1981 Land Rover Santana 109 (Ref# 1014A)
Chasing Mythical Land Rovers:
Spain is a large country by European standards, about 20% larger than California, and is split into a number of provinces. Some, like the Basque country and Catalunya, are known for their separatist leanings. Others, like the Community of Valencia, are known for their agriculture and beaches. In my travels I have visited most of these regions, but had never been to Anadalucía in the south, and was hugely excited to go. I have always heard that Anadalucía, known as one of the poorer regions in Spain, is also one of the most beautiful, and most unique. To boot, I had two really nice-sounding Land Rovers to look at - a gorgeous looking 109 in light green and a near perfect, and delightfully old, Series IIA 88 in beige. I felt certain I would be making the long drive back in a new truck.
I took a bus from Javea up to Gandia, hopped a light-rail commuter train from Gandia to Valenica, and got on an 11:30pm sleeper train heading west. I climbed into the tiny bed to get a few fitful hours of sleep, and we rolled quietly into Linares-Baeza around 4:30am. My plan had been to get some breakfast in a local café, unwind a bit after the cramped sleeper cabin, and wait for the first seller to pick me up, as agreed, at 8:00am. Unfortunately, however, the small, dusty train station was closed when I climbed down onto the platform, with the ticket office shuttered up tight and the only other facility, the train station coffee shop, closed as well. I started walking around the streets a bit, but even big cities in Spain are quiet at 4:30am and Linares is hardly a big city. Everything was entirely dark and silent, so I returned to the station, plunked myself down on a bench out front, and waited.
At 7:00am, the ticket office opened and I asked the man behind the counter what time the station's coffee shop would open. "I don't know," he replied. "Sometimes nine. Sometimes later. But the place across the street will open soon."
Sure enough, at about 7:20am, a heavily tattooed young man arrived and started rolling back the steel gates in front of a battered looking bar/restaurant called "Las Palmeras." I went in and took a seat and within a few minutes some rough-looking workmen in uniforms came in and sat next to me. I drank coffee and they drank shots of chinchon, an anise-flavored liquor. Sheesh. Welcome to Linares.
The seller of the green 109 arrived at 8:00am to pick me up, but after driving east to nearby Ubeda, and finding our way back into a dusty warehouse complex, the vehicle he had for sale turned out to be battered 88 Super, not the ultra-clean 109 I had been promised. These types of things are intensely frustrating, but not altogether uncommon, unfortunately. The seller tried hard to get me to buy it anyway, but I passed.
He dropped me back off at the train station and I waited for the seller of the second vehicle, a series IIA 88 owned by a man named Ruben, who also swore it was in "perfect condition with a fresh inspection." The photos in the ad, while not the clearest, certainly looked promising.
Ruben had agreed to pick me up at the train station at 10:00am, but didn't show up. After sending him repeated and increasingly frantic texts, he finally got back to me around 11:15am, saying: "Where are you?" I told him I was waiting at the train station, as we had agreed, and he replied: "Ok, I'm in Jaen running errands. I will leave to come pick you up."
Ruben rolled into the station around noon, driving a BMW 1-series, and introduced himself and his father, Marco. Marco smiled, clambered into the back seat, and we set off to the northwest, deep into the olives.
When we arrived at the vehicle, it was ghastly. The paint looked like it had been applied with a brush, the tires were so badly dry rotten I could see cords through the sidewalls, and the windshield had a quarter inch of dust on the glass, rendering it opaque.
"I thought you said it was in perfect condition," I said to Ruben.
"Oh it is," he replied. "It runs great."
"I thought you said it had a fresh inspection," I continued, pointing to the old sticker on the windshield that had expired in May of 2011.
"It will, it will. If you buy it I will make sure there is a sticker on there for you." An interesting choice of words. I passed again.
Ruben dropped me back off at the train station, but it was close to 1:00pm by the time we got there and I was running out of ideas. According to my plan I should have been past Murcia already, heading home in a good looking green 109, but here I was stuck at the train station in Linares with no vehicle and no leads.
I called Bill in Virginia, desperate.
"Okay," he said. "There's a decent looking 109 somewhere in your area, and another in Cordoba. There is also a Seat 600 that looks interesting, a turbo diesel Nissan Patrol that I'd love to have, and, if you want to just pull the plug and head home, there's a TVR in Albacete."
I sent messages to all of them and waited for replies.
None came. Hours passed. My phone was dying, so I found the only available electrical outlet, which happened to be in the train station bathroom, and sat on the sink, letting it charge. I felt like a vagrant. This was getting pathetic.
After another hour, a text message came through. "You can see the car if you'd like." It was Dionisio, a gentleman with a 109, and one of the people I had recently texted. I asked where he was, and he told me a town I had never heard of called "Baños de la Encinas." I asked if he could come and pick me up, but he said no, that would be impossible, but if I could get to the car, he would show it to me.
At this point, to be blunt, I was torn. A quick look at Google Maps told me Baños de la Encinas was more than 20kms away to the west, with only tiny back roads connecting it to Linares. It would mean taking a rather expensive taxi ride farther away from home, to an unknown vehicle in a small town I had never heard of before. Plus, I had a bad taste in my mouth about the whole trip now, and if the truck turned out to be another dog, it would mean yet another expensive taxi back to the train station and another couple hours lost.
I sighed. "In for a penny, in for a pound," I thought, and called a taxi.
When Life Gives You Olives...
After more than thirty minutes winding our way west through still more olive groves, the taxi driver pointed to a faraway castle up on a distant hill. "See that?" He asked, "That is Baños de la Encinas."
My mouth fell open. It is an astonishing place.
The village is built around a 10th century castle of arab construction, that has never suffered any real damage, so it is almost perfectly preserved. The walls of the castle blend with those of the nearby church, surrounding much of the city, and the views from all directions are spectacular. To the east and south, perfectly manicured olive groves stretch as far as the eye can see, and the eye can see far. There must be millions of acres here, which makes sense because Spain is the largest producer of olive oil in the world and much of the olive oil produced in Spain is produced right here in Andalucía. To the west, a deep valley runs off between wide mountains, with a cobalt blue lake winding away inside it. Yet the most striking thing about Baños de la Encinas is the noise. Or rather, the total absence of it. There are no cars driving around, no industry. No planes flying overhead. No tractors roaring away. There is nothing. No noise of any kind. Just birds singing and the occasional sound of a rooster crowing. It is quite possibly the most peaceful and beautiful town I have ever been in.
The taxi driver dropped me off at the church. Dionisio arrived within minutes and I hopped into the passenger seat of his Fiat Doblo. We drove through town to the northwest side, looking down over the lake, and pulled into a large complex of farm buildings. There, behind a fence, was a tan Land Rover. It looked beautiful.
"That is the car," he said, pointing to it.
It was a four door 109 with a full-length roof rack and nine seats. I crawled around underneath. No rust anywhere. Straight and true. No signs of any leaks. All the fittings were greased properly and everything looking entirely normal. I opened the doors, which swung open easily on well used but perfectly straight hinges, and the interior looked nearly mint. All surfaces clean, and all the upholstery perfect, save a single split seam on the front passenger seat. I asked him if everything worked, and he looked surprised at my question. "Yes, of course. Everything."
I opened the hood and was again greeted with a pleasant sight. The engine was spotless. Not as if it had been freshly cleaned to sell, but as if it had been kept in top flight condition and never allowed to get dirty in the first place. It was a very well-kept 109 in outstanding condition, plain and simple.
Other than one dent on the left front fender and that split in the passenger seat, I couldn't find anything wrong with it. We took it for a long drive, winding through the countryside, making our way down to the lake and then back up to the castle. It steered well, shifted smoothly, turned in beautifully, didn't smoke, and idled smooth as silk. The engine was quiet (for a Land Rover) and willing.
I loved it and we shook hands on the spot.
Dionisio is a serious man, and he wanted the sale handled by his gestor (a professional who handles contracts and transfers of property for people in Spain - sort of a cross between a paralegal and an accountant), and as it was getting late I checked into a hotel. My room overlooked the castle, and I could stand on my small balcony and see the whole valley below the pueblo. I was exhausted from the day, and all the ups and downs, but enormously fond of Baños de la Encinas, enormously fond of Dionisio, and enormously fond of the Land Rover that came out of the blue.
As the sun started to set, I took a stroll around the village. Spain is so rich in history, and so full of ancient towns with beautiful churches and castles, it can often make you a bit jaded. Most of these towns, at least to some level, capitalize on their history, with restaurants and touristy stores located near the primary attractions. But this is not the case with Baños de la Encinas. Head to the center of town, where the church and castle are situated, and you find... nothing. No bars. No souvenir shops. Nothing. Just low-key, informative signs that explain the history of the village. It was wonderful.
The next morning I rose early and met Dionisio at the gestor's office, and we took care of all the paperwork. I was in the big Landy and on the road before 10:00am, heading east to get home to my family.
I took the carreteras east to Villaneuva del Arzobispo, then split off to the right on the tiny, serpentine roads that cut through the Sierra Cazorla National Park. I had been warned not to go through this area, because although beautiful, they are small and twisting mountain roadways and not particularly conducive to making speedy progress.
"No, no!" Dionisio had yelled, when I told him my planned route home, "You'll be in there forever!"
He was right. Looking back, the progress I made through the park was on the order of 20km/h average speed. I plunged down into deep valleys and climbed slowly up the sides of immensely steep mountains, only to pitch over the edge and head curling back downwards again. There was virtually nothing inside the park. No gas stations, no side roads, no towns to speak of... nothing. Just impossibly beautiful scenery and some of the most challenging roadways I have ever encountered. These are car-breaking roads. Uphill climbs so steep, with speeds so slow, almost everything overheats. Downhills so precipitous, and so twisting, brakes fade before you're a fifth of the way down. But the big Landy, even with its slow steering and sizable bulk, handled it all with remarkable aplomb.
Once out of the park I picked my way east on flatter ground, to Murcia, then Elche and Alicante, and then up the coast to home. With the tall gearing, the 109 will cruise happily near 100kp/h, which makes it a marvelously useable truck in a modern context. I developed a very strong bond with it during the trip, and could see myself happily keeping it for myself. Once the techs got to take a look at it they found a palm-sized area of rust in one of the longitudinals and a dent in the rear propshaft. (We replaced the propshaft with a new one, but left the rust. It is not a structural problem, and the buyer can decide if they would like to address it or leave it as is.) Other than that, the fuel gauge flickers when it drops below a half tank and the speedometer reads rather pessimistically, and that's it. It's in near perfect nick.
Bam. A two-strike home run.
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