Politically Incorrrect

[read from the beginning] No other vehicle could be so realistically fixed in the field as a Land Rover. Backup hand-crank starting was standard up into the early 1980s, just like the early Ford “Tin Lizzies.” Aluminum alloy body panels do not rust and are soft enough to pound out major dents with river rocks. Exposed rivets on the body panels—now a retro-chic feature on some American-made trucks—remained proudly displayed over several decades. The electric windshield wiper motors could be overridden and operated by hand if necessary. How practical is that?

Paul Driscoll's Rover
The author’s 1965 Series IIA Land Rover. The hole in the bumper
accepts the hand-crank rod.

The most common engine was an underpowered gasoline four-cylinder, but the company was (and remains) respected for its diesel power plant engineering. The drive trains through the late-1960s had to be double-clutched in the low gears, just like the classic Italian sports cars. Early spartan-like Land Rovers featured innovations such as on-the-fly engagement of four-wheel drive and later full-time all-wheel drive. Most importantly, though, these hand-made Land Rovers were just plain fun to drive, blending British sports car moxie with get-you-there-and-back reliability.

Those early vehicles won international favor among scientists, explorers, and engineers, but also among writers and artists. Ernest Hemingway, the young Steven King and Tom McGuane all drove Land Rovers. Bob Marley owned one. So did Robin Williams. And Steve McQueen. The gwarbling guitar hero John Mayer keeps one on his Montana spread. Edward Abbey wrote about them and marveled that a man with a couple hundred feet of rope and a Land Rover could “accomplish goddamned near anything.” A Land Rover starred in the classic 1980 indy movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy

Those Rovers trace lineage back to the diminutive American military Jeep, which was shipped, well, by the shipload into England during the build-up to D-Day. As the war wound down, the thieving Brits expressed interest in building a rugged four-wheel drive vehicle of their own, primarily for the export market into the British Empire. The prototype vehicle was famously mounted on an Army Jeep frame. Designed and built by Maurice Wilkes—who had worked for a couple years at General Motors—the Rover featured power take-offs front and rear, at least initially to operate farm machinery. Aluminum was selected for the body panels and driveline components because in post-war England a lot of big military aircraft was being scrapped while steel remained scarce.

Winston Churchill's Rover
Winston Churchill with an early Series Land Rover, circa 1948.

By the early 1950s, Land Rover had gained a reputation for rugged durability and—not unlike the Volkswagen Beetle—a distinctive appearance, availability and interchangeability of parts, and a worldwide support and distribution network.

“Dad, there’s a guy on TV who drives a car just like yours.”

I was preparing dinner one evening in the mid-1980s for my six-year old daughter at a friend’s house, which featured satellite-dish television. Curious, I ducked into the den to watch my first episode of “In the Wild with Harry Butler,” a PBS staple of the era. Butler, a naturalist and field biologist, was known by my daughter as the “bugs and snakes guy,” and indeed, each episode featured Harry and his trusty Land Rover 109 exploring the flora and fauna of the remote Australian interior.

Since I was living in the hinterlands of southwest Montana at the time, I had sought out a vehicle that would get me back and forth to my day job in town, which seasonally required four-wheel drive. Land Rover had recently abandoned the U.S. market in a kerfuffle over safety and environmental considerations, such as air bags, padded dashboards, and emission controls. In the U.S. market of the time, new Land Rovers cost up to twice the price of contemporary Jeep CJs and Wagoneers, International Scouts, early Ford Broncos, and the derivative Toyota Land Cruisers. The used market for Rovers was surprisingly affordable, though. I took the plunge and bought a used 1965 Land Rover Series IIa from a widow who had raised three boys using it. My recollection is the price tag was slightly south of three thousand dollars.

The original dealership decal read: Knievel Imports, Butte, Montana.

Looking back on it, that rig has carried me all over the West, outlasted two marriages and a covey of girlfriends. Over thirty years and roughly two hundred thousand miles, I have replaced or rebuilt four carburetors, three generators, two water pumps, one clutch, a front-end, all four leaf springs and shackles, and several oil seals and bearings. Since day one, it has left tiny oil splotches wherever it has been parked for more than a few hours. It has stranded me exactly one time, on pavement, and inconsequential in that a friend accomplished a field repair the next day using a shard of aluminum beer can to bridge a burnt voltage regulator connection. That fix to get me through the day lasted about three years.

Not unlike the British Empire, Land Rovers are simply built to last, or perhaps more accurately, they’re both built to die very slowly. It’s been estimated (by the company, of course) that more than 75 percent of all Land Rovers ever made remain roadworthy.

When Land Rover introduced the Defender badge in 1990, many of the Luddite, old school Series owners were skeptical, myself included. The Defender featured a coil-spring suspension all around. Each unit had full-time all-wheel drive powered by either a V-8 petro, modified from a retired Buick tooling, or a long-stroke diesel. Some of these early power plants kicked out about a hundred horses. (By comparison, a new Subaru can offer twice that power). With big markets in desert climates of the Middle East and elsewhere, the Defender did not initially offer air conditioning or even a car-radio, which according to legend was because Land Rover couldn’t figure out how to make either of them effectively leak oil.

The Defender proved over time to be as capable and popular as its predecessor Series Land Rovers. It became the international fleet-vehicle of choice for the U.N. and many law enforcement agencies, oil and gas exploration companies, scientists and geologists, and utilities operating in remote places.

Unfortunately, imports into the U.S. market were extremely limited due to Land Rover’s refusal to install emission control devices, mileage improvement systems, and safety features. (To be clear, owners of the early Series rigs routinely open beer bottles on the all-metal dashboards. Further, Land Rovers, like most fun cars, are not purchased on the basis of high mileage and low emissions.)

A portion of the U.S. market would be addressed by the Range Rover, and later the Discovery—nice cars in many regards, but not even close to the cachet and capability of the crew-cut, muscular Defender. Consequently, most Defenders in the U.S. today are “gray market,” which is to say imported from Canada, Central America, or other Defender-rich markets. Many served time in military or fleet-vehicle sectors abroad. Veterans of Desert Storm and the post-911 campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan know well these military Defenders used by the British and other allies. The Defender also figures prominently on the wide screen in movies such as the recent James Bond and Fast and Furious franchises.

A well-used Defender from the late 1980s or 90s runs upward of twenty thousand dollars in the U.S., if you can find one. In the face of such multi-decade successes and solid value, why would Land Rover discontinue the Defender?

I dunno. Go figure. As with all other SUV (sport utility vehicle) makers, Land Rover had long ago joined the race toward comfort, highway performance, and up-scale styling and luxury offerings. Some claim the company initiated that race and perhaps the finish line has been crossed. In recent decades, the Defender had become something of a sideline. At any rate, the company is gambling all-in on its reputation for manufacturing high-end diesel engines and 2016 marks its first year of exclusive use of TDI engines (turbo diesel injected) in all vehicle models, including those sold into the U.S. market.

Marilyn Monroe with a Rover
Marilyn Monroe in 1961 behind the wheel of a Series Land Rover on the Nevada movie set of John Huston’s
The Misfits.

Perhaps one day some capable car company will once again offer a reliable four-wheel drive vehicle with minimal electronics, hand-operated windows and open-air venting, big torque rather than raw horsepower, and sheer exuberance in the driving experience. In the meantime, Land Rover may be offering the next best thing. The company has just announced that a portion of the Solihull plant will be devoted to a “Heritage Restoration Programme.” Old Series Land Rovers and Defenders—all two million of them ever built—can be fully restored at the factory, in some instances by the same workers who assembled the originals, according to the company.

Until mine is ready for a makeover, I’ll just hang onto the fifty-year old dreadnaught. Occasionally, I park it in front of a local brewery or tavern where young men in particular seem to think it’s good luck to touch the grill emblem. On rare occasions I’ll light up a Camel straight and ask if any of them would care to try starting the Rover using the hand crank. That always raises a crowd and is good for a few rounds of beer. (“Hey! There’s an old guy who says he can start his truck with a stick!”)

There’s other reason to keep the old Rover on the road, I suppose. Truly, a stinking old truck reeking of ninety-weight oil may be seen by some as nothing more than an environmental nightmare. But that call to adventure and wild places remains and the proper vehicle to get one there and back seems a big part of the romance. •

Paul Driscoll Paul J. Driscoll is a public information officer for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality in Helena. He is also a writer, editor, essayist and former editorial cartoonist.

I Get Around

[read from the beginning] Meanwhile, we’d acquired a couple of new horses and had moved into a rented house on a thousand-acre ranch only a few minutes from the center of town. By now we were riding every day and competing in arenas a couple times a month. The Bronco ferried us and our horses to these events without giving us a single moment of anxiety, and we paid her back with regular trips to the dealer for service.

When I think back over a quarter century of memories it occurs to me that this truck is at the core of all the best ones.

For example, one day most of my softball team piled into The Bronco and we drove to the state capital to catch a minor league baseball game. When the concession stand ran out of beer in the fourth inning someone threw a sneaker onto the infield. Then suddenly there was a cloud of shoes in the air that littered the diamond. The umps ordered the game suspended until the drunks came down from the bleachers to retrieve their footwear. The next morning Kitty presented me something she’d found behind the rear seat—a pair of black pumps that reeked of alcohol.

O.J. Simpson's slow-motion chase across L.A..

Next, The Bronco took us to the state prison to play a double-header against a pretty good team of murderers. First we had a spam-and-Jell-O lunch in the prison cafeteria (eaten without forks or knives), then we took the field, winning the first game and losing the second, which ended in a flurry when their adamant Blackfeet catcher made an unassisted double play at home, tagging out two of our runners one after the other.

One winter Kitty and I drove The Bronco to southern California just for fun, where we saw Jon Voigt eating pasta at a table on the street, Telly Savalas laughing into a pay phone in supermarket parking lot, and Charley Pride pumping gas into a baby blue Cadillac. Home again, we decided to pull our trailer with a used truck we took in lieu of payment for our work as book designers, liberating The Bronco from a job that had become increasingly hard on her heart.

On a shimmery day I decided to golf the Lewis and Clark Trail from Montana to St. Charles, Missouri. I loaded my clubs into The Bronco, kissed Kitty goodbye and spent the rest of the summer hitting golf balls in soy bean fields, from levees, and even on the occasional golf course. At night I found secluded places to park, and slept in the back. In Missouri one afternoon I drove into a vast cornfield that had just been stripped of every stalk, put The Bronco into compound, and climbed onto her roof as she ambled across the field like an old saddle horse. After my ultimate shot into the Missouri at the place where Jefferson’s explorers began and ended their trip I turned around for home.

However, I got sidetracked and ended up staying a week in Branson with a group of retirees from San Diego. But that's another story.

I was heading north outside Kansas City when I heard on the radio that that a jury had found O. J. Simpson not guilty. Other drivers started honking at me or making rude gestures or both. During the trial a lot of white Ford Bronco owners had made pilgrimages to L.A. to sell their trucks in a market that was paying two or three times blue book price for a ride Simpson had made famous with his slow-motion police chase around the freeways of L.A. We couldn’t understand it. Sure, these drivers got some extra coin from those crazy Californians, but now what were they going to drive? After all, the Ford Bronco was the best truck on the road. It was as if they’d decided to sell their kids.

The Bronco and I would take some other memorable trips. One of these was a odyssey around the Northern Plains to a half-dozen eerie places Indians regard as sacred, like the ancient cliff art at Wyoming’s remote Dinwoody Canyon. On another epic voyage I set out to search for cheap real estate. We’d bought a house and ten acres of forest on a big Montana river, but once you own a little bit of land you immediately want a whole lot more. Although most Montana spreads far too pricey for us, I’d heard that North Dakota was losing population and you could buy hunks of land there really cheap. This turned out to be the case. I found 110 acres in a wooded wash outside Minot selling for $70,000. And I found a $6,000 church for us to live in that we could move there. That night I parked out of sight on this land, and bedded down with The Bronco. The next morning, giddy with excitement, I stepped outside. And was immediately covered head to toe with mosquitoes and vicious little flies. Puckered with bites, I drove home immediately at very high speed.

The years passed. But we never traded her in. Even when she was on death’s door. After I made the mistake of having The Bronco serviced at one of those quickie-lube places her engine threw a rod. I discovered that the oil pan cap was missing, and kicked myself for not checking to make sure it had been correctly replaced. We had no hesitation about what to do, and in a week The Bronco was back on the road with a new engine. There would be yet another engine, after number two wore out, plus a new transmission, new clutches, a complete new drive train, many new tires and several brake jobs. We also replaced the rear window a couple of times, which is raised or lowered with electric arms and is, as all Bronco owners know, the Achilles heel of this otherwise world-class athlete.

Three years ago we had to admit that it was finally time for The Bronco to give up the open road. She had traveled almost 300,000 miles, a dozen times around the world. Her brakes were shot, her engine compression low, and she was burning oil. We unscrewed her license plates and hung them in the shop. But that didn’t mean The Bronco was retired.

It was her new job to take me from the house along a narrow track walled by trees and surrounded by water so I could cut down dead pine and birch and fill her up with firewood. Then, when we got back to the house, she'd beak up these rounds with a jerry-rigged device I had concocted by fitting The Bronco's trailer hitch with the head of an awl. First I positioned the round against a stone wall, then I backed into the wood hard to split it.

This spring I headed out as usual under a canopy of blossoming hawthorns to a muddy swamp that always floods with June snowmelt. As she had before, The Bronco entered the muck with her trademark bravura and bulled through to the other side. I spent the morning working, and when we returned with a full load The Bronco’s tired old springs were groaning. Plowing back into the quagmire she suddenly shuddered and ground to a halt. I put her in reverse, shifted into compound, and tried to rock her back onto dry land. But her tires simply spun and dug in deeper. This had never happened before. The Bronco had never gotten stuck. I called Kitty on my cell phone and asked if she’d saddle one of the horses and bring a rope. We’d have to get The Bronco out of this fix because in a week the slough would be six feet deep with water.

I knew it was maudlin, but I patted her dashboard and told her everything would be okay. I didn’t believe it. Maybe the horse could pull us out. But probably not.

There was one more thing I could try. I straightened the wheel, put the transmission into two-wheel drive to take power away front the front tires, and lightly touched the accelerator. The Bronco hesitated, belching oily smoke. And then she calmly rolled back into my life. •

Bill Vaughn is the author most recently of Hawthorn (Yale) and Making Bones (Arrow Graphics).