This is our 1998 Land Rover Defender 130 300Tdi. She goes by the much simpler name of ‘Mandy the Landy’. She is our fully kitted out, all singing, sometimes dancing, 4 wheeled home.

A Solihull girl, with a German accent

Why a Land Rover?

“Look no further than the holy trinity of off-roaders,” he always suggests. “Jeep the Father. Land Rover, the Son. Toyota, the Holy Ghost.”

Tom Collins – Car & Driver Magazine, May 2013

Why a Defender, you ask? Wouldn’t a Toyota be more reliable, and wouldn’t a Jeep be cheaper? Well, yes to both, probably… Obviously, I just love the smell of warm engine oil on my shoes and the regular company of a varied selection of auto mechanics who specialize in these wonderful but temperamental vehicles.

Seriously, there was only even one possibility for the vehicle that we would choose, and they were ALL made in Solihull, UK. The Land Rover v Toyota v Jeep debate is as about as old as Land Rover itself… It’s rather like my preference for Canon photographic equipment over Nikon, in that there is little point in delving too deeply into the reasoning, as you will find precious little to study. I know what I like and that’s what I like – nothing more scientific than that, I’m afraid! You couldn’t pay me to use Nikon, but don’t ask we why. Similarly, you’ll never see me in a Toyota, though I could be tempted into a INEOS Grenadier if they asked me nicely…

Now, she didn’t always look the way that she does now… Back in May 2019, after a six-month search across most of Europe for a reasonably priced LHD Defender 130, we found her limping forlornly around Frankfurt, Germany. Despite her decidedly dodgy steering and her alarming lack of brakes, we completely fell in love with her. She was THE one. She came with heavy-duty everything and, like a derelict old farmhouse in the Cotswolds, we could see the stunning potential. Importantly, it felt like we were about to save an old warhorse and give her back her life.

After tracking down Hamid, the relentlessly positive, but worryingly elusive, salesman, the deal was eventually done. Plans were hatched to come back in a few weeks and drive her back to the UK. To our huge relief, Mandy was born at last – now the real fun could begin. We got her for a song at around €9K, only after some cringe worthy haggling. Our dreams were slowly turning into reality.

The first time we heard her wheezy heart beating…

Unlike most German girls, she was neither tidy nor reliable, so we knew very well that she was going to need a lot of love, affection and pots of money, before she would be ready to be our Overland house on wheels. Next, was the seemingly simple task of returning her to the UK for the aforementioned, and much-needed, tender, loving, care. What could go wrong?

The return to the Motherland

On Thursday 16th May 2019, I flew in to Frankfurt Airport from Italy and Jon Norman arrived separately from the UK. An old friend and former motor racing colleague, Jon had kindly agreed to take on the mammoth task of rebuilding and upgrading the Defender. Before that, he had the unenviable task of being ‘trackside support’ for this mad caper from Germany to Essex. Top of the agenda on day one, was for him to change the Brake Vacuum and PAS pumps, or we weren’t going to get very far at all.

Friday 17th May 2019 – on an overcast and chilly day in Frankfurt, we were ready to go at 9am as agreed, but the normally uber organized German state apparatus decided to go all Italianesque on us and did its absolute best to thwart our plans. Providing export number plates with the wrong year on was not helpful – even less helpful was the fact that you could not simply swap the number plates for correct ones, the whole export process would have to be begun again, and to compound the pressure even more, the offices close at lunchtime on Fridays! If poor Hamid the salesman failed, we would be stuck in Frankfurt until Monday…

But finally, just before Midday, our saviour appeared in a cloud of 2 stroke scooter smoke, grinning and clutching a set of correct export plates. Sighs of relief all around.

With the new plates fitted, and not withstanding some initial wrong side of the road shenanigans, we were finally on our way! Now, just the trivial matter of the 605 km to Calais, and the 21.55 P&O Ferry to Dover, patiently waiting for us. We had almost exactly 9 hours to drive a distance should take us no more than 6 hours. It should have been plenty of time… you would have thought.

Jon is, thankfully, highly experienced in the skilled art of keeping an ageing Defender on the road, and, as it turned out, proved to be worth his weight in gold. Armed with slightly more than my usual tool kit of a large hammer and a can of WD40, we were ready for anything. Unfortunately, we didn’t have long to wait to be reminded of the old adage that ‘Land Rovers have been turning drivers into mechanics since 1947’.

Speed is all about perspective, and travelling at 120 km/h in a Defender on the Autobahn seemed quite quick enough, thanks very much. Until, that is, you are parked on the hard shoulder of said Autobahn, in the pouring rain, holding a very weighty bonnet up with one quivering arm. I nervously scanned back up the packed lanes of speeding Audi’s, BMW’s and Porsches, as they whizzed past my right shoulder at race pace. Jon, head buried deep in the engine bay, wouldn’t stand a chance if we were hit, so I was ready to scream jump if the unthinkable should happen, and someone strayed into our lane on a collision course.

The fuel cut off solenoid had failed in the closed position (a common fault it seems, thanks to Land Rover), so with no diesel flowing, we were going precisely nowhere. Thankfully, Jon is a veteran of many a 300tdi powered adventure, and knew exactly how to get us going again, and coincidently, it would involve the direct application of our trusty large hammer…

As the engine had cut out, Jon had the presence of mind to coast to a halt underneath a wide motorway bridge. The only water we had to contend with, was now limited to the ‘pressure washer’ wheel spray from passing HGV’s as they skimmed past us in the inside lane. With every passing truck, I involuntarily shuddered, and the heavy old Defender drunkenly rocked on her knackered springs in sympathy. With light fading and famously poor headlights, the last place we wanted to be was a lame duck on the hard shoulder of a German Autobahn.

After some precision hammering, Jon removed the errant solenoid housing, but only after considerable swearing and knuckle damage. An auxiliary wire was run from the fuel pump to a permanent live feed under the bonnet to bypass the closed cut-off valve, and restore the vital diesel flow.

The 9pm check-in for the ferry from Calais was starting to look like somewhat unlikely. At this rate, it was going to be a very long and nerve wracking 605 km to Calais. Thankfully, an hour or so later, we were back on the road and heading towards Brussels. Time to get fuel. There are few more sickening feelings in the world than when that ignition key gets turned and the engine stubbornly refuses to fire. You guessed it. Time to get the hammer out again?

It seems that the previous ‘Heath Robinson’ bush repair wiring solution was only rated for around 200 km, not the full 605. We were eating fuses fast and running out of permanent live wiring feeds under the bonnet. After some sterling roadside innovation, Jon rigged up a much more robust wiring set up, that, crucially, was much more acceptable to the hard to please fuse box and, after a swift injection of coffee and chocolate, off we went again. Having used up most of our wiggle time already, previous thoughts of a cheeky stop off at the museums of Dunkirk were, rather like the light, fast receding. The flag had dropped, the race for the ferry was officially on!

Considering the delays due to the fuel pump solenoid issue, coupled with the increasing volumes of early evening traffic, it became clear that our glorious attempt to reach the ferry was a doomed one. Defenders are not sports cars, and options to push on and make up the time were non-existent, even without considering the decidedly dodgy brakes, seriously suspect steering and their infamous ‘candle like’ headlights… we were going to get there, when we get there, and not before!

As darkness began to fall, we plugged on to Calais, thankfully, without suffering further mechanical issues, but the closer we got, it became clear that we had made much better time than we had any reason to predict, and we were going to be achingly close to the cut-off time for our ferry. Despite arriving just before the departure time, the computer said no, and we would not be able to board the ship. We parked up. Frustrating close as we could see the ship right in front of us with the bow doors open!

With the next ferry not due to leave until 11.35pm, we had some time to kill. Jon busied himself trying to understand the whacky wiring system on the Defender and hopefully head off any more potential electrical gremlins, as we still had a long way to go. Jon’s workshop is based in Essex, so we had the unappetizing prospect of a further 3-hour drive in the early morning after a midnight arrival in Dover. This was swiftly becoming a 24-hour marathon journey. Neither of us fancied reliving those golden days…

Just after midnight, UK time, Mandy finally returned us to the land of her birth. After a relatively uneventful drive from Dover, passing through the Dartford tunnel and the M25, and wearily arrived in rural Essex, around 3am and very worse for wear. The Solihull girl, with a German accent, had ultimately done the job.

As we dropped her off at the workshop, I bedded down in the office and fell into a deep sleep, a sleep full of adventurous dreams. I never dreamed, however, that it would be 1 year, 10 months and 25 days until she would be fully ready to hit the road again as our new permanent house on wheels, and by then, the world would be a very different place entirely.

The world’s longest rebuild

Check back soon for the next part of the story…

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