You Only Live Twice

A Land Rover Series I 86 with an eventful history comes to London to meet its latest and last legitimate offshoot, the Defender Heritage. Want to know how to honor tradition and celebrate past virtues? Here’s how.

  • Text
    David Staretz
  • Photos
    Amy Shore

There’s the paint, the famous Deep Bronze Green (also known as Ascot Green), and beneath that, where sixty years of weather and use have thinned it out like a battered Matchbox car, there’s nothing – no primer, just bare Birmabright, the typical Land Rover alloy of aluminum, magnesium and manganese from Birmingham, where it was produced mainly for aircraft construction during World War II. Unlike other aluminum alloys, such as Duralumin, Birmabright does not harden with age and is particularly resistant to seawater corrosion. The alloy is rather unsuitable for machine fabrication, however, so automotive engineer Maurice Wilks looked at body styles that could be easily cut and formed by hand. Steel was not available, and existing quotas were allocated to established companies that exported abroad. This was the situation when Land Rover launched its first series, based on the chassis of the reliable Willys Jeep, of which there were many cruising around the British countryside at the time.

The 86 model, built starting in 1953, freed itself from the American platform with the now-famous ladder frame, welded together from strips of sheet metal, and a wheelbase extended, as the name implies, to 86 inches. Our model was delivered to Australia in 1955 – CKD, which stands for “completely knocked down”. Good thing Land Rover had a subsidiary in Sydney that assembled all the parts according to factory specifications.

The side windows and frame could be removed in one easy step, and the radiator grille was often used as a barbecue over an open fire.

The buyer (and father of the current owner) was F. B. Burton, who left us a prominent message here on the right fender: “Mount Gilead Jindabyne”. That’s an area in southern New South Wales, in the Snowy Mountains, 460 kilometers from Sydney. Gilead was a fertile wheat-growing plain of biblical times, and our Mount Gilead here is also a prosperous land with a special place in local history. The Series I 86 was a workhorse – dependable, original, undeterred, a farmer’s friend, as they called it in those days. Though first you had to shoo away the kids who were constantly playing on and in it. What a fantastic robber’s den it made underneath the canvas top! “We did everything in the Old Green Girl,” says Burton Jr. “We’d go fishing, and there was a light rifle clamped across the front beneath the windshield in case Dad saw a rabbit, which he’d unceremoniously pick off while driving.” As a memento, a .22 cartridge is mounted there today in place of the gun. “There was no heater,” the owner recounts, “we had to put on another layer of clothes. My sister and I sat in the back with the dogs, our little brother up front between dad and mum. It’s got three seats in the front, you know.” All the children were picked up from the maternity hospital in the Land Rover, and all three later learned to drive in it “thanks to a cushion to sit on”.

1/3

The workhorse became a member of the family. Of course, without sacrificing any of its utility and practicality that the makers had intended. The side windows and frame could be removed in one easy step, the radiator grille was often used as a barbecue over an open fire, and the backrests of the three front seats could be folded down in case it rained inside the uncovered car. That way you could keep the seat surfaces dry. The windshield could also be folded down, at least as long as there was no spare tire bolted to the front. Few other cars bring you in such close contact with the world around you.

The two-liter, four-cylinder engine only generated around 50 hp, but it was considered indestructible and ran on practically anything containing a flammable substance. Eighty octane was plenty. Unlike the successor models, the 86 still had a soft suspension. Its fuel tank was located under the driver’s seat on right-hand drive models, as was the case with later models as well, though the filler neck back then was found by simply folding up the seat and unscrewing the cap. A pull-out metal neck with strainer insert still makes filling easier today. There was an erratic fuel gauge floating inside the tank, and if you really wanted to know how much fuel you had left, that was the place to look, because the trembling fuel meter on the instrument panel tended to oscillate wildly from zero to full at any given time. After switching on the ignition, the first thing you hear is the typical whirring sound of the fuel pump filling the carburetor. A separate start button below the dashboard then calls the engine to life.

In an emergency, in case the battery failed, you could also start the car using the extra-long starting crank. “The odds of either getting the engine started or breaking your arm when the crank kicks back are about fifty-fifty,” as knowledgeable Brits explain with their typical deadpan humor. Three levers protrude from the floor panel...

→ Read the whole story in ramp #60 »Too Cool to Handle.«.

David Staretz

David Staretz

Freelance Author
David Staretz, born 1956 in Horn. Since 1976 editor, then chief editor of Autorevue. Since 2000 freelance author: car tests for various magazines, writes and photographs travel reports and artist portraits. In his gallery, Kontor Staretz, he builds kinetic objects and puts them on display to amuse passers-by. In 2004, the book Lenk mich doch! Geschichten rund ums Auto was published by Deuticke.
ramp #60 Unfassbar. Cool.

ramp #60 Unfassbar. Cool.

Ein Heft über Coolness? Auch. Aber erst geht’s ins Kino. Da ist dieser erfolgreiche Geschäftsmann aus Boston, der eine Bank um einen ansehnlichen Betrag erleichtert. Die Versicherungen verdächtigen ihn, können aber nichts nachweisen. Das ist die Geschichte des Filmklassikers, in dem Steve McQueen den bis zum Schluss...

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