1971 Land Rover Santana 109 2-door
GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST
One of my first cars was a 1963 MGB Roadster my father helped me buy when I was 16 years old. It was unrestored but a wonderful driver, primrose over black leather, and I covered a lot of very enthusiastic miles behind the wheel of that motorcar. I also spent a lot of (less competent) hours underneath it, trying to teach myself how to repair all the little things that went wrong. I remember one day, when I had my head stuffed way up under the dashboard, deep under the wiring and against the very upper part of the bulkhead, I came across an assortment of writing on the steel. The men who originally built the car must have scribbled quick notes in grease pencil, maybe to help them align certain sections, or as comments for the next person who would be addressing that portion of the bodywork, and here it was, many years later, right in front of my eyes.
I looked at the writing, utterly enthralled. I felt like I was staring back in time, into the soul not just of the car, but of the men and women who had birthed it all those decades ago in an old brick building in England. It felt wonderful. Here was tangible evidence of the legendary MG factory in Abingdon on Thames, and yet the car was sitting in my parents’ driveway in Reston, Virginia. I couldn’t stop wondering what had happened in between...
I have never been much for Concours d’Elegance. Rows and rows of perfectly restored and fantastically expensive vehicles lining the fairways of a manicured golf course somewhere has never done much for me. I tend to avoid them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not disdainful of concours. Not in any way. I have immense respect for the role properly restored and beautifully original vehicles play in the history of automotive collecting, and I also champion all forms of car junkies, in all their various iterations. But I have simply always been more of a driver myself, and have always erred on the side of treating cars more like cars and less like art. I believe vehicles are made to be driven, and driven in the manner for which they were designed, and if they aren’t then something of their soul is wasted. Squandered. Is there risk involved in driving a valuable and rare old vehicle? Absolutely. But Thomas Aquinas once noted that: “If the primary aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it forever in port.” I have never been much for staying in port, and it is this thought that often comes to my mind as I stroll through a concours, surrounded by jaw-droppingly perfect, yet largely static, showpieces. I can’t help but wonder what remnants of grease pencil were erased during the various restorations of their bulkheads. I can’t help but wonder what bits of their histories have been lost as the slate was wiped clean and the car was made new again. And I can’t help but wonder how often they now leave port and embark on the type of adventure they were built for in the first place.
Old vehicles represent adventure, and it’s nice sometimes to have tangible reminders of those adventures. This is perhaps true of no vehicle so much as it is of the Series Land Rover. Designed to go virtually anywhere and do virtually anything, many old Landys did exactly that, and the 109 pictured here had a rather curious life, indeed.
Built in Jaen, in southern Spain, it was purchased new by a man in the small town of Casillas de Coria, a village of 484 inhabitants, way over on the western edge of Spain and close to the Portuguese border. No one knows exactly when Casillas de Coria was founded, but the church in the center of town is a 16th century construction, so it dates back at least to the middle ages. The larger nearby town of Coria dates from the 6th century B.C., when it was founded by a Celtic tribe called the Vetones, who fought against the Roman empire but who were eventually assimilated.
Casillas de Coria came into existence when the keepers of the area’s numerous horses and Iberico pigs settled it into a formal village. Nestled into the base of a mountainous ridge which protects the valley below and which helps maintain a mild climate even more temperate than the surrounding areas, the land of Casillas de Coria is blessed with many underground aquifers which provide crystal clear water, likely the reason the horses and pigs were originally kept here. Today, the mountain ridge and resulting warmth have the advantage of providing dry, relatively temperate weather that doesn’t allow rust to develop a foothold.
OF YEAST AND BROKEN BONES
I bought this truck from Javier, the nephew of the man who purchased it new. Javier still lives in Casillas de Coria, and he inherited it when his uncle recently passed away. Javier’s uncle owned a “panaderia” (bread company) in town, a common enough business in an area where wheat grows so easily and in such large quantity.
Every morning around 4:00am Javier’s uncle would start the baking and hours later when the loaves were all ready to go he would load them into the back of this Land Rover and begin delivering them to the stores and restaurants of the surrounding area. The distances travelled were not great, but the use was consistent and important to the business, so the vehicle remained low mileage and was always kept in excellent mechanical condition.
I remember this truck from my whole life,” Javier says. “The back was perfect for bread, like a big rolling warehouse, and it was always stacked to the roof. The smell was wonderful.”
In the summers, Javier remembers his uncle removing the bodywork, folding down the windscreen, and driving to the nearby aquifers for a spot of fishing or swimming. It was a perfect work and play vehicle, capable of getting everything delivered and yet always available for some open-topped fun time, too.
But the vehicle had a more serious side as well.
“This was the ambulance for Casillas de Coria,” Javier recalls. “Even in its heyday the village has never been large enough for its own ambulance. This was the only truck with enough length, and known to always be kept reliable enough, to transport people to the hospital in Coria. So my uncle had to be… available, I suppose, to help.”
In more recent times, the truck has had an easier life. Still delivering bread as recently as two years ago, it has been more than a decade since it last transported an injured human, and it has seen gentle, regular use around the farm that Javier’s uncle retired to. Still touring the hillsides, taking people where they needed to go, and still always ready for a top-off run to the local aquifer, Javier says it has been the most reliable thing in his life. “I don’t recall it ever stranding anyone,” he says. “I don’t remember it ever letting anyone down.” Then he laughs warmly and adds: “I don’t think I can say that about anything else in my life.”
WHICH ROCK DID WHAT?
So here, half a world away, is the “bread truck,” as we affectionately call it. A 1971 Land Rover Santana 109, two-door, in Marine Blue with Alaska White removable safari roof and white wheels, over recent gray cloth. It is powered by the trusty 2 1/4 liter four-cylinder diesel and four-speed manual transmission, and it runs and shifts exactly as it should. It has covered just 87,080 miles from new, always in the care of someone who maintained it to use daily. Upon cold startup there is a (normal) bit of smoke, but it dies away as the vehicle warms and the diesel mill pulls lustily in every gear, ultimately reaching a maximum speed of around 80kph. Recent brake work includes front pad replacement, a new master cylinder, and a complete fluid flush. The tires are fairly worn, and although there is no structural rust or corrosion in the chassis, there are areas of cosmetic surface rust on hinges and bolts and such.
Unrestored, but mechanically honest, as reliable and trustworthy as ever, and still wearing all the reminders of bread deliveries and hospital runs and fishing trips and adventures of a lifetime spent along the mountainous Portuguese border, this truck is a perfectly useable survivor with immensely charming patina. No grease pencil, if it ever existed, has been wiped off its bulkhead. No scratches from the trees that line the aquifers around Casillas de Coria have been filled and resprayed. This Land Rover has not been kept in port.
I think Aquinas would approve.
(CLICK ON THE IMAGE BELOW TO CYCLE THROUGH THE GALLERY OF PHOTOS)