1983 Land Rover Santana 109 (0115A)
The mountains between Santiago de Compostela and Oursense aren't massive by Spanish standards, I have certainly driven over worse, but they are relentless. Long, merciless climbs up and long, steep descents down. Then repeat. And repeat. And repeat. It is not ideal cruising territory for an old Land Rover, particularly one with aggressive tires and "campo" gearing, and it's not a combination conducive to making good time. Worst of all, the sun was setting almost directly behind me, reflecting savagely through my mirrors and serving as a constant, albeit nearly subconscious, irritant. Just an hour or so into the drive, I already felt crabby and edgy. This was not turning out to be my favorite road trip.
Then, after cresting yet another peak, while winding down a particularly steep grade, always being careful not to let my speed build up too much, the reliably potent Spanish sun finally set behind a far off ridge. The interior of the truck was bathed in shadow, and in an instant, everything changed. My mood improved in a flash. I reached forward and flicked the rocker switch to turn the headlamps on, settled back for the long haul that still remained before I reached Madrid, and contemplated the pros and cons of traveling longish distances by vintage Land Rover.
But we'll come back to that in a minute.
A City of Ghosts
I had bought this truck in Santiago de Compostela in the extreme northwest of Spain, the rumored resting place of the remains of the apostle James and the destination of innumerable Catholic pilgrims each year. The truck had come available over the Christmas holiday, and I had been forced to leave my family in Madrid in the middle of the festivities and make my way north to Galicia. My wife was none too pleased, but I have a feeling St. James would have understood.
The seller's name was also Santiago (but I will refer to him here as Santi, to avoid confusion with the name of the town, which is also commonly called simply "Santiago"), and he picked me up at the train station the evening I arrived. I had sent him a photograph of my face so he would recognize me. "You will recognize me immediately," he had replied. "Estoy verde y ruidoso."
I had arranged for a thorough pre-purchase inspection at a local shop before I came up, but even so, The Land Rover, when it arrived, was everything I had hoped for. Almost fully restored, with gorgeous Grasmere green paint, a white safari roof, and an interior in grey and black that looked magnificent. Everything was spotless, even the tires, and everything worked perfectly. He drove me through old Santiago on the way to my hotel. The medieval cobbled streets and soaring cathedral, particularly when bathed in a typical Galician mist of evening rain, makes it one of the most beautiful cities in all of Spain.
After checking in and agreeing to meet Santi first thing in the morning, I wandered the streets for a while, just strolling in the dark and looking for a bite to eat. Santiago is a college town, with a sizable university, and the streets are alive at night with small pubs, lounges and cafés, crowded with people of all ages. The presence of the church is everywhere, and, particularly when decorated for Christmas, it is a breathtaking, moving, and palpably spiritual place.
The following morning, after touring the Cathedral, buying breakfast for a Polish pilgrim, and sightseeing some more, Santi picked me up and we completed the paperwork at his jewelry store in the old part of town. We had a leisurely lunch, his family bid me "buen viaje," and I set off in the afternoon for Madrid.
Old Cars At Night
Once the sun set, I was happy again. There is something uniquely pleasurable about driving an old car at night, particularly in the cold. When the sun sets, and you're alone on the highway, an old car becomes more than just transportation. It becomes a partner in the battle against the darkness. A protector against the cold. A modern car, with its consummate competence, never really feels this way. Its headlamps are too bright, cutting perfectly defined shards of ice white light far in front of you. Its dashboard is a video game of neon colors and LED backlighting. The heater is silent and so good you turn it down after a short time. But an old car is very different. An old car feels like it's trying harder.
The Land Rover's twin headlamps were boring their yellowish holes in the darkness, and the heater was chugging away, keeping up with the frigid Galician winter, but only just. The relatively feeble dashboard lights kept the old gauges illuminated enough to be seen, but no more. The noises of the heater blower and the diesel powerplant, combined with the roar of the open-block tires on the tarmac, made the Land Rover feel like a living travel partner, doing everything to keep me warm and dry and safe as we chugged up the side of a mountain and plunged back down the far side. A new sedan in these conditions would be entirely uneventful. Just a long distance wait in the automotive equivalent of a washing machine. But in a vintage motorcar there is a bond that develops on journeys such as these. You become almost, well... almost grateful for the warmth and protection and loyalty of the vehicle, and as I roared along in the old Land Rover, I found myself, as I often do when driving old cars in the cold and dark, reaching forward to pat the dashboard, and saying things out loud like: "Way to go little Landy... you're doing great."
Bleeding Amber In The Blackness
After a couple hours, somewhere in the darkness near Allariz, I stopped for fuel and checked the oil. It was a liter low, and my flashlight showed oil on the valve cover and top of the engine. It looked like it was coming out of the filler cap, but I couldn't be sure in the poor light. I topped it off and let it run for a bit while I watched, but it did not appear to be leaking at idle, and did not appear to be leaking from anywhere around the engine itself. It appeared to be leaking only under higher crankcase pressures, and likely from the check valve inside the crankcase breather tube.
It was not a serious problem. The leak was relatively slight and pressure was good on the gauge. I had plenty of oil, so I wasn't overly concerned, but the oil was making a mess of the beautifully clean, restored-looking engine. Worse, it would mean stopping frequently to make absolutely certain the oil level didn't drop significantly, and to make sure the leak didn't get any worse. It also meant, likely, limiting my top speed to maybe 70kph to keep crankcase pressures lower, and it certainly meant my arrival into Madrid would be substantially delayed.
I messaged Bill in the USA, and told him I knew a good Land Rover specialist in Madrid and would be leaving it there to have it checked again from top to bottom. "Okay," he said, "Sorry you have to deal with this over Christmas."
The irony, of course, is that I love this kind of thing. Not the leak, specifically, but all of it, taken as a whole. Old cars, travel, dealing with whatever comes up, and the general sense of adventure that is part and parcel of getting somewhere in a vintage vehicle. It has always been my favorite thing to do, and oddly, having something to keep an eye on during the trip stripped away any remaining shreds of boredom and made me feel alive and focused again. I said as much to Bill. "Nonsense. I love this stuff."
"I do too," he replied. "What's wrong with us?"
From Madrid To Valencia
My technician in Madrid repaired and serviced the Land Rover in about a week. (It was indeed a bad crankcase check valve, and they also addressed some other minor leaks that I hadn't noticed before, and replaced all the wiring to the glow plugs, which looked worn. Since it was there, I had it fully serviced with new oil and filter, new glow plugs, a coolant flush, etc.) When I picked it up it the engine was spotless again and I was ready to set off for Valencia, but because we lost some time, I would now be dropping it directly at the port for the boat ride to Baltimore.
Rather than drone down the A-3 superhighway, I left Madrid via the smaller roads and paralleled the autovia east. Near Tarancón I hopped on the N-400, winding east, and made my way to Cuenca. The cold and wet brought thick banks of fog in the hills surrounding Tarancón, but as I neared Cuenca I burst up through the mist into the piercing sunlight of a very cold, but very bright, Spanish morning. I pulled into town, filled the Landy up with diesel, and stopped for a late breakfast.
This is one of the last of the vintage Santana Land Rovers. Not in years, Santana continued to build them into the 1990's, but in terms of the close relationship with Solihull. There were only five options available on the 109's in 1983. A five speed transmission, parabolic springs, an auxiliary fuel tank, three windscreen wipers, and power steering. This one has them all, and makes for a very rare and well appointed specification. Virtually everywhere I stopped, from Santiago de Compostela all the way to Valencia, this Land Rover drew crowds. The Grasmere green paint is very classic, and people immediately want to reach out and touch it. Run their hand along it. This one has an effect on people.
I checked the oil and looked for leaks, but everything was tight as a drum and the oil was still full and amber on the stick, so I left Cuenca behind (along with its famous "hanging houses") and headed southeast for Minglanilla.
Once out into the open country, on the smaller "national" roads, the Land Rover and I really came to understand one another. It will do 100kp/h in a pinch, but it doesn't like it, and prefers to cruise at 80kp/h. I obliged, and all was right with the world. We took out-of-the-way detours together, and once, when I saw a dirt track cutting off through a pine forest, we turned off the tarmac and explored for a bit out in the "campo." With the taller tires the ground clearance is astounding, and even leaving it in two-wheel drive it will pull through extraordinary terrain. But regrettably, I had a boat to catch, so we made our way back to the tarmac and kept the nose pointing toward Valencia.
Crazy, But Tough
When I reached the port of Valencia, I snapped a couple photos of the engine. Still spotless, even after nearly ten hours on the road. No problems. Nothing untoward. The engine photos you see here in the gallery are those photos, snapped at the dock after a long, long drive. No engine cleaning at all. Not even wiped down.
As I was gathering my things, a group of dock workers stepped out through a nearby fence, and started speaking to me in rapid Spanish.
"Great machine!" one of them said, letting out a low whistle. Then he saw the license plate with the prefix PO. "Pontevedra?! Did you drive it all the way from Pontevedra?!"
I told him I had, and he clapped me on the back. "Wow," he exclaimed. "You're tough."
One of his friends spoke up for the first time, saying "No, he's crazy."
"Crazy? Yes. But also tough," the first one said, patting me on the shoulder, more gently this time.
He shook my hand and left, and I grabbed my bags and headed for my waiting taxi. I had taken his comment as the ultimate compliment, and thought about how similar it would make me to an old Land Rover.
Crazy, sure... but tough.
CLICK THE IMAGE BELOW TO CYCLE THROUGH THE GALLERY