Jurassic Park, Oregon Style

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When the old car thing bites, it bites hard. Those of us in search of of vehicles that turn ordinary trips into motoring adventures don’t stop with sports cars.

We just spent a weekend with the SCM’s RHD 1984 Defender 90 200 tdi.

Perhaps the Land Rover imprint happened while watching “The Gods Must Be Crazy” – although the Rover wasn’t quite as vintage then.

There’s something about the look of the front fenders, headlights, bumper, skinny tires and flat windshield that gives Rovers an instantly recognizable — and to me, hugely appealing — appearance.

Buy, Learn, Regret, Move On

This is our fourth Rover. The first was a Discovery I that Alex talked me into buying at an auction without any type of inspection. It had beautiful burgundy metallic paint and a perfect tan leather interior. What could possibly be wrong?

We soon learned that beneath that gorgeous exterior was the heart of a wallet-sucking gargoyle. In fact, Discos have a well-earned reputation for being money pits, with the Disco IIs being even worse as they have systemic issues with their engine blocks. Nonetheless, we were hooked.

Next was a 1973 Series III 88 — a primitive beast with its leaf-spring suspension. At least it was equipped with overdrive, which meant 60 mph wasn’t just a fantasy.

Alex, Bradley and I enjoyed many good times in the SIII. Its lack of sophistication off-road meant that you really had to learn to drive it, with no electronic aids to help you go up and down hills.

One Rover wasn’t enough, so we bought a 1989 Range Rover Classic from SCMer Jeff Stout in southern California. When I told Alex I was going to have it trucked up, she immediately responded, “Why would you have it shipped when we could fly down and drive it back?” Indeed.

It was in wonderful condition, and we had many good times with that rig, both off-road and as a daily driver.

In the meantime, we sold the SIII to the father of SCM contributor Colin Comer. Suffering from Rover-loss, we found our D90 on eBay, and against the advice of all the resident NW gurus, purchased it.

We had it delivered to Doug Shipman at Ship’s Mechanical here in Portland. Doug is our Rover chief, whom we have entrusted to fix the things that always seem to go wrong with the Rovers we buy.

Shipman reported that the D90 was as described. It had been used in competition in Europe and was a total bitsa. The frame, engine, brakes, gearbox and seats had been upgraded, and it was kitted out with high-lift suspension and off-road shocks.

While we did enjoy driving it, we could never get the diesel to pull the way we thought it should. That is, until the day the timing belt broke, which necessitated a top-end rebuild. “While we’re in there, let’s rebuild the injection pump,” said Shipman, and the D90 became an entirely different animal.

It runs without smoke, is a torque-monster just off of idle and it routinely gets over 20 mpg on- and off-road.

It’s a nasty-looking beast, with electrolysis in most body panels and dents everywhere, plus stickers on every surface, including its English road-tax discs.

I sourced a rear bench seat and shoulder harnesses to replace the fold-down jump seats it came with, so seven-year-old Bradley can come along on the rides.

Shipman got us a Superwinch to fit the custom front bumper the rig was equipped with, and he installed an ARB rear air-locker and on-board compressor. We routinely “air-down” to 12 lbs tire pressure for off-road excursions, and the compressor lets us restore the tires to the 40 lbs we use for the highway.

On the Road

We’ve put quite a few miles on the D90. It performs well enough on the highway, able to hold 70 mph on level ground with ease. (It has a five-speed gearbox originally from a Discovery.)

Bradley and his best friend Benjamin Cottam (his father Michael is a top-rated SEO consultant, Porsche and Chevelle owner, ex-motorcycle racer and friend of SCM) like the seating position in the rear, as they feel like a part of everything in the short-wheelbase vehicle.

Our most recent adventure was the annual off-road and camping excursion organized by Doug Shipman, on behalf of the Pacific Coast Rover Club.

This was the memo Doug sent out:

Start: Lava Butte Visitor Center meet up at 10am and leave by 10:30 Friday June 27th

Lunch at Lava Cast Forest 12 noon. Nice 1/2 mile trail for the kids to hike.

Dinner and camp Pine Mt. If we get there early enough we may have regular camp sites and tables. No water available. This is home for two nights. Fri and Sat night.

Saturday June 28th: Pack up lunch and maybe dinner for a short ride to the Rocket Launch Area. This is 5 mi from Brothers, so some limited supplies and fuel are available. A fellow Rover owner will be on hand for a close look and talk on the Rocket Club and the rockets. They will be launching rockets into the night, so we can watch late or possibly from the top of Pine Mt.

Sunday June 29th: Cross country to the Obsidian Forest Area for the next night.

Monday: Casual day visiting the Lava River Cave and then the High Desert Museum.

At this point we can spend another night in the woods or call it a fun weekend and split.

You are welcome to come late or leave early. We will be using CB channel 5, and cell phone service seems to be okay on most of the route.

Compared with the down-to-the-second instructions that accompany many vintage sports car rallies, Rover club tours are refreshingly uncomplicated. It’s just show up when you can, do as much or as little as you want, and go home when you need to.

Michael Cottam, Benjamin were Bradley and my partners on this adventure. As it turned out, we were able to spend just Friday and Saturday with the group, as I had to leave Sunday for a quick trip to London with Alex. The reason for the trip was special dinner at the Bonhams headquarters on New Bond Street – but more about that next week.

The D90 is short on interior space when the back bench seat is installed, so roof cargo-carrying capability is a necessity. Michael and I installed a used Cheetah roofrack on the D90 (very trick and very lightweight), and figured out ways to get all of our gear up there.

Bradley picked out a tent and a kid’s sleeping bag on Amazon, and they had arrived at the SCM office earlier that week.

We left Thursday afternoon for an uneventful trip to Bend, OR, about 160 miles from Portland. Friday morning we woke early, got supplies at the local Safeway and joined the group at Lava Butte at 10 a.m.

Off the Road

The morning was spent going cross-county on dirt (or lava-paved) roads to the Lava Cast Forest in Newberry National Volcanic Monument, a most impressive display of the forces of nature.

On the way to our final destination of the day, Pine Mountain campground, Wayne and Cathy Phelps’ 1963 Series IIA 88 “failed to proceed.” Shipman was able to get in running again using a piece of wire with alligator clips (try that on a modern car), and we all arrived at the campground.

Wayne tracked down the problem: a wire that had shorted against the block. While Wayne made the replacement, Doug mentioned that he noticed that my right-side turn signal wasn’t working and coached me through fixing a bad ground.

We discovered that the elevation of the Pine Mountain Campground was 6,000 feet – no wonder it felt chilly at night. Bradley proved adept at helping put up the tent and even more adept at tree-climbing and carousing with the 10 or so other kids his age on the trip.

Part of what sets the Rover gang apart from all the other old car groups I am involved with is their “family friendly” nature. Having kids along is more the Rover rule than the exception — not usually the case on a Porsche or Ferrari tour.

Michael proved to be a five-star chef when it came to campground culinary arts, and we finished up the evening with the obligatory round of s’mores.

Next morning, we were packed up and on the road by 10 a.m. Our destination was the Oregon Rocketry meet just outside Brothers, OR.

We watched as dozens of home-built rockets were fired, some up to an FAA-approved altitude of 40,000 feet. Bradley wanted to know if we could build a rocket of our own, and I offered a Lego rocket instead.

By 2 p.m., the Cottams and the Martins were headed back toward Portland. Not far from Madras, OR, we noticed that the heater in the D90 was putting out air at a blast-furnace intensity, no matter what we did to the controls. So we stopped at an auto-parts store, bought a pair of vise-grips and pinched off the water line to the heater. Problem solved, for the moment anyway.

By 6 p.m. we were home and unpacked, and the D90 put away to await its next adventure.

Once again, a vintage vehicle has created a memorable moment for me, my family and my friends. The D90 turned what would have been an uneventful drive into an adventure, one that Bradley enjoyed and will remember – which is really the ultimate goal of this old-car and Rover stuff. We are creating memories, and those are irreplaceable.

 

Keith Martin

Keith Martin has been involved with the collector car hobby for more than 30 years. As a writer, publisher, television commentator and enthusiast, he is constantly on the go, meeting collectors and getting involved in their activities throughout the world. He is the founder and publisher of the monthly Sports Car Market and bi-monthly American Car Collector magazines, has written for the New York Times, Automobile, AutoWeek, Road & Track and other publications, is an emcee for numerous concours, and has his own show, “What’s My Car Worth,” shown on Velocity.

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