traditional tipples as Old Peculier, is rolling out an ale called Cool Cask, served at 50 degrees, compared with a typical 54 to 56 degrees for traditional British ales. Far bolder, Guinness Ltd. promotes an alternative version of its stout called Guinness Extra Cold, poured from the tap at a tongue-numbing 39 degrees -- about the same as U.S.-style lagers.
Mick Lewis, the chairman of the North London branch of the Campaign for Real Ale, huffed that “You might as well just serve water.”Jackson considers “those horrible frosted glasses” favored by American bartenders as an abomination. "In some of the more backward parts of America," Mr. Jackson reports, "it's damn near frozen." After this season’s travails in the QE I, I might want to visit a bar and test his observations.
Copyright 2001, Jeffrey B. Aronson and Rovers North
"The Land Rover is not a vehicle, it's a way of life."