Feature: Celebrating 70 years of Land Rover
Is this how it's supposed to be?" I ask Tenzing Tashi in a slightly worried voice. The vehicle that I'm driving seems to be taking a pounding over the rocky surface that I'm driving on and the sound of metal clanging is scaring me to no end. What if I damage his vehicle or worse, wreck it beyond repair? Tenzing meanwhile is relaxed and unfazed. "Carry on, it's a Land Rover," he says with confidence and pride in his voice.
I'm behind the wheel of a Land Rover Series 1, the first ever Land Rover model that was introduced to the world in 1948 at the Amsterdam motor show. Built as an alternative farmhand to the humble tractor, the Series 1 outlived its agricultural application to become a global icon. A vehicle that one could simply get into and drive, irrespective of the weather or terrain. 70 years later, that ethos reflects in every Land Rover that has followed.
In India, the Series 1 played a pivotal role in shaping our history, particularly in and around Darjeeling. From 1958 onwards, several Series 1 Land Rovers were brought to the sleepy hamlet of Maneybhanjang and put to work, ferrying people and essential goods up along a narrow pony trail to Sandakphu that also forms the border between India and Nepal.
You see, the 31km road from Maneybhanjang-Sandakphu rises from 6,600ft to close to 12,000ft. In that distance, the weather changes from sunny to torrential rain to even snow making the surface extremely challenging to drive on.
A couple of years back, the authorities decided to lay concrete over the rocky surface, from the Maneybhanjang side to facilitate movement of 4x2 vehicles. While they've finished smoothing out the first half, the rest of the route is as treacherous as it was, back in the days. And it's here where the Land Rover is king. I was left slack-jawed at the sight of the road and the elevation. These were some of the sharpest and steepest roads that I have driven on, replete with rocks, slush and what have you. It sure is a recipe for wreaking havoc on the chassis and suspension of any vehicle. But the little Land Rover Series 1 continues to march forward, unperturbed. It's the sheer robustness and durability of the box-section chassis that means that these vintage Land Rovers never break. The leaf spring suspension on the four corners may not offer the best ride but they are vastly capable of handling heavy loads. It has a small, 1.6- litre petrol motor that puts out 50 PS, which may not seem too much by today's standards but, mated to a low ratio transfer case, the Series 1 kept hauling us up the 20 degree inclines at a steady pace.
By now, I was beginning to understand the reason why the locals swear by the Land Rover. In many ways, it has been an integral part of their lives and in some cases their livelihood as well. Samantha Dong is one such person who doesn't stop showering praises on Land Rovers. She's the third generation in her family who owns a classic Land Rover and it has pretty much been the mainstay of her life. Her grandfather used to drive a Series 1 Land Rover up and down the Maneybhanjang-Sandakphu route. He used to transport people and rations up to Sandakphu and during the harvesting season, he'd haul sacks of potatoes in his Land Rover. He got the Land Rover Series 2 in 1972, that Samantha eventually inherited and has been driving for the last ten years.
To give us an idea of how far Land Rovers have evolved, we were also given the keys to the all-new Land Rover Discovery. Standing in stark contrast to the small size and simple design of the Series 1, the Discovery looks imposing. The interior is swathed in the choicest of leather and wood trims while the climate control cocooned us in comfort, isolated from the elements.
On some of the narrower sections, the Discovery barely squeezed past without scraping the mountain face and what helped immensely was the suite of cameras. The latest generation of the Land Rover Terrain Response system also made life easy while manoeuvring the big Landie. Slotted in the mud and ruts mode, all I had to do was stay steady on the throttle and let the electronics sort out the amount of power that needs to go to each wheel for adequate traction.
While I was very impressed by the Discovery, the Series 1 bowled me over. Most of these vehicles (about 40 of them still ply on this route) are over half a century old and they continue to work without skipping a beat. There's no power steering, no air conditioning, no synchromesh gearbox and drum brakes that require a leg day in the gym to operate properly. But, despite all of this, the Series 1 was a joy to drive. Purely mechanical, it makes the driver an integral part of itself. It needs the driver to do his/her bit, installing a sense of connection that's so hard to find in today's cars. I guess that's what explains the unique relationship that the people of Maneybhanjang share with the Land Rover Series 1. It's no wonder why this place is aptly called, the Land of the Land Rovers.
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