An ambitious rebuild takes a family of five home to Portugal. Reproduced by kind permission of Land Rover World Magazine.
A bead of sweat ran down my nose and dripped onto my already soaked tee shirt. It was 40 degrees in the cab and probably hotter outside as I turned left onto a minor road and wound my way up through a series of tight bends to a village somewhere far too close to the Sun. Freixiel, which must roughly translate as Furnace, is situated high up in the hills north of the Douro Valley in Portugal’s biggest wine producing area. I was there to meet a friend, Pedro Melo who lives, with his growing young family, in a cosy little oven right in the village centre.
Pedro, a chap in his early thirties, is a man of many talents. Whilst studying for his MSc in Aeronautical Engineering he had a brief, but frustrating flirtation with an 88 inch Series 2a, which was eventually scrapped, but served to fire an enthusiasm that lasts to this day for the Series Land Rovers. When he started working for a big International company and had a little money coming in he set his heart on rebuilding an ‘as new’ LWB version, with the aim of one day returning to Portugal to run the family vineyard and olive oil business. The perfect donor vehicle turned up in Liverpool and Pedro, his wife Jo and her father, Bruce, went up to inspect it. It ran, but that was about as much as could be said for it. £250 changed hands and the trio set off back to Hinckley in Leicestershire to squeeze it into Bruce’s garage and begin the lengthy rebuild. They made it back, but found the Land Rover just 4 inches too high for the garage. It was midnight and everyone was tired, but they had to start immediately by removing the roof. Many cups of tea and skinned knuckles later it slipped into it’s resting place for the next 5 years.
With an eagerness we’ve all had, the Land Rover was dismantled and various bits scrapped. The biggest item being the chassis, which was beyond salvation, shortly followed by the engine, the springs, shock absorbers and all five doors. Fortunately Pedro and Bruce stopped there for the time being and ordered a new, galvanised, chassis to start building something up again, before they were back to an empty garage. Pedro wanted left hand drive for Portugal and found a new LHD, military surplus, front axle at John Craddock’s for a very reasonable amount. With new springs and shock absorbers they soon had a rolling chassis. The offer of a free BMC 2.2 diesel engine seemed too good to miss, especially as it came with a complete, but scrap, 88 inch. With help from a gang of friends they heaved the engine into the chassis and tried to start it. Alas! That was for the skip too and a plan ‘B’ had to be formulated.
Promotion at work took the young Melo family to Brazil on a hefty ex-pat salary, with all the trimmings. The down side was several thousand miles between Pedro and his project, but a salary that could buy all the goodies needed when they returned to the UK two years later. That return coincided with a plea from his parents to return to Portugal to run the family business. It was a tough decision to give up a very well paid job and take his young family back to a hard, but healthy, life in Freixiel, but they decided to take up the challenge. This meant the rebuild now had a deadline. Two months was all that was available to transform the rolling chassis into a reliable vehicle to drive to Portugal with all their belongings.
With a fistful of dollars and a long shopping list, Pedro scoured the country for bits while Bruce put in some long nights welding up the original bulkhead and bolting on all the shiny new bits as Pedro returned from his many trips. The lack of engine was still a problem, but Pedro had heard good reports of the Montego diesel engine, so invested £400 on the conversion kit before even finding an suitable donor engine. Fate stepped in a few weeks later when a scrap Montego appeared on a driveway down the road displaying a hand written ‘for sale’ sign in the window. It turned out that the engine was a service exchange unit and was a very low mileage. A fact that was verified by a mutual friend. With the engine fitted the Land Rover ran for the first time in 5 years and was driven out and back into the garage under it’s own steam.
Dream shopping list
A rolling chassis was not going to get the family to Portugal though and at the risk of mixing up the two ‘addocks’ he bought B.F. Goodridge All Terrains on a special offer from Paddocks, Discovery front seats, LHD hand brake mechanism and many other small items from Craddocks and a new set of doors and safari roof from AMD, conveniently up the road in Leicestershire. With all these bolted on the project was, at last, looking like a Land Rover again. Next came a ‘roadside’ respray, inside and out, in Shetland Beige Matt. A colour chosen specifically to blend in with the Freixiel landscape. Finally Pedro, with his Aeronautical Engineering skills made his own wiring loom, starting from scratch, fitted the lights and seats, the rear one specially modified to take three seat belts for their children and drove off to surprise an MOT STation with a ‘new’ 109 inch Land Rover. A week later the family hitched up a one ton trailer and headed off to start their new live in Portugal.
Long haul home
The journey went well with them saving a huge run across France by taking the Plymouth Santander ferry crossing, heading south west across Spain and entering the northern tip of Portugal. It was at about midnight on a lonely stretch of road in a pitch black, moonless night, that the headlights cut out. Fortunately the road was straight and they pulled over. Pedro thought through every inch of the wiring loom and checked the fuses. He had only used a 10 amp in the headlight circuit. Swapping this for a bigger one saw them safely on their way again.
Looking at this Land Rover parked next to a pile of cork, harvested from their own trees, it was easy to see why Pedro is so proud of his creation. With so many new parts it really does resemble a new car. When we had finished talking Landies he invited me to explore a few of the tracks that link villages and vineyards in the region, warning me that some of it was very steep. An offer too good to miss, we were joined by an old pal of Pedro’s, now a lawyer in Porto, Andre Rodrigous who came along for the ride. Off we went in Pedro’s 109 and my Carawagon stopping first on the edge of the village to look at the ‘Forca’. This was the village gallows where local murderers and the like, were brought on horseback through a crowd baying for blood. A wooden shaft was put through two holes in the top of the stones and the unfortunate victim had a garrotte placed around his neck. With a slap of the horses rump it was goodnight Vienna.
Off road action
We then took a track up to the vineyard Pedro has planted with 16,000 new vines, transported up there, 50 at a time, in the back of the Land Rover. This was back breaking work, but easier than when his grandfather built the original terracing 80 years ago when everything would have been dragged up there by donkey. The vines had been in six months and still required watering every other day to ensure a good start to their lives. This will all be done by irrigation, eventually, but this still needs some work. A large toad had become stranded in part of the system and Pedro donned his work gloves, to protect him from poisonous excretions from it’s back, and rescued the hapless creature from a slow and inevitable death.
From here we climbed higher up a series of hairpin bends, tyres scrabbling for grip on the loose surface, to emerge at the top of the hill with a commanding view of, what appeared to be, the whole of Portugal. We were at about 3000 feet on a blistering hot day, the sky crystal clear in every direction.
We progressed into the welcome shade of some pine trees and I asked Pedro what the legal situation was to driving these fantastic tracks and he confirmed they were all ‘open to all traffic’. The thought of a ban would not occur to the Portuguese as these routes have always been the way people get around by whatever means of transport they have available. This is helped by a relatively small population and a small burgeoning 4x4 recreation movement. It was obvious that they had evolved from donkey tracks, through to tractor tracks and now 4x4 pick up tracks, but in the half day we were up there we saw no one. Pedro assured me that during the vine harvest there are traffic jams as all the growers rush to get their valuable grapes down to the grape presses.
With that it was time to drop down the other side of the hill and check on the crop in another vineyard. This was well established and there, lurking under the shade of the leaves, were big bunches of Tinta Roriz grapes. In late September these will be harvested and the whole region runs flat out to take advantage of the brief window of opportunity when grapes, weather and labour force coincide to make a perfect red wine.
We arrived back at Pedro and Jo’s house to sit under the shade of a big fig tree and eat a splendid lunch of local cured meats, cheeses, bread and salad washed down by a few glasses of their own wine. It must have been the heat, but after so much excitement I just had to go and have a siesta in the afternoon. Not difficult to see why Pedro swapped the rat race for this healthy lifestyle and brought his lovely Series 3 with him.
Pedro’s Land Rover is a 109 Series 2a (despite the ‘R’ reg), bought originally for £250. His total rebuild cost in the region of £4000 and included a new galvanised chassis, new LHD front axle and steering box, all new suspension, new brakes, conversion to LHD hand brake, new doors and roof, new wiring, upgraded seats, new tyres and a complete respray, inside and out. He is in the process of registering it in Portugal and had to produce the original receipt for £250!
The Douro Valley is a delightfully unspoilt part of Portugal compared with the Algarve in the south. The Douro river is joined by the Tamega and flows into the sea at Portugal’s capital, Porto. Pedro’s vineyard is high up in the ‘Tras-os-montes e Alto Douro’, or high Douro, to the north of the river. It is this region, north of Villa Real, that has miles of wild tracks. Villa Real is the location of the Mateus Palace featured on the well known Mateus Rose bottle.
Toby used a Michelin 1/300,000 map number 561 to find his way around northern Portugal. If planning a trip to this region it’s worth considering one of the two ferries that operate between the UK and northern Spain, or face a long haul across France. Brittany Ferries sail between Plymouth and Santander and P&O cross from Portsmouth to Bilbao. Both are in the region of £900 for a Land Rover and two people in high season.