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How to Drive. What to Drive. Where to Drive. Miscellany.

The Story of “Dog”, my Land Rover.

As a rally driver for the Rover factory in the early 60s (3-liter Rover sedan) I met the man who created the first Land Rover. At dinner one night he told the story of how they took some GI Jeep discards, lengthened the wheel base and built the prototype.

Time masks his name, but memory and imagination plays back bright star bursts from a cutting tool chopping the frame of an olive drab Jeep some departing Yank left in a Sussex lane before dashing home to a rusted basketball hoop on an Indiana barn. I see the Brits welding in a length of steel, standing back and saying: “That looks about right.”

And did George Washington chop down a cherry tree? No. But the Land Rover did get built and a few years later — 1965 actually — I owned one.

I had built a house in Vermont just off the road to a new ski area called Sugarbush. The track up to my house departed the main road at right angles, proceeded steeply for about a hundred yards then steepened more then ended abruptly in a sharp right turn into a parking area by my house. Challenge enough on a bright summer day but merging with impossible when glazed by an ice storm or whitened with a heavy crust of snow.

I can’t remember which car I had at that moment, the Mini or the Lancia Fulvia, but either was as out of place on a Vermont hillside as a skylark in a counting house. Front-wheel drive has its advantages on snowy roads but let that road tilt upwards in serious degrees and the advantage disappears. The car’s weight is shifted aft away from the drive wheels and traction wanes just as its need is truly felt. I must say my backing-up-at-speed skills, with the weight now over the drive wheels, grew with relentless practice. However steering is still best down by the wheels that lead. I needed four-wheel drive.

DOG, my Land Rover.At a New York auto show David E. Davis Jr. and I had decided that we both wanted Land Rovers in school-bus yellow.  I beat him to it. The Land Rover I bought was square and purposeful and whispered of adventure. It was a trench coat of a vehicle with the equivalent of D-rings and epaulets and a belt you tied instead of using the buckle.

But this Land Rover was desert tan in color. I left it with a paint shop when I went to Europe on a skiing story. I returned to find it the color of a carnival ear of corn. I could have sprinkled salt on it. Perfect. The amount $135, maybe less, jumps to mind. But realize the entire vehicle seemed very costly to me at something around $3000. Such a different world were the mid-1960s.

That the color was indeed that of a school bus was amply demonstrated one afternoon when I descended my hill and turned toward town. I felt or heard a recurrent thump so I pulled to the shoulder and clambered down to check for a low tire. Raising my head I discovered cars stopped in both directions. I hastened to regain my seat and get underway. The thump was just packed snow.

The Land Rover got me up my troublesome hill though not always all the way — it was that increase in pitch two-thirds the way up that could toss a monkey wrench. If more than six inches of wet snow accumulated before my contract snow-plow guy came by it was chancy that I could make the top with one pass. Or even two or three.  Four was pointless. Might as well park it in the field below and trudge up by booted foot.

If the first try failed I would, on the next ones, carefully avoid my earlier tire tracks. Used snow instantly took on the glaze of a skating rink and offered no bite at all. And that would foil what I had determined by experience to be the most successful formula: third-gear high-range, heavy beginning throttle. As altitude was gained I’d gradually ease off the gas to avoid any risk of breaking loose. Traction must never be broken. Ideally that last right turn toward the house was done in a near coast. Exhale. 

I had, however, discovered if on that final third of the hill I sensed that both power and traction were running low, and clearly I wanted to avoid sliding backwards (a ditch that once caught out even Swedish rally champion, Erik Carlsson and his Saab lined one side of my track, a growth of small birch the other) I could grab the hand brake, twirl the steering and miraculously switch ends in the space of the Rover’s footprint. It had to be done rapidly and timed right — just at the secession of upward motion — grab, twirl, and suddenly the nose would be pointing downhill. That offered some semblance of a controlled descent; far better than a brakes-on backward slide.

One night I was approaching home during a snowfall. For some reason I had a car-load of strangers, three friends of friends from down country, one a Californian I think. Oh no, the plow had not come. But I yakked on as I went into Climb Formula and began my run for the top. Maybe it was the extra weight but we were lonely about twenty feet short of the top when I knew we were not going to make it. Instinctively I grabbed and twirled, still talking, and headed back down hill. Then I sensed held breaths and looked around at mouths gaping to chest level. I suppose I should have alerted them. Maybe it was the headlights cutting a bright slash across the trees as we pirouetted to aim back the way we had come.

On the Run Two we made it (in silence) - I picked up some roughness at the road’s edge -  but my passengers didn’t resume breathing until we were inside and had a fire going.

When I couldn’t make the hill I left the Rover in the field next to whatever other car I had then —  a Mini (first a Cooper than a Moke) or the pretty Lancia. They were my clear-road dinghies that took me to New York or Montreal. The Land Rover was not an ideal distance driver.

Nor was it really a good cold-weather vehicle. I mean the roof-over-roof design was called a “Safari roof.” Glean any temperature hints from that? And the body was aluminum and lots of glass. Great “R” factors there. That and Vermont winters were a lot for an English heater to cope with. 

O.K., so the engine always started even in the deepest chill. That accomplishment was assisted by a plug-in dipstick heater that kept the motor oil somewhat more fluid than Jello. But the secret really was that handy gadget stored behind the front seats - a hand crank. Once I left the Land Rover at the Amtrak station in Waterbury and took a train to New York shortly after that service was inaugurated. Returning, we Vermont passengers all de-trained in the night breathing misty clouds like cartoon conversations. Fresh snow sparkled in the splash of the station lights. It crunched underfoot. Breathing was like inhaling razor blades.  Even before I left the thermometer had not topped zero for weeks and while I was gone it had found fifty below.

As I brushed the dry light snow away from all the windows. I could hear the fruitless UR-UR-Ur-urrrr of engines trying to turn over and fading to silence. Smugly I freed my crank, inserted it through the keyhole at the front of the Rover, felt it seat and leaned into turning it. And I turned it and turned it more, feeling the resistance. I could sense the pistons moving in the cylinders, the crank churning the oil, stirring it to fluidity. My intention was not to start the engine with the crank. I had heard tales of cranks kicking back and breaking arms. I only wanted to ease the task of the starter. I got in, turned the key. And all heads snapped toward my roaring, white cloud breathing school-bus yellow beast. The Land Rover was the only thing rolling that night.

But I hated it most mornings. The doors were often frozen shut. A hairdryer on a long cord could clear the key hole and ease the way to pull the door open on creaking hinges. Starting was easy enough but the seat was gelid, the steering wheel a gingerly two-finger matter. I would be well to my destination before the heater breathed something recognizable as warmth.

Much later genuine sheepskin seat covers and a shaggy sheepskin cover for the steering wheel solved some chilling problems but before then I thought I had stumbled across a great idea. I saw an ad in a camping magazine for a catalytic heater to keep a tent if not toasty at least tolerable. Safe, simple. I ordered one. If it worked for a tent why not a Land Rover?

I read the instructions, and felt the glow of its warm little heart as I set it on the floor in the rear between the facing seats.

The next morning my anticipation was as high as on a childhood Christmas. I dashed out to the Rover to experience what I hoped would be a — a — oh, crikey! I discovered, what is that phrase -  “Unintended consequences?”

I had not known that moisture is inherent in the use of this sort of heater. Moisture on cold surfaces freezes. Every surface inside the Land Rover was cold, ergo that morning every surface was solid with cold white ice. The windows on the inside were opaque with a quarter inch of the stuff. The seats were hard pillows of white ice; the steering wheel was thickened with white ice, the dash board was invisible beneath white ice.  Even the head liner was cold and white.

Slowly, sadly I removed the failed heater, acquired a light hammer and chisel and began to free my Land Rover from the cold, deep grip of a miserably failed idea. Probably didn’t take more than an hour or two.

When I first got my yellow beast I had christened it with a “vanity” license plate: “DOG.” Then I could announce to appropriate groans that I had a Rover named Dog. I still have the plate. The Land Rover itself was irretrievably yielding to the heavy salt of Vermont’s winter highways. Yes, the body was aluminum and immune from that corrosion, but that part of the vehicle that wasn’t aluminum seemed doubly vulnerable. I could watch the salted highway slip by beneath my feet. When I noticed that the steering box was about to depart its moorings I sold my Land Rover for parts. I bought a Subaru BRAT for my 4x4 get-up-the-hill transport. A better heater but less than half the drama.

And none of the history.

11/01/10 • 06:27 PM • What to Drive • 1 Comment


Nice story which reminds me of New England winters and my Saabs. One very long hill on a remote New Hampshire road more than once required me to bootleg turn it downhill after a failed winter attempt. And to then successfully negotiate it in reverse. My neck hurts thinking about it. BTW, the ‘reverse out’ bootleg turns became much easier when I advanced from Saab 96s to 99s. The former had an e brake working on the rear wheels, the latter on the fronts. Of course I discovered this fact by nearly plowing into a snow bank when I first e braked the 99 going around a favorite corner - forwards.

Posted by Chris Roth on 10/11/12 at 10:42 PM


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