Behind the Steering Wheel [Courtesy of Rovers Magazine, March, 2011]
By Jeffrey Aronson
In 20 years of owning and driving the QE I, my ’66 Series II-A 88” SW, I’ve undertaken many roadside or “field” repairs during the car’s 500,000 miles of use. Few have turned out to be as embarrassing as the broken shift lever. Series aficionados generally believe that the II-A transmission trumps the Series III transmission because the II-A has no synchromesh between first and second; the synchromesh in all four gears renders the Series III “weaker.” This pub debate will likely go on as long as enthusiasts drive their Land Rovers.
What can’t be debated is that the Series II/II-A shift lever, the one that resembles a paper clip after you've finished untwisting it, breaks more easily than the straight Series III lever. The II-A lever has one "S" curve near the base and then another as it sweeps upward a considerable distance so you can shift it without leaning forward. It has the “tractor look” reflecting the marketing of the II-A. The Series III lever travels straight up, something Land Rover believed would create a "modern" look to the "upgraded" interior worthy of a “leisure lifestyle” vehicle.
The II-A lever has a weak spot right at the base, where the lever disappears into the transmission tunnel cover. It seems that the lever is welded in place onto a ball of harder metal, and that's exactly where they break at the exact wrong time. When they do break you have no nub onto which you can clamp a set of Vise-Grips. You’re stuck.
The first time one failed on me, I had traveled to my former place of employment to gloat about my newfound status as a free-lancer living the British car life. As I pulled into a parking spot, nose first in front of the building, the shift lever came off in my hand. I had no idea what to do, so I called the Previous Owner. "It's an easy fix," he said," just start unscrewing everything on the floor. I'll be over in about an hour with a replacement one for you." Huh? I started unscrewing everything I could see and had it mostly in pieces when he arrived in the pitch black with the replacement lever. Sure enough, it really did just bolt onto the top of the transmission linkage. The floors really did come up in pieces, as did the transmission cover. I was on my way within another hour.
The Previous Owner had brought me a Series III straight lever, which I didn't mind - sort of. A year later, when then-Massachusetts resident Scott Preston offered me the old one from his II-A, I accepted with delight, swapped out the levers and kept the Series III lever as a spare. My next experience actually occurred on my other Land Rover, the QM I, when a buddy used it for a couple of months one summer on the island. I saw him walking up our main street one day with the shift lever in his hand. He looked quite distraught and upset. I assured him I had a spare one at home and that the job would not be too difficult. "But it broke down at the boatyard," he said. That galvanized me into action; the boatyard owner always looked for opportunities to rag me about my Land Rovers. If he saw one broken down at his yard, it would be in the sea in no time! I repaired it that very night.
The most recent break came in 2010 on the trails of the Maine Winter Romp., A friend’s son, a Coast Guard seaman on leave, rode with me that day. As I shifted into 3rd gear low range, I noticed the lever move way over towards the right, too far. "Something's not right," I said, at which point the lever came off in my hand. He nodded in agreement and started to look for a ride with someone else. By then I was also in neutral, in the middle of a convoy, miles from any real road. With the help of more knowledgeable enthusiasts we exposed the hole on the side of transmission tunnel that lets you get a screwdriver into the linkage. That moved the car into 3rd gear, and using the overdrive as a 3-4 shift, I exited the trail and headed towards the rally garage in Unity. There Bruce Fowler, the event organizer, loaned me his RHD Series II-A shift lever. I installed it with more help from other rallyists, and headed home the next day with a "new" shifter.
The strange part of using it came from the different angle required because of its RHD construction. Rovers North ex-pat Les Parker explained that because of the orientation of the steering wheel, the RHD lever bends at a slightly different angle. For about a month, every shift seemed strange and out of sorts until I got used to the new angles.
I took the old shift lever to the island welder, explained the problem, and waiting for his repair. Then I waited several additional months to swap out the shift levers. It requires only two sizes of sockets and wrenches, ½” and 7/16”, and a flathead screwdriver to remove all the pieces. I spoke glowingly to friends of the successful change-out and then enjoyed nearly 6 hours of carefree driving before it broke again. This time, the break occurred in full view a lumberyard employee most skeptical of my daily use of the Land Rover. With his help, and that of a local fisherman, I pushed it into a parking spot, took out my tools, and swapped out the levers – again. It may be time to leap ahead into the 1970’s with a new Series III lever from Rovers North.
_____________________________ At the 2011 Automotive News World Congress in January, Jim Lentz, the president of Toyota USA, worried that “young people don’t seem to be as interested in cars as previous generations.” Statistically new car sales to 21- 34 year olds represented 38% of all sales in 1985 but that’s down to 27% at this time. Lentz and his cohorts concern themselves with new car sales - given today’s new car prices, they should be concerned. Add the challenge of securing credit approval to new car prices and they should all be very concerned.
It might also be that “young people” have less interest in boring cars. Many contemporary sedans and minivans rival the land barges of yesteryear in automotive ennui. It’s not surprising that Gen X, Gen Y and Millennials don’t lust after new cars. VW’s Passat Super Bowl campaign featured a mini-Darth Vader and a key fob with a remote start feature. Ford markets so many connectivity features that the New York Times recently ran a column with the headline, “Have You Driven a Smartphone Lately.” Ho-hum! Land Rover USA has contributed to this in their latest Range Rover marketing. An advertisement in The Economist featured a Range Rover in a groomed gravel parking spot at Clinique La Prairie, Montreux, Switzerland, which I’m assured by the ad is “one of the world’s most exclusive health spas.” Indeed the Clinique website offers me, in several languages, opportunities for “quality aging” and “rebalancing,” using “the positive effects ofacuaspiration and sophrology (no, I have no idea what they are, either, but I don’t think they happen in a II-A). Land Rover USA insists this makes the spa “the ideal place to reflect upon the restorative comforts of the Range Rover Autobiography.” Yawn!
Connectivity once referred to the driver’s ability to feel the road or trail underneath the car, the relationship of steering and handling to the driving experience. When I yell at my II-A because once again it won’t idle without pulling out the choke, I don’t expect it to connect my outburst to an emoticon and post my reaction on Facebook. Indeed, if I scream at the car I don’t expect it to start at all.
However if you attend Land Rover events you find no shortage of young enthusiasts drooling over and cavorting in everything from Series Land Rovers to kitted-out Range Rovers and Discoverys. They wear enormous grins no matter how well or how poorly their Rover runs at that moment. They’re using their Land Rovers for everything from basic transportation to off road adventures, and seem thoroughly absorbed in the thrill of owning and involving themselves with their cars. No matter how luxurious or cosseting their Land Rovers were designed to be when new, young enthusiasts also demonstrate what Land Rovers can do when you let them loose on the trails.
Jonathan Klinger, age 29, lives in Michigan and decided to drive a Ford Model A daily for one year. He’s chronicling his daily driving at 365DaysofA and wrote thoughtfully of running older cars in a way that will resonate with any Land Rover enthusiast. “I started to think that older cars seem to be far less forgiving than new cars when it comes to simple ignition and fuel issues. What I mean by this is seeing that there are no computers to compensate for other faults you are forced to stay on top of your maintenance otherwise the car won’t run as great as it could. To a certain point, the computer in a modern car will make adjustments as much as it can to keep the car running smoothly even when you are overdue on maintenance (say that magic 100,000 mile tune-up that most people overlook for example). The negative side to this is that many people don’t know (or care) that their car is past due for maintenance therefore it isn’t running at its peak efficiency. On the other hand, older cars will make an honest man out of you and force you to take care of them. How great or how poorly they run is a direct result to the attention you give them. I do like knowing that just by listening to the car while driving I can judge if everything is in order or if it needs attention.” So, how would you like to be the Land Rover service technician who must field the complaint about “my Range Rover’s TFT-LCD screen icons freeze up,” or “my LR4 won’t play my iPod,” or “the rear seat won’t cool properly,” or “I don’t think my Range Rover Sport is reading the road 500 times a second.” What do you think the replacement units for those features cost? Geez, give me sagging seat squabs, carburetor icing and wobbly speedometer cables anytime.
Copyright Jeffrey Aronson and Rovers North
"The Land Rover is not a vehicle, it's a way of life."