1982 Land Rover Santana 88 Normal
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The drive from Caceres, a city on the far western edge of Spain, down to Cadiz on the southwestern coast, is a route steeped in history. It's part of the "Via de la Plata," an old Roman trade route that runs north/south along the western edge of the country, many cobbled sections of which, including some of the ones I was passing, haven't changed substantially in two thousand years.
Perhaps even more importantly, especially to modern Spaniards, is the fact that this part of the country is most famous for the droves of "Iberico" pigs that can be found here, the unique black pigs of the Iberian peninsula which are raised (rather obsessively, actually) for the production of cured ham and other delicacies. They are raised "free range" only, and allowed to feed on their favorite acorns, which fall from trees that look, at first glance, rather like olive trees. Some say it is the acorn diet, and others say it is the remnant Phoenician genes dating back to the first introduction of the pigs in this region, but whatever the case, Iberico ham somehow doesn't have the bad cholesterol of virtually all other cured pork products. Spain has a love affair with the Iberico pig. There is a saying here: "Of the pig, we love even the way it walks," and you can find Iberico products proudly sold and served all over the peninsula. Even at gas stations.
So here I was, in a particularly proud and historic region, heading south to meet a man named Israel about a particulalry proud and historic vehicle. A Land Rover Santana 88.
I wasn't exactly sure what I was going to find, frankly. The photos looked nice, and Israel seemed like a straight shooter on the telephone, but I'd lately been on a bad run of luck - traveling long distances to see very iffy vehicles - and I wasn't feeling particularly confident. Worse, I was running late after some business in Caceres, and my plan to meet Israel in the afternoon would have to be bumped to first thing the following morning. The sun was setting when I hit Sevilla, and I knew I still had a ways to go.
The Land Rover was located in Sanlucar de Barrameda, a fishing and resort town on the southwestern coast of Spain, famous for its prawns. I live in Javea, which is a small beach resort town on the Mediterranean coast, so I was interested to make the comparison.
I reached Sanlucar late and found a hotel near the center of town ("When you get to a small town," my wife Altamira once told me, "always go to the church first. That's the center of town, and you can get your bearings from there.") I walked the old cobbled streets of the "centro urbano" looking for a bite to eat. The historic section of downtown feels much like small towns everywhere in Spain, but radiating out from that is a suburban beach sprawl that feels very "Atlantic" to someone like me who grew up on the east coast of the United States. It was mid February, and the shops along the boardwalk were all boarded up, the beach itself looked cold and windswept, and the town had the slightly scruffy, tourist-worn look of Brighton, maybe. Or the Jersey shore. Moreover, the proximity to Gibraltar, and therefore Africa proper, is evident. Much of the old architecture looks more traditionally Moroccan than Spanish; friendly, dark skinned faces were common on the streets; and many of the shops bore the colorful, hand made arts and crafts that are strikingly beautiful and easily identifiable as African in origin. It is a combination that gives Sanlucar a nice feel. A little exotic.
88's and 109's, Oh My.
Excitement always makes me wake up early. I was out of the hotel before 6:00am the following morning, drove down to the beach and pulled out into the sand, watching the first rays of pre-dawn light begin to glitter on the water. Jeremy Clarskon, (former?) presenter of the BBC show Top Gear, once remarked that the best thing about getting old is that you get up early, "and the best thing about getting up early," he continued, "is that you get to see the world... like this."
I had my mandatory coffee at a local bar, to clear my head and focus on the task at hand, and made my way over to Israel's place, a storage garage not far from the main road into town. I was early, and sat in the car, waiting.
Israel arrived on time, and swung open the garage door to reveal the Land Rover. It looked beautiful. He had told me it had been "restored," but you never know what someone means by that, and this 88 looked exactly like what I was hoping for. I'm a enthusiast, and I love the heck out of these old trucks, so it's very, very difficult for me to avoid smiling when I see a Land Rover, and this one had me grinning like an idiot. Traditional Sage Green paint over a straight and correct looking body. A creamy Old English White (which has always been more cream than white) on the roof and wheels. Correct size tires... everything. Interior upholstery beautifully replaced to as-new condition, and a lot of nice detailing throughout. I got down on my back and slithered under the frame with my flashlight, checking every nook and cranny. No rust, no signs of significant leaks, and nothing bent or dinged. I slid back out and dusted myself off, and Israel handed me the keys. The nice thing about getting there early was knowing the truck had been sitting all night, and I could be certain, therefore, that it was ice cold. I let the glow plugs warm for thirty seconds or so and she fired right up, blew out a single puff of white smoke and settled down into a nice, smooth idle, with no more smoke and no strange noises. Perfect.
The only blot on the canvas, and it felt like a strange one, was an inexplicable application of fake "carbon fiber" vinyl on a couple dashboard panels, and again on the transmission tunnel. I stared at it when I first saw it, thinking maybe my eyes were deceiving me, but they weren't. It's easy to remove, and not a big deal, but it's... an extremely strange decision in a truck otherwise put together with such classically sound aesthetics.
I pulled out of Israel's place and trundled gently through Sanlucar towards the shore, working the notchy gearbox and letting the torque of the motor do its thing on the narrow streets. This one feels quicker than most, more willing to rev. The clutch engages rather high, and it's a combination that makes for a great feeling while driving. I left town on the coast road, winding along the bluffs and occasional moorish ruins that dot the coastline here, heading in the general direction of Gibraltar, and thought about the differences between the two-door Land Rover 88's and the four-door 109's.
In theory, they should be very similar, sharing drivetrains the way they do, as well as a multitude of parts and even styling cues, but in reality, they're quite different to drive. The 109 is larger, and feels it. That's not all bad, there is a magnificent stability to a 109, and a certain sense of inevitability, as if what's happening outside the vehicle is entirely irrelevant and needn't be taken into consideration. The steering is slower in a 109, or feels like it anyway, and the size and weight of the vehicle makes it feel more implacable, but also more measured.
An 88 like this one is different. It's more alive, the steering feels quicker, and the shorter length makes it feel "pointier," and more eager to turn. Every time I'm in a 109 I imagine myself driving off across the desert or the savannah, making slow but steady progress through vast regions of relatively open ground. But when I'm in an 88 all I want to do is drive up the side of a mountain or something. I want to take fire trails into the forest and find a way out that no one has ever used before. There is something about the way an 88 drives that makes you want to try things other people would say are impossible, like ford a deep creek or drive over a parked Winnebago, and it's a feeling that makes for a passionate drive, even if (like me) you're usually just heading into town for pancakes.
The Problem With Wormholes Is That There's Never One Around When You Need It
After getting the sense that this was a very, very nice 88 in beautiful condition, I headed back to Israel's place and we shook hands and filled out the paperwork. The only problem was that I had come to Sanlucar de Barrameda by car, so driving the 88 home was not a possibility, and we had a boat leaving Valencia in just over a week. I had just a few days to get the truck back to the dock if we wanted it to be in the USA anytime soon, so I made the decision to have a flatbed take it to the port.
I spent the morning on the telephone with trucking companies, finally finding one that was willing to drop everything and come south to pick the truck up in a day or two.
I said goodbye to Israel and got back on the road, heading north towards Sevilla, Carmona, Cordoba, Albacete, and eventually home. I enjoyed the southern coast of Spain, and loved the Land Rover I found there, but it had been a long trip, and I was happy to be a heading home.
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