1965 Land Rover 109 Station Wagon Series IIA
To Barcelos And Back Again
You know you're in trouble when your GPS doesn't seem to know where you are. All was well when I left Porto, in the northwest of Portugal, heading for Braga, and it continued to be fine as I explored the hills and monasteries in the northern part of the country. But when I made for Alvito (São Pedro), a small town northeast of Braga, navigation got murky. First, the Tom Tom kept wanting to guide me to Alvito proper, a slightly larger pueblo nearby, and when I finally forced it into Alvito (São Pedro), all addresses were useless. I was in Portugal to see an old Land Rover, but if the GPS couldn't find an address there in town, I was at a loss for ideas. I do not, I should point out, speak any Portuguese.
Nevertheless, I stopped and asked, hoping my Spanish would work. A local bar owner recognized the street name immediately, but looked very perplexed indeed when I mentioned the house number. Scratching his head and shrugging mightily, he pointed me down a small tarmac road without lines painted on it, and I took off again, hoping for the best, but within minutes I was right back at the bar. We tried again, and he explained more carefully, and I left once more, this time turning right halfway down the tarmac lane, but after four or five minutes, I was back again. At the same bar. It was like a Twilight Zone episode. Nowhere to go. No way out.
He invited me in, and we sat at a table. He brought coffee, and we talked back and forth in a mixture of Spanish (which he didn't speak well) and Portuguese (which I don't speak at all), and at long last, with ideas not falling readily to hand, he sat back and asked me in broken Spanish: "What, exactly, are you looking for?" I told him I was here to see a car, and he asked me who owned it. I answered, and when he heard the name he laughed out loud, sat forward quickly, and exclaimed: "João?!! You're here to see João?"
He clapped me on the back, waving away my offer to pay for the coffee, and walked me outside. "There," he said, smiling. "You want to go right there."
He was pointing to an old church.
From Solihull To St. Peter
When I was a boy, one fact about modern history was not lost on me. All countries big on colonization invariably leave behind a legacy when they leave and grant independence to their former charges (or have it taken by force, as the case may be.) For most countries, such as Spain and Portugal, this legacy typically consists of language and maybe religion. For others, like Germany and The Netherlands, maybe just language. But for the English, it's much more involved, by a mile. No matter where in the world you travel, when you come to a former piece of the British Empire, on which the sun famously never set, you usually find the language, but you also find much more. Tea. Cricket. And Land Rovers.
South Africa, India, New Zealand, Zimbabwe... they all have plenty of Land Rovers. Even little Jamaica has a bunch. But in the rest of the world, the market was always smaller, more of a niche. In Spain, Land Rovers were built from 1958 to 1983 under license, using "Complete Knocked Down Kits" (or "CKD's") under the watchful eye and authorization of Solihull, by a company called Santana. They are excellent Land Rovers, and have proven themselves every bit as rugged, dependable, and easy to maintain as the UK built versions. But in Portugal, few Santanas exist, and the ones that do have been transplanted from Spain. Portugal, instead, got left-hand-drive Land Rovers that were built in Solihull, Warwickshire, in the old historic home of the Land Rover brand. And that's just fine, too.
Problem is, there aren't very many of them.
So when Bill called me over the summer and told me he had found a hen's tooth in Portugal, and asked if I would mind going to have a look, my ears perked up.
"It's a '65," he said. "A Series IIA, four-door wagon. With a petrol engine."
"I'll book my tickets right now," I told him.
Petrol engine. That would be a first. For all the Land Rovers I have driven, all over the place, in both the USA and Europe, up to that moment I had never driven a petrol engined series Land Rover in my entire life. I couldn't wait to see how it compared. So I made my way, directly save for a few GPS foibles, to Alvito (São Pedro), in Barcelos, Portugal, to have a go.
Home Of The Ghosts
I drove down to the church, and parked in front on the street, still far from sure what I was supposed to do. I got out, looked around, and walked back and forth a bit. Then I saw it. In the high, heavy, old stone wall that surrounds the church property, an arch. Unadorned, but modern and expensive looking, with two powerful security cameras looking down from above. And beside the lacquered mahogany door, next to a call button, sat a discreet brass plaque engraved with the street number I was looking for.
I rang the bell and waited, and a quiet voice came through the speaker in Portuguese. "Yes?"
"I'm here to see João," I said, in Spanish.
The reply came quickly in perfect Spanish: "João is not here. He is in Africa. No, wait... Canada, maybe."
"I have come from Spain to see the Land Rover. He is expecting me."
"One moment, please."
After a brief pause, the door opened, and a man of about sixty was there to greet me, smiling broadly. "Come in, come in," he said warmly. "I'm Danilo! João has asked me to extend you every courtesy and show you the Land Rover."
Once inside the walls, I could see the home. I'm not sure exactly how to describe it. It's sort of... connected to the church, but there doesn't appear to be a way to pass directly from one to the other, and whereas the church itself is small and traditionally old in styling, the home is huge and extremely modern. Clean, mid-century lines and enormous expanses of glass, warmed by walls of exposed stone and other natural surfaces, give it the look and feel of a Palm Springs mansion from the 1950's or early 1960's. Furnished elegantly and expensively, it is never cold or impersonal. Books line the walls, rugs abound on the polished floors, and art is everywhere. On the walls, on side tables... I spot an Eames lounge chair and a sofa by Le Corbusier. It's a home fit for Steve McQueen.
We walk out back, and I ask Danilo about the house. Is it connected to the church?
"No, no," he replies. "Just very close. This is a small town. There is not much space here."
Not much space here? I see nothing but space.
I look out of the back of the property, which extends as far as the eye can see. I spot grape vines in the distance, running up a hillside, and what appears to be more disappearing over another rise.
"Do you grow grapes here? Do you make wine?" I ask.
"Yes, a little. But not for sale. It is just a hobby. And mostly we grow Kiwis."
Kiwis? I'm back in the Twilight Zone.
"But we are not a commercial farm. Mr. João is a businessman, not a farmer."
We stroll on wide brick walkways through the grounds, past fountains and a huge vanishing pool, with a long row of garages to the left. Most doors are closed, but some are open, and inside one I see a very new Defender 90, outfitted for what appears to be RAID rallies. In another, a new Range Rover, and in a third, a very battered Series III 109 with three or four different colors of bodywork. "That's 'old faithful,'" Danilo says. "Doesn't look like much, but it gets the kiwis into the barn. Never lets us down."
Finally, we get to the garage we were looking for, and Danilo swung open the large door. There, inside, was what I had come to see.
The hen's tooth.
It's a 1965 Series IIA Land Rover 109, four-door station wagon with a four-cylinder petrol engine and, I note with not inconsiderable delight, an original, engine-driven capstan winch! These are the winches from the old days, before electric winches with remote controls became available. Driven off the engine, the capstan winch uses rope, not cable, and has become a very rare beast.
I crawl around the truck underneath, on the floor of the garage. No rust. The paintwork is good, and the interior nearly perfect, and the engine bay clean and honest looking. No signs of any fluid leaks underneath. About the only nits I can pick are the outside rocker panels, which someone painted black at some point (they are supposed to be body color) and the tires, which show minor dry rot. All the cool early touches are there. The Jaeger gauges, the yellow Lucas headlamps, the crank on the back of the rear seats... I'm in love.
Danilo hands me the keys, I fire up the truck, and he asks me to wait while he opens the gate onto the street. The Twilight Zone theme comes into my head. "Can I just drive around the property?" I ask, and he shrugs.
I head off out the back, through the grass, trying not to damage anything too badly, and for the next fifteen minutes I bomb around the grapes and kiwis (yes, they exist), up hill and down dale, making sure the Landy works as advertised. The gasoline engine is quite different. It feels incredibly refined and quiet in comparison to the diesel, even though I am sure it's fairly agricultural in comparison to passenger car engines of the period. With short gearing, torque to the wheels is impressive, but what really grabs you is the absence of noise, particularly at idle. It's a very refined atmosphere in the cockpit. Dignified, even.
When I return to the garages, João rings my mobile, and we chat on the telephone for a bit. He tells me he bought the truck almost 30 years ago, and it was in excellent condition then, but he had it refurbished in the early 1990's to bring it to its current condition. "It has never needed restoration," he tells me. "It has always been beautiful."
I search for items to negotiate on, but there is precious little. The truck had me at the capstan winch, but there is a lot more than that to love. Everything about it looks and works beautifully. It has character, and a little patina, but feels just perfect to me.
I arrange to buy it, and give Bill a ring. "Congratulations," I told him. "We bought ourselves a hen's tooth."
(CLICK BELOW TO CYCLE THROUGH THE GALLERY)