A 1959 Series 2 for the Americas

Finding parts and servicing your vehicle while on the road are essential to successful vehicle-dependent travel.

When Frans purchased a 1959 Series 2 109 from Ike at Pangolin 4×4, he planned to outfit the Land Rover for long-term living so he could explore the West Coast of the United States and the Baja Peninsula.

Sean and Mittie Land Rover Series II 109 overland land rover 1959 Series 2

Frans also wanted a work vehicle to pull logs and the brush chipper for his arborist business. It would need to be long enough for sleeping yet nimble enough for San Francisco parking. And he wanted to carry his canoe, bike, and other gear. So, the 109 was a good fit – albeit not in its current configuration. Modifications were needed.

He soon realized, however, just how much work it would require to make this 57-year-old Land Rover reliable enough for the rigors of extended overland travel.

The first clue was the speedometer, which gave out on the trip from Oregon to Northern California. The vehicle already had a few modifications – the transmission was that of a Land Rover 101 Forward Control and this little gear that powered the speedometer proved tricky to find…and so did the next part that broke.

Sean and Mittie Land Rover Series II 109 overland land rover 1959 Series 2

This may sound like the beginning of a classic Rover restoration honoring the vehicle’s heady heritage – but it’s not. Instead, this is a story of the practical and pragmatic build of an overland vehicle designed for use in the Americas.

Frans approached Sam Beeson, who restores classic cars in Cloverdale, California. Sam was halfway through an 88-inch Series 2a build of his own and he had chosen to use American components so that the vehicle could be more easily serviced in the United States and south of the border.

This is the direction that Frans and Sam chose for the SII 109’s restoration.

Rover purists have already undoubtedly winced at the sight of the Series 2a wings mounted on the Series 2 – making for quad headlights – but they should brace themselves because it gets worse. While the leaf-sprung chassis belongs to the original 109, under the hood lurks a Chevy 4.3-liter V6 – along with a Chevy transmission, and transfer case. The axles are from a 1980’s Toyota pick-up.

Sean and Mittie Land Rover Series II 109 overland land rover 1959 Series 2

Aside from the Chevy powertrain and most other parts being easily found in the US, the vehicle also boasts a few smart additions for long-term overland travel: two gas tanks, cabinets that run down one side of the rear bay, exterior storage boxes, a stove, and an air chuck for airing-up. Between the two tanks, the vehicle has a 400-mile range.

Sean and Mittie Land Rover Series II 109 overland land rover 1959 Series 2
Sean and Mittie Land Rover Series II 109 overland land rover 1959 Series 2

The 35-inch wheels were a yard find and they required some extra work – four inches of lift and all the necessary modifications that go with it.

Frans gives me the chance to drive the S2 on his farm and, in my very limited experience driving Series Land Rovers, it feels a little different with its four gears and a short, stiff clutch – very torque-y in first and second. But the interior still feels like a Series 2 109, with only a few small exceptions. It’s a charming cockpit. The heater resembles the a/c unit our Defender once had.

Sean and Mittie Land Rover Series II 109 overland land rover 1959 Series 2
Sean and Mittie Land Rover Series II 109 overland land rover 1959 Series 2

“The idea”, Sam tells me, “was to be able to walk into a part store anywhere and get a part. What if I broke down in the middle of Death Valley and needed a steering rod? I don’t want to have to call Linus in the UK”.

Land Rovers may be inherently too quirky for Sam. He recounts an episode with his first Land Rover – an automatic Discovery – when a component of the third brake light failed and didn’t allow the vehicle to shift out of park. “I was out four-wheeling and had a really long walk back to find out how to get it fixed. What were they thinking when they did that?”

From an overland or off-road enthusiast’s perspective, there’s a valid point here: Rover-specific parts are not only more expensive in the US and Latin America, they are also harder to find. This begs the question: when rovering in remote areas of the Americas, are Rover owners at a disadvantage when compared to those using Toyota, Honda, Ford, or Chevy?

land rover series II 109 overland land rover 1959 Series 2

It is true that we now have better access to Rover-specific parts through Rovers North, Pangolin 4×4, Bearmach, and there are several US shops that make excellent aftermarket parts for Land Rovers. But we’re still calling across the country or across the Atlantic and that’s not as easy as walking into any AutoZone or NAPA Auto Parts distributer anywhere in the US – or in Mexico, as in our case.

As a roverlander in the Americas – and as someone who has been into Land Rovers since he was a boy in Spain – I can appreciate that there is more to a Land Rover than mere day-to-day practicality. These vehicles are imbued with great style and extraordinary capability. They also have a solid track record exploring faraway corners of the globe and as emergency response and military vehicles.

Our Defender has been the vehicle for some of the greatest highs of our life – like the time we rode her into the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert flanked by desert hares as thunder rolled in the distance or when we were finally granted passage through a Guatemalan roadblock and let the V8 roar down the empty two-lane highway toward the town of La Libertad where we ferried across the River of Passion, with Tikal, one of the most powerful city-states of the ancient Maya, just a day or two ahead of us.

But if – as Sam suggests – you break the steering rod on a Land Rover in Death Valley, there can be an additional layer of complexity to resolving the problem.

Mittie and I have certainly run into this while overlanding. We’re currently using a Chrysler master cylinder because that’s what was available when we sprung a leak in central Mexico a while back.

And this happened –

Sean and mittie land rover defender u joint prop shaft real de catorce mexico

We eventually needed to replace the prop shaft; some of our usual providers were asking over a thousand dollars. We ultimately purchased the part from GBR in Utah and a currier service brought it over the border into Mexico.

So, is it sacrilegious to want faster, easier, cheaper access to parts, even in hard-to-reach places like the United States? And since I’m already dancing with the devil, let me take this subversive thought one step further – would it be better if Land Rover parts were available everywhere, even if they were a little more expensive than components by domestic manufacturers? Or would we then risk diluting the fine art of American Rover maintenance, with half the battle being to find just the right part from England?

Mittie and I will drive our Land Rover for as long as we can keep her running – probably well beyond the limits of good reason because she’s a member of the team and we have an agreement: we maintain her and she takes us to amazing places. That’s the deal. It doesn’t have to be the cheapest arrangement out there but it would be great if Land Rover were there for us in every country along the way, despite our modest maintenance budget.

Sean and Mittie Land Rover Series II 109 overland land rover 1959 Series 2

So, I tip my hat to this smart build – even if it looks like a Land Rover but isn’t really.

*****

Thanks to Sam and Frans for taking the time to talk to me about this vehicle. This piece was written during the northern California wildfires of October 2017. Both Sam and Frans were almost evacuated during this time. As I typed the first drafts less than an hour south, I watched ash fall from the hazy sky. Glad you guys stayed safe.

Sean Reagan
seanreaganphoto@gmail.com

Sean’s photography is a contribution to the visual record of changing cultures in Latin America – documenting peoples and customs evolving together in an increasingly interdependent world.

1Comment
  • James Howard
    Posted at 19:38h, 17 November

    Nice. We were a little nervous driving our Range Rover Classic to Guatemala, but when we burst a brake hose in Merida, a resourceful shop found a VW hose that was identical. We did convert the alternator to a Delco one which makes it a lot easier and cheaper to replace.

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