What car do you buy if your taste tends towards two-wheeled simplicity, but you just bought a farm in New Zealand? Bike EXIF's Chris Hunter solves a problem we all wish we had. - Ed.
I bought a farm a few weeks ago. Thirteen gently sloping acres in the middle of nowhere, otherwise known as New Zealand.
With six paddocks, a barn full of hay bales and heavily rutted tracks, a new vehicle was called for. A 4WD with seating for at least three and low running costs. In other words, a pickup truck.
In NZ, the pickup rules. It's like Texas, but with sheep. Kiwis call pickups "utes", and they can't get enough of them. But the prices are just plain stupid. A thoroughly thrashed mid-90s Hilux with 300,000 hard miles on the clock will set you back the best part of NZ$15,000. The kind of money that normal people will pay for a 2007-model Golf with one lady owner.
There's only one good thing about those munted utes. After you've paid through the nose for one, some other sucker will buy it off you five years down the track for $10,000. (And promptly reinstall the 1000W subwoofer, three-inch lift kit and 33-inch "Super Swamper" mud tires you junked).
So where could I find some classy but cheap wheels? Roomy enough for the school run, and capable of carrying a clutch of oily power tools, multiple 90 Lb bags of cement, and assorted small livestock?
Then a mate suggested an old "series" Land Rover. And to my surprise, in New Zealand they're still affordable. Because all the Bretts and Kevins and Grants, when they're not complaining about the number of Asian immigrants, like to buy Japanese.
After a couple of months of trawling TradeMe — the local equivalent of eBay — I was ready to give up. Every old Landy had been "repowered" with a Nissan or Holden motor. Or was doing duty as a chicken coop on a redneck smallholding in Southland.
Then I spotted The One. A 1970 Series IIa 88-inch Station Wagon, with a double-skinned "Safari" roof, for six grand. (That's $4,500 in US money.) Straight panels, faded paint but good patina. Just over 100k on the clock. Recently rebuilt motor. Owned by a retired engineer in genteel Wellington. The next morning, I flew to Welly with a mechanically-minded mate to inspect the vehicle.
As soon as I saw Peter's workshop, I knew the car would be fine. It was the kind of workshop you see in a BBC drama series: old toolboxes, an ancient lathe, Whitworth spanners laid out on the wooden workbench. (Wish I'd swiped some).
Dave and I drove the Landy home, 450 miles north. It was the first time the car had gone further than the local corner shop in a decade, but it didn't miss a beat. And since then, the truck has been working for a living, hauling ass. Slowly.
So what's it like to drive? It's involving, like a motorcycle is involving. There's a direct mechanical connection to the vehicle-although the steering is anything but direct. If you fuck up, you're in trouble. You're not insulated — you're hardwired.
The dash is basic. Metal, so you don't want to hit your head on it. Two dials, plus switches for the single-speed wipers and the lights. There's a twist-knob for the heater, and a pull-knob marked "Cold Start". Neither have any appreciable effect on the proceedings.
The only complicated bit is the gearing. It's heaven for stick shift fans: there are four levers poking out of the transmission tunnel. One controls the four-speed ‘box. (There's no syncro on the bottom two gears-but you know how to double-declutch, don't you?) Another lever is for the high and low range transfer. A third lever switches the four-wheel-drive system in and out. And a fourth engages the overdrive unit. Six pages of the owner's manual are devoted to the gears alone. If I have a hangover, I take the wife's Audi Allroad.
Luckily, everything else is simple. You don't even get wind-up windows — Series II Land Rovers have sliding glass. If you get hot, you open the flaps under the windscreen. If you get cold, you put a hat and gloves on.
And if you find yourself at 45 degrees in a muddy field, with tires slithering over wet grass, you can just engage 4WD and claw your way out. Even with a huge trailer full of freshly-sawn firewood behind you. Because despite having just 77 anemic British horses, the towing capacity is a healthy 4,000 Lbs.
Japanese pickups can do all this too, but with less grace, no foldaway seats in the back, more stuff to go wrong, and a lot more cost. Whereas a Series Land Rover is a piece of bona fide English motoring history, an investment that will never depreciate in value.
It's also the best kind of design: the real simple kind. And it had to be, because it was riveted together in a grim Midlands town by men called Don, Ron and Stan. Blokes whose natural milieu was standing around a brazier in donkey jackets and Doc Martens, plotting the next factory strike.
The truck's still running sweet, 42 years later. But now that I've been singing its praises Lucas, the Lord of Darkness, will probably intervene — and the damn thing won't start tomorrow morning.
But who cares. A new solenoid is just twenty bucks.
Chris Hunter runs the world's leading custom motorcycle site, Bike EXIF. The last 4WD he owned was a Porsche 964 Carrera 4.