Behind the Steering Wheel [Courtesy of Rovers Magazine, September 2011]
By Jeffrey Aronson
Earlier this century British auto journalist Lindsay Porter edited a guide to “Successful Classic Land Rover Ownership.” He extolled the virtues of preventative maintenance and prompt servicing while noting sadly that “all classic Land Rovers go through a period during which repairs are only executed if absolutely necessary.” Ahem…guilty as charged.
During the height of my summer work season, my 1966 II-A 88”, the beloved “QE I,” would not reliably light up the headlamps at night, move forward or reverse in two-wheel drive, stop at all when depressing the brake pedal, or idle. It made for stressful times as I absolutely, positively must use my Land Rover for work daily.
Of course I did not undertake any “prompt servicing” to fix any of these problems. The wonky headlights would work, on either high beam or low beam, if I tapped the dimmer switch 5-10 times – at least that’s what they would do last March. By July I needed 20-30 taps on the switch. As a volunteer EMT, often on call at night, working headlights certainly help you get to the scene on time. Finally replacing the dimmer switch required over 10 minutes of unscrewing two bolts and swapping out three spade connectors – I mean, who has the time?
A canvas top Land Rover, particularly one that tows a full trailer load of landscaping gear and a back tub filled with crew members, a toolbox and supplies, makes a lot of strange noises as it progresses down a road. So I beg forgiveness if I did not associate assorted clunks and clonks with an increasingly-strained right side rear axle shaft. It gave way while pulling a heavy trailer in 4-wheel low range up a steep dirt lane. I turned sharply onto a paved road and moved the transfer case lever from low range to two-wheel drive. The Rover protested with a frightening “bang” and ceased all forward motion. When it would only move by pushing down the yellow-topped lever, I knew I had a broken axle and that I should immediately effect a repair, but I’m a busy man so I used the Rover in front wheel drive for several days. Then I had the pleasure of removing the differential, too, so I could pound out the broken piece of the axle shaft from the inside of the diff. Could this all have been avoided by just removing the axle shafts twice a year to check them out? Probably, but that task would take nearly 10 minutes of my very valuable time; far better to expend a couple of hours wrestling with the heavy differential and cleaning out shards of metal.
Many pub debates include the topic of Series Land Rover brakes, but in general, if you keep them adjusted and maintained, they work quite well for a 1948 design. However, if you find you must pump the pedal several times to effect any speed reduction, hearing the scraping sound of metal on metal each time, and – this is critical – ignore this reality for months, one day your brakes will fail - while coming to a stop, going uphill pulling a trailer. Trust me, I know.
Feeling your pedal go to the floor without any deceleration is unnerving at best. I pulled on the emergency brake lever and listened to a “bang bang” as it grabbed the transmission shaft – but it did stop the car. Helpfully, a bystander pointed out the pool of brake fluid underneath the car. When I got out I could see brake fluid coating the inside of the left rear wheel. Since the brake lines looked intact I could only assume I had popped a rear wheel cylinder. I took out the brake line pliers from my toolbox, clamped the rear rubber line tight, and poured some brake fluid into the reservoir. Backing gingerly down the hill, I headed for home, quite chastened by the experience. I pondered my neglectful behavior and ordered brake shoes, a wheel cylinder and new brake springs from Rovers North. Then I drove around – slowly - with only front brakes for a couple of days, eschewing the trailer.
I set aside part of a day for the brake repairs. First I found that the brake drums were thoroughly bonded to the backing plate. It required lots of tapping with a hammer, cans of PB Blaster, cans of BrakeKleen, cursing and time. The brake shoes had no lining left; the brake drum on one side was scored and ruined. The wheel cylinder had indeed popped open; at least I could unbolt it easily. The job was so messy that the clothes I wore during the repair had to go into the trash can. Needless to say, I could have avoided this mess if I had simply replaced the brake shoes when adjusting them failed to improve the braking. Then the wheel cylinder rubber would not have popped out; indeed, removing the drums to check the condition of the brakes would have prevented them from seizing up in the first place. Oh, and I would not have ruined the drum, either.
The refusal to idle annoyed me as I’ve often prided myself – despite ample evidence to the contrary – in keeping my Rover in good tune. My excuse was that this issue arose rather suddenly one morning. I took the quickest way out possible, removing the Weber’s carb cover, spraying carb cleaner through the tiny jets that reside inside, and doing the same to the removed needles on the back and side of the carb. I enjoyed only a quarter mile of carefree driving and then the car stopped idling again. I checked the points; while they looked a bit pitted, the gap was perfect and the car started right up. I lived with the problem for a couple of annoying days when finally, one sunny morning, I removed the carburetor from the car and set it on the back porch overlooking the water. I disassembled it and sprayed carb cleaner through every orifice I could find; after the bolting the carb back onto the car and adjusting the mixture, the car idled smoothly. The entire task took less than one hour.
Perhaps I should undertake maintenance problems arise in the future?I’ll add that to my 2012 New Year’s Resolutions.
At least I accomplished one maintenance chore before something broke. I have Rovers North parabolic springs installed on my Rover and while they’ve performed terrifically, the threads on one of the U-bolts that hold the spring centered onto the axle had stretched such that I could not tighten it effectively. When it gets loose, turning the car makes a lot of noise and the steering becomes wonky. Last year it became so loose that the center locating pin fell out and the axle twisted off to one side. That incident, which occurred while towing a boat trailer, took place on the town’s main wharf in front of a great number of summer visitors.
This time, instead of just cranking it on harder (which would strip it) I jacked up the center of the spring with a bottle jack, removed the defective U-bolt and installed the new one I bought months ago from Rovers North. The whole task took less than 15 minutes, and the peace of mind was priceless.
I must also confess that my attention turned away from mechanicals to cosmetics at the behest of Yuketen, an international shoe, outerwear and canvas accessory company. Yuki Matsuda, its founder and designer, emigrated from Japan to California with a profound affection for rural Americana, classic craftsmanship and Series Land Rovers. He returned to Maine this spring to shoot images for their marketing and asked East Coast Rover for assistance. While ECR could provide a wide selection of Defenders, Yuki really wanted a Series Land Rover as a prop, and thus, I got the call for the QE I.
With visions of the stunning models who cavorted around my Rover during an L.L. Bean shoot in my head, I tackled cleaning out the interior of the car. Since my work that month included mechanical repairs to groundskeeping equipment and house painting, the car inside resembled a dump. As the shoot day on the mainland grew near the foggy, drizzly weather – which would enchant the photographer – worried me. How would I ever get the exterior of the car clean and shiny? Since East Coast Rover lured me into this shoot, I begged some space in their shop to wash and wax the Rover.
The ECR shop does not resemble my mechanical workplaces – or most garages – at all. It has the same level of orderliness and hygiene of a NASA clean room and the condition of the Defenders inside reflect that cleanliness. I felt like a hobo stumbling into a sterilized operating room. To much amusement the technicians quarantined the QE I into a corner beside a hose and bucket and made it clear the I should not spread any dirt, dust or grunge onto the many Defenders in different states of repair, restoration or customization. Within a few hours I had the Rover looking as good as possible and I drove it back out into the fog and drizzle.
None of this dampened the enthusiasm Yuki, Saki Sato, his photographer, or Ryan, the male model who stood beside, sat inside or leaned against the Land Rover. We drove around to waterfront and forested locations while Saki focused her considerable photographic talents on the car. Yuki works in canvas and seemed equally enthralled by the Exmoor canvas top as he was by the worn interior. His boundless affection for Series Land Rovers combined with his international business experience made for a fascinating day, despite the raw weather. I had to admit, the Rover “cleaned up” quite good.
[Copyright 2011 by Jeffrey Aronson and Rovers Magazine]
"The Land Rover is not a vehicle, it's a way of life."