The Italian Job
I sling a few cans of oil in my 1948 Land Rover and head for Italy.
Since getting my 1948 Land Rover back on the road at the end of the summer I had been itching to use it for some imaginative adventure. The old girl was running well after what can only be described as a sympathetic restoration, where the bodywork looked exactly the same as when it completed its last trial at Tixover in 1998. It hadn’t even been washed but the mechanical side of things was good with installed Series II axles, a new braking system and a rebuilt gearbox. An invite from friends Leigh and Maura in Italy to help bring their winter supply of logs up from the valley seemed just the ticket.
Preparation was restricted to fitting one of Exmoor Trim’s Fume curtains just behind the seats, which gave the weedy little heater far less interior to warm. I gaffer taped up as many holes as I could in the bulkhead which l had drilled over the years to fit various switches. The canvas tilt was in good order and extra care fitting it ensured all would be snug and cosy for the November run down across France. I also fitted a Garmin satellite navigation device to aid rne in my solo adventure. Finally l threw in 48 pints of Marston’s Pedigree For my Peddy starved mate, and three gallons of cheap oil. l pulled on my woolly gloves and set off with no back up, and no membership to a recovery organisation, just a box full of Whitworth spanners, some string, tape, sandpaper and a torch.
As my Land Rover dated back to 1948 I decided to only use roads that existed then, and headed south from Leicester firstly on the A5O and then the A5. Pottering along at 49mph it was a pleasure to drive these older, more peaceful roads in contrast to the mad motorways. They seemed empty until I noticed the queue that was behind me! I hit London at rush hour and stop-started my way around the North Circular until she gave up the ghost in the middle lane of a busy road in Brixton. As the stressed commuters weaved their way around my stranded Land Rover, I cursed my oversight in not fitting a new fuel pump. Three big and remarkably jovial policemen helped me push it onto the pavement, where by the light of my torch I dismantled, cleaned and re-set the SU Fuel pump points. Success! Off I went again, reaching Newhaven in time for the overnight ferry and a comfy cabin.
A handy tip if ever you disembark from the car ferry in Dieppe is to ignore the signs directing all traffic up a big duel carriageway and instead take a sharp right into the centre of the delightful old port, with restaurants and bars. At 5am however all was shut, so I pressed on south with the Sat-Nav barking instructions at me as I persisted in sticking to old roads. I had spent about four evenings programming the route into the unit and it was paying off, leaving me to drive through the gloomy morning with authentic 1948 headlights, while ‘she’ shouted ‘turn left in 400 feet.’ Being an American piece of kit all measurements are in Imperial, which suited my 1948 theme perfectly. I was travelling on old money. As night slowly turned to day and the trees that characteristically line the French roads emerged from the gloom, I stopped for coffee and croissants in a village cafe suitahly unchanged over the last 50 years. Even the other customer, a postman aged about 60, looked authentic, as if planted by the tourist office. He was on the red wine already.
Invigorated by a douhle expresso I carried on skirting around the southern edge of Paris, through Chartres and on to the Loire valley. The old Landy was running well and unrushed I stuck to 45-50mph which suited both of us. My initial attention to all quirky noises relaxed, and I enjoyed that wet noise a two-litre engine makes labouring up a hill, and then the dustbin-full-of-nails noise speeding down the other side. With lunchtime approaching my attentions drifted towards the small restaurants that still thrive along these old roads, and after a couple of ‘pardon monsieur complet’ refusals, I settled on a Relais Routier truck stop. These basic cafes serve up good honest home cooking and a glass of house red. I pulled up a chair opposite a French trucker weighing about 18 stone, who was unshaven and tattooed. A plateful of raw beef in front of him went well with his second glass of red. I’m sure I didn't stand out too much as I must have stunk of oil and was dressed in stained rags. The engine throws loads out of the breather, and it pollutes the cab with a continual hlue haze that sticks to the skin. After a good lunch I continued south towards Nevers on the old N7. I was bowling along nicely when a track caught my eye off to the right and up a steep hill. IRRESISTIBLE I made a quick U-turn and ventured towards it. It was steep and surfaced with greasy mud, hut with several easier options to the top if the steep route failed, I went for it. I slithered around on my road biased tyres (a set of old Range Rover radials), but made it to the top with comparative ease. I stepped out and marvelled at how good it was to travel through France, Full of good food and in a Land Rover I had owned and enjoyed all my adult life. Ignoring the rain that was starting to make my exit look even more exciting, I went back down the hill and cursed the pathetic wiper blade causing me to bend over double just to see the road.
As dusk became night I decided to call it a day and consult the Michelin Guide for accommodation. Hotel Du Bourbonnais at Lapalisse was nearby and of a suitable vintage, so 350 miles from Dieppe, I headed there for some sleep. A lovely hot shower, a couple of beers and a good meal took the pain away and I was sound asleep by 9pm.
Refreshed in the morning, I checked the Land Rover over, topped up with oil and hit the road at 6am heading down for Haute Provence, vaguely recognisable through the persistent drizzle that had dogged the whole adventure. With remarkable foresight I had taped a huge length of gaffer tape along the join between the windscreen and the bulkhead, stopping the drips that usually soak my trousers. The only leak was where the windscreen wiper motor pokes through the windscreen surround, and I stopped this with an old rag that had to be wrung out periodically. After spending iny second night in an eccentric old French hotel I was at the southern tip ofthe Alps heading for Gap. Snow capped peaks were between me and Italy, and I was charging straight into them on the D93, a little road that meanders through various obscure French towns. It boasts a few long climbs with many hairpin bends which is great fun in something weighing less than a ton, and with a couple of hundred bhp. In the cool November weather the engine behaved itself, and I was soon 2000 metres up at the border crossing at Col de Larche. In sharp contrast to how this crossing would have been in 1948, it was today totally deserted. A derelict customs post, a long abandoned cafe and a simple sign that read ‘Italy’ was all that remained in the eerie silence. I stopped for a good 15 minutes and no-one appeared.
Once in Italy I, and my Garmin mistress calculated I could be at Leigh and Maura’s for lunch. A quick text message exchange confirmed this was all in order and a big Italian lunch was being prepared. Obviously now ignoring the numerous tempting tracks that wound their way to the left and right of me across stunning Alpine scenery, I put my Wellington boot down and stormed the last l00 miles at a scorching 50-53mph with a rumbling stomach. l pulled into their drive at lpm to a hero’s welcome, and the wine flowed, pasta filled the gaps, and all was well in the world. I had made it! 931 miles in about 68 hours including stops. After lunch the real work began. Leigh had felled about ten dead walnut trees during the summer and cut them into handy ten foot lengths, which lay 200 feet below the house in a wooded valley. A challenge if ever there was one.
We Stripped the Land Rover down to its bare essentials and took the roof, screen and doors Off. ln trials trim we were ready for the valley. The route down to the valley followed an old mule track past their neighbour Ricardo’s vineyard, where the vine leaves were glowing brown in the afternoon sunshine. From here there was a sharp right turn into what looked like impenetrable undergrowth. Brushing the foliage aside with our arms the track was invisible beneath the Land Rover, and we dropped quite steeply to thevalley floor. Leigh had previously only ever been down here on foot brandishing his chain saw, so to drive down was a novelty. At the bottom we both looked up at the house which was a distant spec on the horizon, and thought we would probably never drive out again, I had a eapstan winch and a mile of rope should we get really stuck, but it would be a performance.
Turning back to the job in hand we loaded up a mass of timber, the long boughs stretching right across the bonnet, seats and rear tub where they finally poked out over the dropped tailgate. This was exactly what the Wilks brothers had intended their design to he used for on those experimental outings in the prototype hack in 1947, and it fulfilled its task admirably. Fortunately walnut is quite a light wood, and my new springs hardly flexed under the many loads. The challenge was going to hegetting the load up to the allotted spot beside the house. lt was a fairly simple run up the first stretch of hillside, hut then a sharp left turn up a Steep and greasy section for the last hundred feet. The Hrst atrelnpt at this going forwards got us less than halfway. To carry all this timber manually up 50 feet would defeat the object of having the Land Rover. I was sure we could do it and had a crack at it in reverse, hoping the altered weight distribution would make a difference. Bingo! We roared up with tyres Slithering and logs bouncing. This pace continued until well into the second day, interspersed with hugelunches eaten al fresco in the low Autumn sunshine, washed down by a few glasses of Ricardo’s red at a quid a bottle. The Land Rover chugged up and down the valley looking totally at home. However there was a decision to be made, and I pulled out of my back pocket a £10 Ryanair ticket from Genoa back to Stanstead just in case I could not face the return journey in the Land Rover. With aching limbs and the option to enjoy an extra day there if I flew. We fitted the tilt, screen and doors again, topped up the anti-freeze and lay the old girl to rest in a corner of their garden where it will remain until the Spring when l shall return to enjoy a further 1948 adventure in my old friend back home.
Leigh and Maura Hooper run a delightful B&B from their hill top home in Peidmonte.