In 1971, The British Trans-Americas Expedition set off on one of the last marathon driving challenges from Alaska to Cape Horn along 18.000 miles of the route of the proposed Pan-American Highway. Blocking their passage was 100 miles of the impenetrable jungle of the Darien Gap. It was the first expedition using the Range Rover and nearly came to grief in this green hell.
Linking North and South American lucrative trade by road routes to open was a long-standing dream. But, the route of the proposed Pan-American Highway was blocked by the Darien Gap, an area of dense jungle criss-crossed with waterways and dotted with swamps lying at the southern end of the Isthmus of Panama, the narrow neck between the continents. It seemed to be an impenetrable barrier.
British involvement in the area went back to a short-lived Scottish colony founded in the 17th century but a Darien interest group still existed in the 20th century and influenced the idea for an expedition to complete the journey from Alaska to Cape Horn, conquering the Darien on the way.
Forming a committee to organise the expedition, the group recruited the then Major (later Colonel) John Blashford-Snell of the Royal Engineers. Fresh from a successful expedition to the Blue Nile, Blashford-Snell got the backing of the British Army and recruited a team of over 60 men and women with further manpower coming from the Panamanian and Columbian armed forces.
Leading his team of drivers was Gavin Thompson from the 17/21st Lancers. With their regimental emblem of a skull and crossbones and their ‘Or Glory’ motto, they were known as the ‘Death or Glory Boys’ and had served in both the Crimean and Zulu wars before distinguishing themselves in the major conflicts of the 20th century. Thompson was every inch a cavalry officer and, at the time of the expedition, the youngest captain in the British Army.
Thompson took part in the 1968 London to Sydney Rally in a modified Land-Rover and was teamed up with Prince Michael of Kent for the 1970 World Cup Rally to Mexico supported by British Leyland. Their intended mount was a Range Rover and staff from the BMC competitions department had visited Solihull to determine what modifications would be needed for the rally. But delays in the Range Rover programme meant he competed in the rather less suitable Maxi.
For the Trans Americas Expedition, there was to be no doubt and, with the backing of British Leyland chairman, Sir Donald Stokes, two Range Rovers, originally destined for the Swiss market, were earmarked for modification.
Thompson visited Solihull to discuss the specification for the vehicles, meeting members of the Rover engineering team including Geof Miller and Roger Crathorne. A reconnaissance of the area had determined the necessity of swamp tyres to be supplied by sponsors, Firestone. Their fitment required modifications to the wheel arches including false wing panels for use when the Range Rovers were running on normal tyres.
The vehicles were completed in Solihull’s Engineering Workshop. Equipment included a capstan winch while a second bumper was fitted at the front at bonnet level to provide extra protection. Thompson also insisted on a siren mounted in the engine bay to supplement a pair of powerful air horns. Twin spare wheels were mounted on the roof along with a rack for equipment and to carry the aluminium ladders that were being specially made for the expedition.
A single passenger seat taken from a Rover 2000 replaced the standard rear folding seat to make room for a metal box, nick named ‘The Coffin’ to stow equipment. A large water keg was fixed in the rear while a coffee maker was also carried to provide some home comforts. The impressive inventory of equipment also included a demountable Tirfor winch, cables, medical kit and food provided by the expedition’s sponsors.
The completed vehicles were repainted in the dark blue and white regimental colours of the 17/21st Lancers — the white roofs providing a useful degree of solar reflection. Further adornment came in the form of a myriad of sponsors decals with the Lancers’ skull and crossbones motif on the doors.
The ‘old boy network’ of the British armed forces proved useful with the provision of RAF ‘training flights’ using the newly-acquired C-130 Hercules transport planes to carry the vehicles across the Atlantic along with a de Havilland Beaver aircraft of the Army Air Corps to use as a spotter plane over the Darien.
While it was always understood that the Darien would be the hardest part of the journey, there was still the marathon task of driving the length of two continents. The need to tackle the Darien at the end of the rainy season dictated a December start – right in the middle of the Alaskan winter. Almost within sight of the start line, one of the vehicles was nearly written off in a collision with a jackknifed truck on an icy road. A rapid shipment of body and mechanical parts soon had it back on the road.
Nature chose not to co-operate with the expedition’s careful timing, and a late end to the rains that year meant that the jungle of the Darien held a special menace. Using the Beaver aircraft, Blashford-Snell carried out a reconnaissance over the jungle. What he saw made his blood run cold despite the equatorial heat. Huge trees rose almost to the height of the swooping aircraft, but it was the secondary jungle lower down that he knew would provide the real challenge.
A path finding team from the Royal Engineers, led by David Bromhead — a descendant of Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead VC of Rorke’s Drift fame — entered the jungle in mid-January 1972. His team would blaze the trail for the vehicles through the jungle, their equipment being carried by pack ponies. Their first obstacle was the 150-metre wide Bayano river which was crossed using rafts formed by the expedition’s custom-made aluminium ladders mounted on special inflatable boats made by Avon.
Trouble with the Range Rovers, which had been so reliable on the trip down North America, began as soon as the jungle proper was penetrated. While they had been habitually overloaded, they were now shod with the massive Firestone swamp tyres mounted on enormous steel wheels. Range Rover axles were based on those of the Land Rover and had proved incapable of handling the torque of the Rover V8 engine without the use of permanent four-wheel drive. The combination of the heavy wheels and swamp tyres, complete with rope wound around them for more grip, and ‘blipping’ the throttle to get traction was too much.
The driving technique generated enough heat to melt the Tufnol thrust washers in the differentials resulting in backlash that led the unit to break up with parts of the planetary gears perforating the axle banjo casing. The Darien was littered with vehicles abandoned by previous expeditions and the beleaguered Range Rovers looked set to join them.
Failure of its new flagship would have been a public relations disaster for British Leyland, so a maximum effort was launched from Solihull. Spare parts including complete axles were air freighted to the jungle, but it was soon realised that the problem was serious enough to demand a man on the spot. Project engineer, Geof Miller was soon on his way.
Reaching the jungle by a roundabout route that included a ride in a US Army helicopter, Miller soon identified the problem, aided by testing done back in the UK. The swamp tyres were removed and replaced with 7.50 x 16 Firestone SATs mounted on standard wheels. The axle casings were repaired with epoxy glue and filled with the correct EP90 lubricant replacing light weight oil that the expedition had procured locally. Within 24 hours, Miller had both vehicles were running again.
Taking the wheel for a river crossing, Miller realised that the vehicles were travelling on the bump stops — it was later estimated that their gross weight was 3000 kg, a 20 percent overload. Surprisingly, the expedition had made no provision to ship unnecessary gear across the Darien, so the Range Rovers were still loaded down with equipment and spares required for the cold weather sectors of the journey.
They were also burdened with the Avon boats, a ‘Hillbilly’ motorised wheelbarrow and vast quantities of sponsor-supplied food including several boxes of custard powder.
Full dress uniforms for use when meeting local dignitaries was also on board. All the superfluous kit was off-loaded and flown on by the Beaver, and progress soon improved. It was also realised that the efforts of the Royal Engineers team would he better supported by a vehicle than by mules as their cleared route was too narrow and had been absorbed by the jungle by the time the Range Rovers caught up.
The Army had promised the team a Land Rover 101-Inch 1 Tonne Forward Control which had a very similar driveline to the Range Rover, but this had not materialised. In a search for something suitable, Miller found a damaged Station Wagon in the workshop of the local Land-Rover dealer. Stripped of its roof, fitted with a winch and shod with Firestone SATs, this vehicle was soon in use as a pathfinder after being flown out to the jungle by a United States Air Force helicopter.
But ahead lay the morass of the Atrato swamp, an area of bottomless bog the size of Wales. Criss-crossed by waterways and rivers, it nearly claimed one of the Range Rovers and was the scene of a tragic accident when five Columbian soldiers were lost when a boat overturned in one of the estuaries near Turbo harbour. Once again, the rafts formed by the Avon boats and the ladders proved their worth in floating the vehicles across the swamp. Perhaps appropriately, it was on St George’s Day in 1972 when the expedition finally emerged from the jungle to join the southern section of the Pan-American Highway.
Crossing the 100 miles of the Darien Gap had taken 99 days. The feat was celebrated in Columbia, cumulating in a motorcade through the capital, Bogota. But it wasn’t the end of the Expedition there remained the small detail of driving across the South American continent to Cape Horn. Despite once again encountering Arctic conditions as the road crossed the Andes in the southern winter, their goal was reached in June.
The scale of the attempt on the Darien had been formidable. The team comprised 63 people including the Royal Engineers and the Range Rover drivers from the 17/21st Lancers. Air support had been provided by the Royal Air Force, the Army Air Corps, and the United States Army and Air Force. Massive amounts of equipment had been lugged through the jungle on the vehicles and by pack pony as well as being supplemented by air drops.
The team had hacked and blasted their way through the jungle and used sophisticated custom-made equipment to make the crossing.
For British Leyland and the Range Rover, the expedition earned incomparable publicity, earning the vehicle a reputation for toughness and reliability. The vehicles were displayed to Rover staff on their return, one being presented to the Dunsfold Land Rover Collection, the other to the British Motor Museum at Gaydon.
The Pan-American Highway was never completed being deemed too expensive and too environmentally insensitive to justify. John Blashford-Snell was promoted to Colonel remaining in the Army until 1991. He devoted a lot of his time and energy into developing young people through adventure including involvement in Operation Drake and the later Operation Raleigh. He was awarded the MBE in 1968 and later an OBE for his work.
Gavin Thompson continued to serve with the 17/21st Lancers, eventually leaving the Army to join British Leyland, working for Michael Edwardes to set up Alvis Security Limited which specialised in producing armoured versions of the corporation’s cars. He later moved to Jaguar, working there under John Egan. He later joined Hyundai as their UK Direct Sales Manager.
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