Rovers North Invades England - The Land Rover Show At Billing [Courtesy, Rovers North News, September, 2003
By Jeffrey Aronson
An old New Yorker cartoon pictures a man on the deck of an oceanfront home, gawking at the view while his roommates sip their cocktails. According the caption, AThe New Time Share@ stands on the deck with his new roommates and he=s pointing and yelling, ALook, a seagull!@
That=s the way I behaved the moment my British Airways flight from Boston landed at London╒s HeathrowAirport. As I unwound from the overnight flight and disembarked from the plane, I spotted one, then another, then another Defender 90 Commercial performing yeoman duty at the airport. Land Rovers were as ubiquitous as seagulls along the ocean ‑oh, yeah, I had arrived in England.
Two years ago, Rovers North Les Parker attended and spread the word in the Rovers North News. Again this year, Rovers North wanted to cover Billing, the largest Land Rover rally in the United Kingdom; I begged, wheedled and cajoled, and before anyone else at Rovers North had the chance to object, I had landed the assignment.
Like any celebrity, the rally is now referred to by a single name, ABilling.@ Like a football bowl game in the U.S., it has a longer formal moniker, AThe Pirelli Land Rover Enthusiast Show at Billing Aquadrome.@ Land Rover Enthusiast magazine, our partner in print, has organized and operated this largest of Land Rover rallies for many years.This year=s show took place between July 18 ‑ 20, and if nothing else, it reinforced it=s title as the world=s largest Land Rover event.
Land Rover fans in the U.S. and Canada have enthused about Billing for years. The sheer scale of the event took your breath away. U.S. Land Rover club events bring 25 ‑ 75 vehicles together. Over 100 vehicles attended the RoverFest events in Killington, VT, in recent years. The National Land Rover Rally, run annually by the Solihull Society out of Colorado, entices over 200 Land Rovers to the Rockies.In 1998, the 50th Anniversary Celebration in Cortland, NY, pulled over 300 Land Rovers together. Nothing in my U.S. experience prepared me for the thousands of Land Rovers at Billing.
Deplaning that morning at Heathrow, I linked up with Kevin Girling, the North American correspondent for Land Rover Enthusiast, and his team of four lovely Canadians: Jennifer Stadler, Adrianna Vanderneut, Rebecca Girling and Breanna Vanderneut.. I knew they were jet‑lagged from their evident fatigue; I knew they were much younger than I because they looked far less wiped out than I did. We packed into a rented Defender 110 Tdi 5 Station Wagon for the two hour drive from London to Northampton, the site of Billing.
Billing lies along the River Nene and includes a series of man‑made lakes and ponds. It has thousands of acres of flat land available for camping, hundreds of acres of farm fields, mud holes, streams, and green lanes available for off‑roading. There are the requisite food stands, shops, and permanent shower facilities, but you could also secrete yourself away and never see them. A walk around the park would cover many miles and take several hours; I know because I tried it. Aside from camping (Acaravanning@ in England), boating and jet skiing, it=s popular with automobile, steam traction and similar events because of its size, organization, and proximity to southern England population centers.
We had arrived the day prior to the formal opening, but already, there were several hundred Land Rovers in place with tents and campsites fully set up. For a Defender‑starved nation like the U.S., the volume of Defender 90's and 110's was inspiring ‑ and the event hadn=t even opened yet!
Land Rover Enthusiast had a massive tent featuring magazine and enthusiast products, as well as a separate tent housing the hugely popular Land Rover Cafe ‑ along the with the Starbucks at Heathrow, the only acceptable cup of coffee in all of Great Britain. Those two tents sat beside over 175 other tents and displays. Only the Pirelli tent, featuring their Scorpion off‑road tires, rivaled the host tent in size.
They weren=t alone. Land Rover clubs also packed the event. The club displays included: The Land Rover Register [1948‑53], The Series One Club, the Series Two Club, The Series Three and 90 and 110 Owners Club, the Association of Rover Clubs, the Camel Trophy Owners Club, the Freelander Club, the Ex‑Military Land Rover Association, the Range Rover Register, the Forward Control Register, the Lightweight Land Rover Club, the Discovery Owners Club, the 101 Forward Control Register. And if this wasn=t enough, regional clubs had display areas, too.
All 19 rows of tents and displays ringed a center square of grass where David Bowyer, off‑road instructor, winch expert, and genial host served as Master of Ceremonies every day. An endless stream of entertainment entered the central green daily, from clowns and Land Rover‑on‑spoon races for children to falconry and sheep dog demonstrations for adults.
Land Rover had a corporate presence through the Land Rover Experience off road instruction program. A fleet of G4 painted vehicles offered rides on a special off road course meant to show off the side slope, departure and ascent angle. The lines at their tent were long every day.The local Land Rover Centre, Hartwell Northants, also had a handsome display of vehicles, many of which we don=t see in the U.S.
The delight of an event like this rests with the people you meet, in this case, from all over the United Kingdom, Europe, Africa and North America. I had the pleasure of spending the days with Land Rover enthusiasts Barry Enis, Kent, CT, Jim Pappas, Parsippany, NJ, and Brian Neeley, Attleboro, MA. And while wandering the fields, I met up with Paul Von Klosst-Dohna, Thousand Oaks, CA..Paul already owns a >71 Series II-A 109" Station Wagon, a >95 Range Rover Classic LWB, and a >97 NAS Defender 90, but he flew over to find a FC 101". The people and the incidents of the long weekend will live with me; here are some memories..
Every known model of Land Rover was represented by a club, whether national or regional. The club displays showed off every possible variation in the 55 year history of the marque. Fancy yourself an expert on Series I Tickford Station Wagons? Four sat at the Series I Club display, loaned out by their owners just for the event. The four, all in the correct Bronze Green, represented the full range of condition, too, from unrestored original to fully restored and primped. Land Rover╒s first effort at a fully enclosed people carrier, this model failed because of its high price, a combination of the coachworks body and the government╒s purchase tax.
I wandered around in awe, peering inside the vehicles. The only one I had ever sat inside was a pre‑production model owned and restored by Ken Wheelwright, who has vast experience and expertise with Series I prototypes in England. Did I wish to sit inside this totally original example? I did, thank you, and settled inside of a 51 year old vehicle. Given that doors and a top were optional extras on the Series I at the time, this was a revelation about the direction Land Rover could take with their design. While nothing as comfortable and well‑fitted out would show up again until the original Range Rover in 1970, Land Rover had the design right with this Series I.
As I sat wondering how a Land Rover that cost 900 pound sterling must have seemed in an impoverished, post war England, up came two Frenchmen, Guillaume Vilaceque and Jean‑Paul Laenen. Between them, they own the only three Tickford station wagons in France. Speaking in my finest 4th grade French, they patiently listened to and answered my questions on the Land Rover scene in France. There╒s a French magazine, called Land [available in Canada], dedicated to Land Rovers, and of course, active off‑roading events and activities. Guillaume also owns a Defender 130" and Jean Paul operates a business called The Land Rover Doctor. Our discussions drifted from Land Rovers to the terrible state of coffee in England, which led to an invitation to share breakfast with them at their camp site for properly prepared coffee. The lure was powerful, but finding their campsite among the thousands of enthusiasts camping at the show ‑ now there was the problem. As we parted, I thought Athis is why you come to Billing.@
Land Rover made an effort to clean up the Camel Trophy for eco‑friendly customers by creating a Freelander version of the event, but the heart of the Camel Trophy beats fiercely in the less‑television friendly events of the 80╒s. The crowds in front of the Camel Trophy club display told Land Rover all they needed to know, if they bothered to observe.
The Camel Trophy Owners Club demonstrated that their display occupies a lot of their thoughts and time. In front of a semicircle of Camel Trophy vehicles, each identified with a placard, the roof only of a Defender 90 [oddly never used in Camel events ‑ed] sat, tipped forward, in a mud hole. The top has illuminated lamps attached to the roof, and the arm of a mannequin [I hope ‑ed] rises from the wiindow to the rooftop. It is angled bonnet first into the mud. A nylon tow strap rises from the buried hood over the top. For all the world it appears to be a Camel Trophy vehicle that has sunk into a quagmire. It╒s a brilliant display that attracts an endless stream of admirers. The 20 vehicles on display also attract a lot of attention with their full kits of gear and explanatory placards on each year╒s Camel Trophy. Camel vehicles included those that ran Chile ‑ Argentina, Mongolia, and the Mundo Maya were on display, as well as the last and most recent Freelander model. Club members might not recreate their expeditions anymore, but they do travel extensively in Europe and North Africa.
Land Rover Cafe
I admit to a bias towards this group as I once taught Latin American history at the University of Vermont, but even the most jaded curmudgeon would twitch a forced grin under the charm of this Costa Rican contingent. Oscar Escheverria, a lumbering bear of a man, lives in San Jose, Costa Rica, where he╒s the official importer and distributor of Land Rovers, MG╒s, and Rover automobiles. His firm, Motores Brintanicos De Costa Riva, stepped into this position because his family╒s business involved him in coffee production‑ no surprise in Costa Rica. Their coffee drying machinery managed to dry coffee beans at lower temperatures, effectively protecting the flavor of the beans, and it took them to numerous places where Land Rovers toiled daily. The firm, started by his grandfather, also knew that more prosperous farmers would make for more prosperous suppliers, so they sought ways to market coffee other than as a mass commodity.
The Land Rover was a critical piece of machinery on the farm so Escheverria reasoned that if he could make Land Rovers more affordable, productivity would rise and profits might follow, for the producers as well as his firm. As he noted,@I want coffee producers to feel more in control of their market, of their worth, and of their equipment. Land Rovers and coffee production are very closely linked in my country.@
The mountainous nature of the coffee regions of Costa Rica mean that Land Rovers are essential; as Oscar says, Athe plants in the high altitudes really produce the best coffee.@ The coffee served at Billing, called ALand Rover Cafe,@ lived up to its, err, billing, and not just because the rest of the coffee at pubs in around Billing could be best called Aswill.@
Visitors to Costa Rica have remarked on the number of Series Land Rovers still operating in the country. New Defenders and Range Rovers are also sold routinely, although the Discovery has not quite found an easy niche. They=re not inexpensive there, but as necessary pieces of equipment,. are highly regarded and well maintained. To help farmers out, Escheverria also stocks used parts through a subsidiary company.
With his friends Rodolfo and Omar staffing the Cafe and providing endless good cheer, no wonder thousands of people drank a lot more coffee in England that weekend.
A Forward Control 101" does not appear often in the US; when you come across a herd of them, you have to stop short. Those we see in North America usually feature canvas tops. In England and in Europe, 101's often become campers -rugged, handsome, non-annoying Winnebago clones. Hugh Billington, Daventry, Northampton, bought his 1977 FC when it was demobbed in 1996. It came with 10 coats of paint and dogtags from regiments. With petrol prices at around $6.00 per gallon, he=s also taken the popular step of an LPG conversion.
Another great example, this one from South Africa, featured two PTO winches, uprated non-Rover seats, and a clever soft top arrangement with a solar panel for power. You also saw a pop-up top and pop-out tables for elegant dining in the field. There=s even a built-in bed for luxurious camping. The inner portion of the camper, resting on the frame, is actually a portion of an old caravan. The 101" is named ADoodlebug.@ If you ever thought, yuck, camping, you haven=t seen a 101" set up this way. If the spouse or the significant other has opposed outdoor events, why not purchase a 101" for Athem?@
Military Land Rovers
When I think of military Land Rovers, ex-NATO 109"s come to mind. Or, maybe you think of the former ambulances brought over for sale in the US? Defender versions such as the current Wolf model are just wistful dreams. Eddie Johnson drove to the event in a 1979 Series III 109" with a Rhodesian Army rollover hoop. One of 900 produced for the British Army, this design presumed that armed insurgents fighting for Zimbabwe=s independence would place mines on the roads. So these Land Rovers have a steel plates underneath and alongside the Agunwales@ of the vehicle to protect the car and the occupants. Should the mine go off and flip the car over, the strong rollover hoop should permit it to be rolled back on its wheels and head off back into the fray. Of course, this being a Land Rover, it had to make do with the standard 2.25 motor and no power steering - despite the considerable extra weight.
David Fish, Buckinghamshire, England drove in a most unusual military vehicle, a >64 Series II-A 88", one of only 900 made for the MOD. His Rover saw most of its duty towing anti-tank guns, such as the one behind the car. David is also an officer in the Ex-Military Land Rover Association, one of the seemingly 10,000 clubs in attendance.
If 10,000 clubs had exhibits, then seemingly 100,000 vendors and suppliers of everything imaginable rented tent space and sought to sell you their wares. Much of it seemed like army surplus gear, camping equipment of varying degrees of quality, and accessories that you would find at any off road event in the US. If you owned a ship or a plane, you could have purchased tons of used parts for most any Land Rover model.
Some vendor exhibits really stood out, and the Southdown Equipment area merited a lot of visitors. Dave Wilkinson, Zeal Monachorum, Devon, started his business in 1989. AI was working on a road construction project in North Devon when the company was experiencing a lot of track rod damage to its vehicles. I offered to create protective plates, and it all started from there.@ Southdown now produces axle guards, steering arm guards, and fuel tank guards for most Land Rover cars.
In 1995, Jim Pappas began a two-year process to establish Southdown North America, which enabled Southdown to manufacture its products in the USA and avoid costly import duties. Most of the product line is aimed at Defender 90's and 110's as well as Series Rovers. There=s growing interest and demand for Range Rover Classic and Discovery protective devices, too, and these have become popular as these older coil-spring models find themselves as off-roaders of choice. The Southdown crew was highly entertaining and great fun.
The Dunsfold Collection - Rovers We Don=t See
Philip Bashall founded this extraordinary collection of historic Land Rover vehicles in 1993. He juggles an annual autojumble, supportive members, public presentations, and tons of accumulated good will to keep his valuable operation solvent. With some volunteer drivers, the Dunsfold Collection displayed a 30th Anniversary Range Rover, a Range Rover limousine, a 50/50 Challenge Defender 110, a gray 110 prototype, a Freelander test Amule,@ a Defender military Wolf, and a very early Range Rover. There=s a funny looking Maestro van, which turns out to be a camouflage body for a Freelander mule. The Range Rover limousine is a 38A model, one of only two produced by Land Rover; Bashall loves it. It=s a small portion of the 68 historic vehicles at the museum. There=s the VELARRange Rover prototype, the concept vehicle for the 110 [actually a 114 2"], the Wolf prototype, and many, many more.
Near the end of the event, the various clubs all drove their representative vehicles to the center ring for photo shoots and appreciative sighs. Phil Bashall was called up for running commentary and enlivened the coverage. If you have a question about Land Rovers development, Dunsfold is a terrific source.
British humor is alive and well. Here are some bumper stickers I spotted while at Billing:
AIf size doesn=t matter, then why are Land Rovers so popular?@
AMy Land Rover has the turning circle of the Titanic and it=s just as waterproof.@
AThis is an official Suzuki Recovery Vehicle.@
AFor Sale. 1 1/2 acres of top soil. Must scrape off chassis.@
On a Defender Commercial, this ad for an off road company, AHave a Dirty Weekend in France.@
BA Meets BL
ABA@ was the name of Mr. T╒s character in AThe A Team.@ It stood for Abad attitude.@ABL@ stood for British Leyland, Great Britain=s successful effort to emulate the failures of General Motors. AThe A‑Team@ still runs on cable; British Leyland resurfaced at the end of the Billing weekend, this time under the guise of British Airways.
British Airways ticket agents had become upset with a management decision that they should have to clock in at work. They chose the weekend of Billing and the British Grand Prix, as well as the popular holiday season, for a wildcat strike. The one day walkout took place on a Friday, but thousands of travellers still waited at Heathrow╒s British Airways terminal on Monday when we sought to head back to the US. Very few of us actually made it into the terminal, as it was filled to capacity. Under a hot sun and muggy weather, we sat on concrete barriers at the top floor of a parking garage. BA called in food vendors for sandwiches and vendors, erected a few tents for families and the elderly, and sent dozens of very polite staffers through the crowd to announce they had no solid information on what was happening.
At one point, the Ministry of Health closed down the terminal completely because there were too many people present. No flight board had any accurate information as to which flights were boarding or departing. It quickly became apparent that any flights leaving were hours behind schedule and that my Boston‑bound flight would be lucky to leave at all. Indeed, the crush at the terminal gates was so extreme that people could not enter the terminal to check in even if their flights were announced.
Invariably polite, the BA ambasssadors found they had to use cell phones to central reservation offices to find out critical information. They urged people to use their cell phones to call for information, too, ignoring the fact that Americans with our proprietary phones could not use them in the UK.
Overhead, a huge billboard advertised the wonders of connectivity by Vodaphone, a British cell phone giant. I kept wondering why BA, or better yet, Vodaphone, had not handed out hundreds of cell phones just for the day, so people could ease the worker╒s burden that day. Quick‑reacting US firms would have jumped at the opportunity to introduce their service to desparate users who could become new customers. Even stodgy old companies, beset by this level of chaos, would have rented a slew of phones to help keep their customer base.
Lots of flights did take off from Heathrow that day, mostly those of competing airlimes. BA flights did leave to become departing flights from US cities, although largely empty because no one could board th planes.
The reaction from travellers ranged from rage to resignation. I treated myself to a day of tasteless sandwiches, people watching, friendly chats, and a lot of sitting. I did meet some interesting people, however, and we lucked out because it never did rain. One member of our party, who flew Virgin Atlantic airlines, returned home on schedule.
Eventually, I joined my remaining American compatriots that evening at an airport hotel. The next day, BA sent me to three different lines for my baggage check and tickets. One line opened at 5:00 am; the other lines did not open until 5:30, and nothing ‑ not the backlog of people queued up or their frowning faces ‑ was going to make them open at the same time. At 5:29, the remaining workers marched out behind their counters at once.
Eventually I flew north to Manchester where I waited for a long time for a tiny plane ‑ the plane was so small that every seat was an aisle seat ‑ to take me to Shannon, Ireland. There, I deplaned and walked along the runway to the one terminal where I stared at duty free goods I could never use. Finally, I boarded an Aer Lingus flight for Boston and arrived home nearly two days late.
The parallels to the unlamented days of British Leyland are too numerous and too painful to contemplate. It=s sad to note that BA and BL resemble each other too close for comfort. Or for another flight on BA.
There will always be an England, though. The Times put the story on page 3 and reported on ATravellers Delayed Due to Walkout.@The Daily Mail put the story on page 1, noting Atheir holidays in ruins, the misery goes on for thousands.@ Their headline read AThe Hell At Heathrow.@
Copyright 2003 Jeffrey Aronson and Rovers North
"The Land Rover is not a vehicle, it's a way of life."