1970 Land Rover Santana 109, 3/4 Canvas
UP AND AT 'EM
To an American, Spaniards keep strange hours. Restaurants, virtually empty at noon and 7:00pm, are packed for lunch at 3:30pm and packed again for dinner at 10:30pm. Many McDonald’s, which serve breakfast as they do in the USA, don’t even open until 9:00am. It is not uncommon to see children of four and five years old playing outside with their parents near midnight, or a popular nightclub still closed at 11:00pm because it hasn’t opened yet for the evening. Spain is a social country, full of social people, and although they remain one of the most productive work forces in Europe, Spaniards accomplish it through a “work hard, play hard” mentality that is rather impressive to witness. If something has to give it isn’t going to be the job and isn’t going to be the party. It is going to be the sleep.
Which is why, when I rolled out of bed at 3:00am for the drive to Barcelona, the streets were oddly alive. Cars streamed past my home and there were plenty of people on the sidewalks. It looked more like 11:00pm in the USA than three in the morning. I threw my gear into the passenger seat of my trusty old Range Rover, fired the engine and made my way out onto the small roads that leave Javea and wind their way back past the mountains toward the AP-7 highway - the “Autovia del Mediteraneo.”
On the highway, away from the bars and restaurants of a Mediterranean beach town, the traffic was light again. Nonexistent, actually. With the air conditioning on and the big V8 loafing along in top, I called up a little “Trampled By Turtles” on iTunes and settled in for what I hoped would be a long and uneventful trip north.
I always rather hate traveling by modern superhighway. You see nothing, and feel less. I feel like I’m missing something important off every exit, like I’m not available to life for a while. I always think of something I heard Bill Murray once say. “We’re all in this life. The same life. And for many people ordinary time just passes without them recognizing it. Life just goes by, and they aren’t participating. But if you pay attention, if you’re really available, suddenly life gets huge.” I always take that to heart, and superhighways make me feel unavailable.
But dang it, sometimes you just need to get somewhere in a hurry, so I turned up the radio and put my foot down.
ANOTHER CASUALTY OF THE WIVES
The Land Rover I was going to see, a 1970 Series IIA 109, looked lovely in the photos I had been emailed. Dark green with a black interior and a brown, canvas soft top, it has a wonderfully military look to it, and appeared to be an honest truck with the patina returning after an older, but careful restoration.
“I love this truck,” the seller, a man named Andreu had told me on the telephone, “but my wife hates riding in it. She says it has to go.”
Chalk up another casualty of the wives. Or at least, that’s what we tell ourselves.
Considered by many to be the best of the “series” Land Rovers, the IIA’s are a nice blend of the simplicity and toughness of the original Land Rover design brief and the gentle evolution of modern methods and technologies. The interiors are astonishingly basic. The trucks themselves are astonishingly basic, but everything in a Series IIA is tough as nails, and the combination of that simplicity and that toughness is essentially what earned Land Rovers their legendary reputation and made them such a common sight in difficult environments all over the world. It has been estimated that a Land Rover is the first motor vehicle ever seen by 1/3 of the people on the planet, and Series IIA’s were a big part of the reason why. They quite literally went where nothing else could go. Worldwide love for these vehicles runs deep, and everyone seems to understand the appeal. Much like the AC Cobra, five-year-olds love Land Rovers and ninety-five-year-olds love Land Rovers. Everyone, regardless of age or culture or personal preferences, seems to feel the pull equally. Everyone understands that there is something different about them. As I plugged along on the highway in the middle of the night, with little to help pass the time except some bluegrass music and the inexorable downward creep of my fuel gauge, I hoped this particular truck would be a good one. Andreu assured me it was, and the photos all looked nice, but best of all Andreu seemed like an honest, soft-spoken man on the telephone. A good seller is a very good sign indeed.
THIS TOWN’S GOT IT
The sun came up somewhere north of Tortosa, but it was still plenty early on a Saturday and traffic remained light. I continued on through Barcelona, skirting the downtown by staying on the AP-7, and running easily on a typical large highway through the typical outskirts of a major city. Shopping complexes, car dealerships and the like. These places all look the same, and I could have been anywhere. It had been a boring drive, and I was looking forward to putting it behind me and getting to Gualba.
I paid the toll and broke off the AP-7 onto the CV-5 heading north, and later onto the BV-515 which began climbing its way up into the mountains. The road narrowed to just one lane each way, and the suburban sprawl gave way to more charming villas and cafés. Things were looking up.
The rural route BV-515 just haphazardly twisted its way through the countryside in the best possible way, loosely following streams and creeks, crisscrossing them on numerous bridges, and all the while winding into more remote country. Following signs for Gualba, I took a small roundabout and found myself on a dark, deeply tree-lined road. The tarmac was damp. Not, it seemed from rain, but more from morning dew that had not yet seen enough sunlight to burn off. A few more turns and I began passing horse farms. Not the small, working-class horse farms which are common in Spain, but rather the type of large, exceptionally well-tended horse farms you might see in Lexington, KY or Middleburg, VA. Except different. The properties were extraordinary, but not ostentatious in any way. They didn’t scream substance, but rather whispered it in the way that properties do when substance is taken for granted.
I continued on, and everything about the valley was simply breathtaking. Old, giant pine trees lined the roadway, casting dappled morning shadows onto the asphalt, not for a kilometer or two but for fifteen or twenty kilometers. Everything was tended and maintained without looking tended or maintained, and the air was heavy with cool, refreshing moisture that provided a welcome break from the summer heat of Valencia. I turned the air conditioning off and opened up the windows just to smell it and feel it on my face.
After a time, I came into Gualba proper. A small town that punches above its weight, Gualba has the gilt-edged charm of Carmel, perhaps. Or maybe a mix of Carmel and Palm Springs. The architecture is a blend of perfectly maintained historic Spanish structures and beautifully-executed mid century modernism. Peaceful and calm, particularly after a long, boring drive, it felt like heaven, and I found myself wanting to move there and live, just so I could see it and feel it every day. This town’s got it.
I parked and Andreu met me near the center of the pueblo. A trim, impeccably dressed man with a firm handshake and a welcoming smile, Andreu pointed over his shoulder to the nearby parking spaces and said: “I am driving that. Follow me and I’ll take you to the Land Rover.”
The vehicle he pointed to was a mid 1990’s Toyota Land Cruiser station wagon with a turbodiesel engine, three or four inches of lift, a beefy front winch on a purpose-built bumper, oversize all-terrain tires, LED off road lighting front and rear, and a snorkel. Stickers on the back window commemorated various adventure trips - long distance overland routes that combine camping and off road driving, and I saw recovery tracks hanging inside the rear side glass. It was a serious rig for a man serious about his overlanding.
We made our way through the center of town and back to a collection of luxurious town homes, tucked discreetly into a grove of pine trees at the base of an adjacent mountain. Sitting in the square in front of the complex was the Series IIA.
“I keep it garaged,” Andreu said, “but I pulled it out here so you could see it in the light.”
And there it was. Bronze green over black with a thick brown canvas soft top over the rear section. And those Series II headlamps. Ah, I love those so much…
IF YOU’RE AVAILABLE, LIFE GETS HUGE
I crawled underneath and poked around. No rust, and very clean. The axle limiting straps, often ripped off during hard use and never replaced, were there and looked fine. No evidence of any abuse. No serious leaks. It looked very well cared for. The paintwork was great and the bodywork straight, having benefitted from a light restoration years earlier and then maintained and garaged since.
I got inside and fired the engine, which started easily after the glow plugs were allowed to warm, with just the faintest puff of smoke (normal with a diesel Land Rover) that went away as quickly as it came, and the engine ticked over just fine at a cold idle. I got in, engaged first and set off, the big truck pulling cleanly away from a stop with good torque and no undue noises.
I drove through the streets of Gualba, still quiet at this hour of the morning, and checked the steering and the brakes. These are simple vehicles, with dated design, but when you know what to expect a good Series IIA, like this one, oddly feels almost less dated than a later Series III. Perhaps it’s because a Series III looks more modern inside, and you expect more modernity in the driving experience, but in a Series IIA, with the steering column sticking abruptly out of a painted metal dashboard, and with exposed wiper motors and such, you expect it to drive dated. Which, let’s face it, it does, but not in a bad way. It’s an adventure every time you drive a Series Land Rover. You have to be there. You have to embrace the adventure and get into it. You don’t guide a Land Rover, you manhandle it. You have to grab it with both hands and shake it, and if you do, the experience is just truly magnificent.
I pulled out through the back of town and into the mountains, quickly up into fourth and cruising through gentle bends as the road wound its way up and out of the valley. I could smell the pine forest and hear the birds, and even with the not insignificant sound of the engine, I could hear the streams flowing rapidly as I crossed little bridges. The gauges all worked fine and the engine came up to temperature and the gearbox shifted with the notchy precision that always makes them fun to use. I was the only vehicle on the road in a deep wood, still damp from the morning, in a big old Land Rover, and for me that’s about as good as it gets. I didn’t want to turn back.
But turn back I did, and made my way back to Gualba by the circuitous route, spending as much time in the truck as I could. Driving this beast back to Valencia, while certainly doable, just wasn’t in the cards. With typical Land Rover top speeds relegating me to secondary roads, it would have taken far too long, and the boat to the USA was leaving in a few days. My fate would be to turn the old Range Rover around and point it back south, leaving the Series IIA for a “grua,” a flatbed.
Andreu and I finalized the paperwork, I handed him the money, and we shook hands warmly. “I’m sick to sell,” he said, with real emotion. “I have put a lot of time and sweat into that truck, and far more money than I now hold in my hands. I wish it didn’t have to go.”
“I’ll find it a good home,” I said, and he patted the fender before pulling it back into his garage to wait for the tow truck.
I climbed back into the Range Rover and pulled quietly out of Gualba. No music this time, just lost in thoughts about the truck I had just bought and the incredible pleasure I always get from driving them. They are funny things, old Land Rovers. There is something very special about them. When you think about all the details, they don’t really make rational sense, but they make the pleasure centers of your brain light up like no pharmaceutical ever could.
If you’re available, they make life huge.
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