For many reasons, it felt great to kick out 2020, but in a miserable year, a few positives stand out – most prominently, Oxford In America: Sea To Shining Sea.
There’s no question that the ’55 Series I 86” SW arrived in the USA with a few issues; after all, it had completed over 20,000 miles of driving in 2019 when it participated in the “Second Overland” from London to Singapore and back to London. In 2020, it became a ward of the Rover Owners of Virginia [ROAV], which agreed to shepherd it across the USA, to dip a wheel in the Pacific, return it to the East Coast to dip a wheel in the Atlantic, and then put it in a container for its voyage to New Zealand.
Oxford received its due as a celebrity in Virginia, Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts [see Spring 2020 issue -ed.], but these events underscored the need for ongoing maintenance. A leaky rear main seal had soaked the clutch plate, so Sarek Autowerke in Virginia replaced the seal and installed a new clutch disk. At February’s Maine Winter Romp, enthusiast Bruce Fowler and friends repaired a leaking thermostat housing and a stuck thermostat. Pandemic travel restrictions in the spring provided Ben Smith, Readington, NJ, the opportunity to host Oxford and, with friends, open up the engine and replace pistons, rod and crank bearings, lap valves, machine the head and replace the starter and generator. Additional repairs to the steering, ignition and brake systems prepared Oxford for its cross-country journey.
The pandemic restrictions crashed the best-laid plans for Oxford’s westbound voyage into a heap, but one again, the Land Rover enthusiast community stepped up its game. After a visit to Jaguar Land Rover North American headquarters in Mahwah, NJ, John Kostuch and the Centre Steer Podcast crew welcomed it to the Pittsburg Vintage Grand Prix hillclimb.
In July, Rik Olsen and Dave Allton trailered it behind Rik’s “new to me” Range Rover Supercharged (license plate “REFINED”) for the 860-mile trek to Minnesota for the Minnesota Land Rover Club’s annual picnic. Rik was warned that “The steering is a suggestion; one ‘herds’ her more than steers her. The driver’s side fuel tank can be filled halfway but no more as the valve between the two under-seat tanks leaks. The accelerator might stick, so be ready to slap the pedal or lift with your toe. I was so excited to drive Oxford that I mistakenly grabbed the Roverdrive instead of the gear shifter. We then celebrated with Minnesota Tattersall Gin and Tonics and Pennsylvania beer from Helltown Brewery.”
“The uneventful trailer ride back to Dave’s home in Wayzata, MN was only broken by a rendezvous with an enthusiast and his kids at a Wisconsin gas station. Once in Minnesota, Dave gently escorted Oxford around the neighborhood and visited some lake areas. She ran great. At a backyard party at Dave’s home, several members took the opportunity to practice their double-de-clutching skills in a lap around the house. In the end, we loaded up Oxford on the trailer for some time in Hastings, MN at my home.”
“On August 7, Oxford thrilled club members at their annual picnic. The kids loved her and climbed all over the back. The club members lifted the bonnet and crawled around and under her. We got Oxford on some of the forest service roads and lanes. When she ran out of gas, we siphoned from a 109” by unplugging the fuel line and hand pumping. Oxford even got to go on a couple of night rides chasing the anemic glow of the headlamps. It turns out, like my 1960, the generator cannot manage to keep the battery charged if the lights and engine demand currently. God forbid anyone also try to run the wipers! A friend asked, ‘Is it wrong to feel like she starts, shifts, runs, brakes, and drives better than my 1960?’ After the picnic, she had two more photoshoots in northern Minnesota.”
“It was time to transfer Oxford to the Montana Rovers. We drove 620 miles through the splattering insects and flat fields of North Dakota to meet up with the Montana Rovers Club just over the border in Wibaux, MT. Some conversation over Oxford’s quirks and gifts of some Minnesota Solveig Gin and Tonic left us satisfied that Oxford would be in good hands. After we left, Dave and I reflected on the experience. We marveled at the generosity and trust bestowed upon us. Dave summed it up best when he asked, ‘Ok, what do we do next?’”
August saw Oxford make appearances in Livingston, Yellowstone National Park and Helena before another trailer brought brought her into the open arms of the Pacific Northwest Land Rover Club. It dazzled enthusiasts at Gord’n Perrot’s Lamorna Garage near Seattle and Doug Shipman’s Ship’s Mechanical Services in Portland, OR. There, it left its life as a trailer queen and took to the open road.
David Short, Sterling, VA, and Mike McCaig, Buckingham Farm, VA, flew out to Portland to drive Oxford back across the US – but first, a stop at Pangolin 4×4 for general maintenance, brake system, steering and rear wheel bearing work. Ike Goss of Pangolin noted that “a rear wheel bearing had been replaced in Uzbekistan by inadequately forcing in the wrong size bearing.” With the correct bearing and the right press, Oxford would be ready for her Pacific-to-Atlantic trip under her own power.
First came the ceremonial dip of the wheel into the Pacific Ocean at the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Dave and Mike proceeded south with detours taken to avoid the worst of California’s forest fires in September. As they proceeded south into California, they headed around Lake Tahoe and toward Reno, NV. Oxford had started to lose power, skip and run poorly. They had planned a promotional stop at Land Rover Reno anyway, but now they needed more than a wash.
To paraphrase the old song, they would never walk alone. James Dundson, Weaverville, CA, read about Oxford’s plight in Reno. “David Short and I had been trying to coordinate a meet-up in California, but the wildfires forced me to change plans. The problems he identified in Reno made me cannibalize ignition and parts from my Series I, a ’53, and stuff them into a Pelican case. It’s a five-hour drive but I knew I had to help. I was greeted by a committee at the dealership as if I were carrying vital organs into an operating room! [Unbeknownst to James, Rovers North had sent an overnight order of repair parts -ed.]. I was shocked by the originality of the vehicle!”
Two years ago, when Oxford first arrived back in England from Singapore, James had formed part of a welcoming committee at the Grenadier Pub in Belgravia, London, with his father in the family Defender 90. He told me, “I’ve had Series I since I was age 17, a ’49 Series I. No one at home in England was impressed by it then.The ones we used in England were always dirty; the guys driving them didn’t look much better. I thought I was a Land Rover enthusiast but it’s amazing the effect a Land Rover has on one’s life. You don’t want to underestimate the impact of an old Land Rover. Everyone has a story about a Land Rover, even if they never owned one.”
Once repaired, Oxford headed south to Las Vegas, where it made a special appearance at the Land Rover dealership. Rick Nelson, who organizes off-road events for Land Rover Las Vegas, called it “A thrill to see a vehicle so well-traveled, and to see it beside a new Defender in front of our building. Every Land Rover can tell a story, and Oxford must have a ton of them! As a fan of off-roading and adventuring myself, I really admire what the Oxford team from Virginia accomplished. The marque has changed so much in terms of engineering but not in DNA.”
Meanwhile, back in Virginia, Bob Steele, Richmond, VA, and Larry Michelon, Norfolk, VA, hitched a trailer behind Bob’s 2020 Defender 110 and loaded up Larry’s ’71 Series IIA 88” (named Oscar) to provide a royal escort to Oxford to meet up in Moab, UT. We stopped first at the home of Mike and Cyndy Boggs, Ridgway, CO, so Mike and his NAS Defender 110 (#110) could join our convoy. As Larry noted, “the long uphills in the Colorado mountains were brutal for a Series Land Rover, requiring long stretches in second gear while the altitude created issues for my carbureted IIA.”
When he met up with Oxford, Larry said, “I couldn’t get enough. I felt like a groupie. In college, a buddy was a ‘Dead Head;’ even after attending a concert, I never ‘got it.’ But Oxford I got. Now I’m an ‘Ox Head.’ I convoyed behind Oxford as we tackled trails the next day. Not only did I enjoy a great view but I got to collect its leaking oil – kind of like being in the front row of a rock concert, sweat and all.”
The convoy headed east toward Ridgway, CO, but David and Mike heard a disconcerting “clunk” under load from Oxford’s rear. Fortunately, they had received posts through social media from Christian Brunner, whose Capricorn Services in Moab features a Series IIA pickup as its work truck. He offered the use of this trailer to go fetch Oxford, the use of his shop lift and all the support required to complete the swap-out.
“Imagine the sight of four Series and Defenders in the mountains around Ouray, CO.” Larry recalled. “They spanned 65 years, spaced about 20 years apart: 1955, 1971, 1993 and 2020. And I got seat time in Oxford! I had some challenges selecting the right gears between the transmission and the overdrive.” Larry, Bob Steele and Mark Garrenton had to leave Oxford behind in Colorado as they headed on a different journey home.
Moab also provided Steven Staheli, Goshen, UT, the chance to become “ the luckiest Land Rover enthusiast in America.” He already has a ’65 Series IIA 88, a ’99 Discovery II and an ’08 LR3 [with a ’66 109” and a ’55 Series I undergoing refurbishment -ed.] “I bought my ’65 twenty-two years ago when I met my wife, Jenny. My son, Jack (12) and my daughter Ezry (22), as well as my father, came with me on this trip.”
“I had caught wind of the Oxford trek through Facebook, where they had posted their itinerary. One location, Otter Creek, is where we have a cabin. That was really special for me, as I learned hunting and fishing there. We took them across Parker Mountain and Capitol Reef National Park, sharing our joy in the region with them. We even found them a prong-horned antelope.”
Jack said “I was amazed that it had been all over the world!” Jenny said, “I know how much Steven loves Land Rovers, and how important this once-in-a-lifetime moment is. He’d never forgive himself for missing it. I know more about Oxford than I care to – but I must admit that, as an English and History teacher, the history of Land Rover is fascinating and can help capture the attention of my students.”
Oxford continued east through Colorado, Oklahoma and Arkansas. That’s where January Cross, Little Rock, AR, saw it for the first time. She said, “I so admire what the original First Overland team accomplished, and I am so envious of the 2nd Overland London-Singapore-London team! The Oxford Rover forced the drivers to live with it for hours every day. It made their trip so much more challenging, and so much more exciting to me to meet them and Oxford. Think about it; the Oxford Rover had been lost, then found and reborn. Every decade allows you to find a new meaning in your life, just like Oxford!”
David and Mike continued across country through Tennessee and Virginia, arriving in time for the truncated Mid-Atlantic Rally in Pembroke, VA., in early October – but their journey was not yet completed. On November 12, a convoy of Land Rover enthusiasts accompanied Oxford to – fittingly – Oregon Inlet on Cape Hatteras, NC, where Oxford dipped a wheel into the Atlantic Ocean.
David Short and Mike McCaig
To call it a labor of love may sound like a tired cliché – but truth be told, it was. On top of just loving all things Land Rover, the other motivation for me to undertake the Oxford in America project was that I had reached the time in my life when I’d grown tired of reading about everybody else’s adventures. I’d had run out of excuses why I was still on the metaphorical couch. I needed to do something “more.”
I really wanted to leverage the resources of the ROAV [Rover Owners of Virginia – ed] and accomplish something that would make the members of the club proud. What I did not expect was how much more this plucky little Rover and its cross-country trip would grow to mean to me and the many Land Rover enthusiasts that we met along the way.
I positioned this whole project as a chance for Oxford to get out in America to meet Rover fans and tell its story. By some sort of Rover-Luck, it all worked out. Naturally, we met fans of the project at out scheduled stops, like Moab, UT or Lynchburg, TN, but the random encounters amazed us -– like the British Ex-Pat we met atop Red Mountain Pass in Colorado. He knew nothing about our project but was randomly talking to his brother in South Africa about the First Overland the night before. When he saw us, he immediately pulled over and called his brother and shared the moment. Moments like that – moments of serendipity, unbridled enthusiasm, and joy – are too few in today’s world. Mike McCaig and I were both constantly humbled to think that we had something to do with that.
We feel like we accomplished something for ourselves but it is obvious we also made a lasting impact on the Rover community. Enthusiasts still contact us out of the blue. Even though the whole adventure is a few months behind us, it still feels good that we were able to bring a little bit of traveling happiness to 2020.
Land Rover Reno and Land Rover Las Vegas
When David Short envisioned a cross-country trek in “Oxford,” he contacted Land Rover dealerships along the proposed route to inquire if they’d like to celebrate the new Defender along with this Series I. An enthusiastic response came from Nevada’s two Land Rover dealers in Reno and Las Vegas. Each hosted Oxford for a day. In Reno, it not only received royal attention but also helpful service from enthusiastic technicians. In Las Vegas, it rivaled the Bellagio fountains for attention.
The Findlay Auto Group owns both dealerships, and Rick Nelson serves as their marketing and special events manager. Rick noted that these long-time Land Rover dealers still ran “Wheels” events three or four times a year; once the pandemic restrictions are lifted, they’ll resume on a formal basis:
“Off-roading adventures, with appropriate social distancing, remain a core of our business.” [You can view their off-road adventures on their YouTube channel -ed.]
“I consider off-roading one of the best social distancing things a person can do right now,” Rick said. “I have a Discovery diesel, and during a recent vacation, I spent a week traveling across the back roads and trails of Nevada. I had no fixed itinerary, and stumbled across ghost towns, fantastic landscapes and natural beauty. I love the marque because adventure is what it’s all about.”