ROVING THE PROMISED LAND
More religion than car brand, Land Rover inspires obsession in its disciples. Can a pilgrimage to its 70th birthday party, in a last-of-the-line Defender and a 1948 Series I, make us true believers?
I CAN’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 washed-out 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 all- action archaeologist who scours the globe for survivor cars, chas-ing 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-year-old 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.
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 complex-ity 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 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 depleted- uranium 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 surelyheaven on Earth – hence the glut of British 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. Some-thing 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, worry-ingly, the question is no longer whether or not you need a Land Rover in your life but which one.