1978 Land Rover Santana 88 Especial (Ref# 0914A)
To me, one of the most interesting things about Spain has always been the juxtaposition of old and new, advanced and simple, fast and slow. From the center of one of the largest and most modern cities on the planet, you can be in a quiet, simple pueblo in a matter of minutes that will make you feel as if you have stepped back half a century in time.
It was this feeling that struck me again as I pulled off the A3 superhighway from Valencia to Madrid, and started angling north on a small carrertera toward the town of Sot de Chera, northwest of Valencia.
Within minutes, the highway was forgotten and the road turned twisty, and as it started to descend into a deep valley, mountains that I hadn't even imagined were there rose up until they towered around me in all directions. The road continued to narrow, and continued to wind, but there were no people, no homes, no cross roads... nothing. Just a lonely and twisting ribbon of asphalt, and seemingly endless acres of olive groves and grape vines on either side of the valley. It was sunny, dry, high desert type landscape, with little but farms as far as the eye could see. Perfect Land Rover country.
Within fifteen or twenty kilometers, I came to the small village of Sot de Chera. It's a tiny place, with the obligatory roman Church and a few simple homes, a bar, and not much else. I easily found Rafael's home, and when I parked in the street out front a handful of people approached me, apparently to investigate just who I was and what I was doing there. Not rude, by any means, and not threatening. Just... interested. I don't think they get many visitors.
Rafael shook my hand warmly and invited me into his home. There, in a covered courtyard, parked next to an Opel Insignia and a more modern Land Rover 109, sat the Series III 88 we had discussed. He had bought it in Barcelona, nearly twenty years earlier, and brought it to Sot de Chera immediately. He had been using it, along with the larger 109, to pick up almonds from the fields and bring them back to his property to be sorted and sold. The bodywork was a bit battered in places, from hitting the odd tree and scraping against the odd branch, but it was straight as an arrow underneath and dry as a bone.
"It leaks oil," he told me. "Sometimes. Sometimes not." I couldn't see any evidence of any leaks, and told him so. "It does," he said. "Not a lot, but sometimes it does. Keep an eye open."
We took a drive, winding back out of town the way I had come, and I immediately felt how solid and strong the 88 drove. The steering was precise and direct, the engine willing and punchy, and the brakes strong. It started easily, shifted cleanly and felt very good on the road. We continued east, through the fields, and came to a place where a small, rutted dirt track angled off from the road. "Here," Rafael said. "Turn here."
"Here?" I asked, not convinced I had heard him correctly.
I pulled off the tarmac onto the trail, and Rafael motioned for me to stop. We got out and locked the front hubs, which required two-fingers only and engaged with well oiled smoothness. Climbing back inside, I shifted into low range and we set off again, bumping along what appeared to be little more than a horse trail. Traveling at more than ten kph was impossible, so I set the hand throttle a few clicks to the good and let the combination of the low gearing and the effortless torque of the diesel just pull us along, entirely without drama, up into the almond groves.
Within a half a kilometer or so, the track got even narrower, and more deeply rutted, and it bent upward at an ever increasing angle. Not being an advanced off roader, I have to admit it was a little spooky, and I mentioned my reservations to Rafael, who dismissed me with a throwaway gesture of his hand. "Keep going," he said.
Driven like this - in low range at low speed and using the hand throttle - there is something amazing about these old Land Rovers. There is something... inexorable about the way they move. It's like you're driving a mudslide, only uphill. You feel like nothing could ever stop your progress, and sure enough, nothing really does. We continued upward, bending so steeply uphill at times, and twisting so steeply sideways at times, that I can honestly say I was concerned about rolling the Land Rover over, but occasional glances at Rafael's calm, bored face gave me the confidence to keep going.
After a time, we crawled through a clump of trees and arrived at a high plain - a flat stretch of land, halfway up the mountain, that was wide and smooth and felt like heaven after the nerve wracking route up. We could see for miles. It was astonishing.
"Incredible," I said. "I have never driven up a mountain before."
Rafael looked confused. "Mountain?! No. This is not a mountain. This is a dirt road. You want to drive up a mountain? Come, I will take you!"
Back down at his home, we went through the paperwork over bottles of Mahou. Rafael had every record of inspections, virtually every six months since the vehicle was new. Every receipt for insurance payments. Every receipt for repairs and servicing. He explained his approach to maintenance, which could best be described as "fastidious," and took me on a painstakingly exhaustive tour of the vehicle, explaining every switch, every knob, every gauge, every cubby.
When I was ready to set off for home, he asked me to wait, and brought out a box of spare parts for me to take with me. He gave me a trash bag full of almonds from his farm, and five liters of olive oil that he presses from olives that grow on his property. He gave me his maps of the area, and even five liters of water. I asked him if it was for the Land Rover, and he said no. "It is for you. It is hot today. If you get lost out here, drink this so you don't die."
We shook hands one last time, took a couple photographs, and I was off. Heading out of Sot de Chera to the east, I would be taking the long way back to Valencia, and from there, down the coast to my home in Javea. Going back the way I had come would mean the A3 superhighway, and in a vehicle capable of perhaps 75km/h max, that wasn't appealing.
The road east, however, devolved quickly. Within a few kilometers of Sot de Chera, it had become only one lane wide, snaking along a high ridge cut into the side of a massif. A glance out the left window revealed the rock face of the mountain barely a meter from my door, and just a meter out the right window a cliff dropped away more than 500 feet straight down to a high mountain lake of impossibly turquoise water. I was creeping around corners, feeling exposed and vulnerable, at little more than 10kp/h, and I have no idea what I would have done if I had encountered oncoming traffic. This was, still, in theory at least, a two-way road.
After an hour of steady progress down the ridge, I was only 17kms from Rafael's house and panic was starting to set in. At this rate it would be days before I got home, and I was glad, suddenly, that I had the big jug of drinking water. As the mountain road bottomed out, it widened out again, but also got rougher. Parts weren't paved at all, and some of the side roads the maps listed were little more than dirt tracks. But the Land Rover was unfazed. Slow and steady, unperturbed and unperturbable, it just took whatever the road had to offer and didn't ask any more. Not of the terrain, and not of me. The drivers seat is wide and flat, but remarkably comfortable, and while bouncing along the rutted road, it's hard not to notice how good the visibility is, how well the steering soaks up sharp inputs, and how nicely the Landy handles itself in general.
I continued on, and the roads slowly became smoother and wider, and elements of modernity began to appear, and after another hour, I was in the outskirts of Valencia and out of the woods, so to speak. From there, it was a leisurely run down the coast road, the N-332, through all the little beach towns that dot the Costa Blanca.
When I got home and had the mechanics look it over really good, they found an oil pump that leaked under load and a rear main seal leaking slightly. Both big jobs, but both pretty common on Series Land Rovers. While the transmission was out, we replaced the clutch master cylinder as well, which was starting to weep fluid. Other than that, it got a clean bill of health, and happy nods and smiles from the technicians, who proclaimed it "the strongest 88 they had ever driven" and "an extremely honest and well-kept truck."
The night I got home, Rafael called to make sure I made it back safely, and also to discuss the olive oil with my wife. They chatted on the phone happily for quite a while, and when she hung up my wife laughed and said: "Well... we're family now."