My good friend Mr DeVilla and I were on the way to view a Daihatsu Taft. The road opened and the excitement grew as we drove through the dust, dark and roughness of the cave-like tunnel that was being rebuilt. It was already like a safari. Then the light… and the unmistakeably recognisable shape of a short Land Rover Series parked on the right. It seemed unreal, a product of the sudden change of atmosphere. My first thought was, “I love it. I want two of those.”. The second one was “It’s probably not for sale, and if it is, it must be too expensive”, the third “Must be in bad shape… and with an old Mercedes engine”. The fourth was to brake and turn into the parking lot as we passed it.
There was the smallest piece of paper on the rear glass with a phone number and a price… more than twice what the Taft was. The owner, a serious guy in his late 60s, showed up soon enough and I asked for the papers right away. Everything seemed in order. Land Rover Series III 88, 1972, station wagon, green, petrol, seven seats, last time registered in 2011, in his name. It was as clean as they get. Even one of the original keys was there and it opened both the doors and started the ignition. After a few seconds of cranking it started… but it was diesel. One of those “I knew it” sinking feeling moments hit me hard and I wanted to walk away, right away. When I asked about the “slight” discrepancy, he said the usual, that he’d bought it that way and that the previous owner had changed the engine and that it was probably an old Mercedes lump. I still don’t know, to this day, why I opened the bonnet anyway.
I knew right away it was not a German engine. It looked distinctly British, and then the tappet clearance plate on the rocker cover and the firing order written on the exhaust brought the whole endeavour back to life with a kick. I checked the hand crank hole, and the hole was in place. The engine was original, but diesel. Very puzzling. The Series got my attention. It looked fine. Not too good, not too bad, definitely above what one can expect to find at that price. The chassis number and the engine number matched those in the documents, the title was clean, it could have been registered and driven right away. There was only that small issue of it being diesel when the papers claimed different.
After a few phone calls it turned out that just prior to selling it, the owner before had converted it from petrol to diesel on the same block using parts from a military vehicle that couldn’t be registered. He said he still had the original parts and asked very little money for them. I confirmed it could be changed in the documents and that it was a mere thing of a fuel conversion certification, if the parts are original standard Land Rover and from that type of engine. Apparently, Land Rover did exactly that, made the units pretty much the same, and then just slapped some specific parts to make them either petrol or diesel. Good enough, even promising.
Then came the test drive. Oh, how exciting it was to barely fit in there for the first time, not put a safety belt and pull into the traffic at the speed of a lazy ox. Everything was new and unusual. I had never driven one before. The gear changes with the super long throws left and right, but satisfyingly clicky and short movement forward and back, the clutch that would sometimes stay down when depressed and had to be pulled back by sticking the shoe under, the Tex Magna Lite indicator stalk that didn’t work at all, apart from the lamp that lit with the glow plugs, but I habitually used it anyway, the appallingly inadequate turning circle… But it was a blast.
It was one of those experiences that stay with you for life. One of those things that hit you out of nowhere and make you overwhelmingly happy when you least expect it. I felt like I was Indiana Jones, Thomas Edward Lawrence, Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Manfred Von Richthofen all at once, and I rode a wild horse… that rode a drunk elephant… on a raft, down a waterfall… and smoking a cigar while two gorgeous princesses hold me tight because they are afraid, and I’m not. I was not sedated by the comfort, safety, performance of a modern car and I loved it.
We drove for just a minute or so on a public road, and then the owner, we’ll call him Mr Ellis, told me I could go right to test it off road. I pulled onto a patch of grass and no obvious way further. He directed me through some bushes, and we started climbing through a fairly thick forest. The excitement was electrifying. Mr Devilla was shouting nice things about the Series over the sound of the engine and we were confidently moving along up to a point when Mr Ellis said “Let’s put into the four-wheel drive mode now. It gets a bit rougher from here”. I was like… “What drive were we in so far!?” but didn’t say anything. He pulled the red lever, I released the clutch and off we went.
Boy, was he right about it getting rough. It was a ravine through which a normal person couldn’t go on foot. The boulders were moon-sized, and the holes were so deep they were dark, but we somehow went on and scraped very little. It was more at home here than on that road. Shocking. My previous 4x4s were not like that. I was truly impressed, both by the Series and my skills. This vehicle made me look good while driving in such places. Unexpected and very cool. We were friends already. Mr DeVilla was laughing and shouting and utterly enjoying himself as he bounced from side to side in the back. But then, there was nothing more ahead, just treetops and a deep fall but I didn’t want to stop because I wasn’t sure we could start going up again if I did and reversing from there was not an option. Mr Ellis shouted “Now, right!” and I turned right around a huge rock.
And… Bang! We simply sunk forward with a crashing, screeching sound. The Series stood on its front right corner dug down at a very unnatural angle while I was leaning completely on the steering wheel and the pedals. The rear left wheel was at least half a meter in the air. I could swear that even the spare wheel on the bonnet was touching ground. I thought, “Ah, the guy played me. I crashed it, so I’ll have to buy it now.”. I wasn’t entirely unhappy with the thought, it's just that being tricked into it bothered me, but then Mr Ellis said “Perfect! Now, just back it up a bit to get the angle and go on!”. Mr Devilla’s screaming got intelligible by now. His eyes were burning with a fire of joy. I laughed and I knew I had just bought myself a Land Rover Series III 88 from 1972.
Through laughter I told the guy I don’t want to get us killed and that I’ve seen enough. It was a real scene and I’m just sorry I wasn’t composed enough to take a photo. Me trying to jump out on the left and not fall down the hill, Mr Ellis trying to squeeze himself out on the right, Mr DeVilla, with his artistically long hair and beard, basically standing on the tub bulkhead leaning to see the ditch below through the window and manically laughing.
We got back down in one piece. I can’t tell you how surprised I was not being able to find much damage to the front right. I was at least as tough as those boulders up there. Mr DeVilla pushed the negotiations in the right direction and after a while we shook hands on a good price. We did end up seeing the Daihatsu that day because I promised the guy we’d come. Not that it would matter at all, but it was complete rubbish with no original parts whatsoever. Even better. The next morning the temporary plates were ready and I embarked on a very eventful journey of owning a Land Rover Series. I went back through that tunnel again, but this time it was really an adventure.