Oxford’s Odyssey: the ongoing journey of the First Overland Land Rover

So many years after its role in the expedition that helped make the world seem a little smaller, ‘Oxford’ is still bringing people together.

SNX 891 Oxford on Last Overland expedition

by Theo Ford-Sagers |

The tale of ‘Oxford’ is one of the longest and greatest Land Rover stories ever told. For the millions of people who were captivated by its travels in the 1950s (told so colourfully in Tim Slessor’s book, First Overland) the news that this famous Series I had been recovered from abandonment on St Helena, and rebuilt for future travels, was one of the biggest stories of 2018.

When it became the hero of the 2019 Last Overland expedition by retracing its steps from Singapore to London, this seemed a fitting tribute, bringing closure and a cathartic opportunity for enthusiasts worldwide to relive the memorable story. But the legend didn’t stop there…

After arriving back in the UK in late 2019, Oxford received a full mechanical overhaul in preparation for more global travels. Covid-19 put a spanner in the works, but little by little, Oxford’s journey has continued.

Adam Bennet is the man responsible for rescuing Oxford, having it recommissioned, and then handing the keys over to the Land Rover community. ‘That was easy bit,’ Adam tells LRO. ‘It’s a bit like sending your granny on a much-deserved holiday. It’s an odd feeling – after a bit you miss her and next time you see her it all gets a bit emotional, but nothing that a good drive doesn’t sort out. The car had been worked to near death then left for a lifetime on a remote island, so it deserved to be saved. It’s a brand ambassador.’

Oxford in America

In early 2020, ‘Oxford’ crossed the Atlantic from the UK to the USA, for anEast-West-East roadtrip from ‘sea to shining sea’ under the guardianship of Rover Owners of Virginia (ROAV). The story has been told in Rovers Magazine, and a series of films by David Short is relaying some of the magic.

The journey had to begin with some serious maintenance work, as the 20,000-mile journey from Singapore to London had left the Land Rover's petrol engine with a leaking rear main seal and an oily clutch plate. Sarek Autowerke fixed her up, and after a celebratory party in her honour (where fans could get up close and personal) Oxford set off for the Maine Winter Romp.

Cold weather and mechanical mishap immediately followed, in the form of a stuck thermostat. Fortunately Oxford was in the custodianship of the kind of chap who just happens to have a spare Series I thermostat lying around, so she was soon on the road again.

After a few days exploring snowy trails with friends, Oxford spent a few days with the Vermont Overland Society, then journeyed to a gathering of Land Rover enthusiasts in Boston, Massachusetts. A month in New Jersey followed, for a month in the hands of Land Rover collector Bill Cooper for a month.

‘Oxford is the poster child for the kind of travel, exploration and adventure that Land Rover symbolises.’ – Bill Cooper

By then it was late March 2020, and Oxford’s progress was hindered by Coronavirus pandemic. ‘If it’s possible to find a silver lining, Oxford really needed a break. Or more accurately, Oxford was broke,’ says David Short in his film. Due to the number of different drivers, ‘no one had really got the chance to get to know Oxford, and that changed with Bill.’

Land Rover restorer, Ben Smith, took on the work of replacing Oxford’s head gasket, part of which (it turned out) had become attached to one of the exhaust valves. The engine had also suffered cracked piston rings, and inlet manifold was in bad shape. The thermostat housing was also warped and leaking – fixed by using a lathe to machine the surface smooth. The head and valve ports were machined, and it all went back together with a new exhaust. After three months, Oxford was travelling again.

Oxford convoy in America
©Judson Pryanovich

Oxford visited JLR’s North American HQ in New Jersey, and was welcomed by the Centre Steer Podcast at the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix event. July saw Oxford trailered to Minnesota for club meetings and parties, and to explore the local lakes and trails, with Dave Allton looking after her. In August she was driven through North Dakota to meet her next custodians, the Montana Rovers Club.

After exploring Yellowstone National Park, she was trailered to the Pacific to meet the Pacific North West Land Rover Club, then Pangolin 4x4 in Oregon carried out some essential maintenance before she was driven East again. With David Short and Mike McCaig at the wheel, Oxford travelled through California (dodging wildfires), Nevada (where Oxford was blighted with ignition issues), Utah, Colorado (with high-altitude climbs described as ‘brutal’), Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee and Virginia – and on to the Atlantic at Cape Hatteras. One hell of a trip for a Land Rover that had already travelled so far.

Not all of Oxford’s travels around the USA have been under its own steam. Due to time constraints, some sections were on a trailer – usually behind Land Rovers owned by well-wishers along the way.

Oxford in New Zealand

By 2021, Oxford had been shipped New Zealand, and spent the first few months being displayed at various dealerships and joining groups of 4WD and Land Rover enthusiasts for remote safaris across truly stunning landscapes. (You’ll find these travels covered in dazzling technicolour on the First Overland Expedition to New Zealand Facebook page.)

In late March, some mechanical attention by Kevin Isemonger at Rod Corbett in Wanaka included topping up the fluids (chrome swivels and front diff were low) and tweaking the drag link to centralise the steering. Then Oxford was ready for one of the biggest highlights of its time in New Zealand.

The ‘Wheels and Wanaka’ Land Rover meet and the ‘Oxford in Wanaka Safari’ over the Easter Weekend saw dozens of Land Rovers and hundreds of enthusiasts joining Oxford for a spectacular traverse of jaw-dropping mountainscapes, raising $4500 for the local Wanaka Search & Rescue team.

Land Rover convoy in New Zealand
New Zealanders turned out in droves to welcome Oxford to their mountains. ©Rachelle Hunt

Oxford was even visited by local resident Gemma Nott, whose father Henry Nott was one of the original First Overland members. As the expedition's Chief Engineer, Henry would have got to know Oxford inside out. He also penned the First Overland book's 'Mechanical Notes' appendix, which ends with the immortal words: 'The mechanic does not wash up breakfast - he maintains his vehicle.'

Where to next?

Oxford is still some years away from a quiet retirement. Adam’s dream is for Oxford to cross ‘seven seas and seven continents, and visit as many places as possible. I am looking for good suggestions so anyone wanting to put an offer forward, please do so.’

The story of Oxford used to be a distant one – exotic and unrepeatable. For the First Overland expedition, it was driven by a lucky group of Oxford and Cambridge students, during a time when (in some ways) global travel seemed so much easier. And perhaps that unattainability was partly what sustained the magic.

The story today couldn’t be more different. Countless drivers from all walks of life have now driven ‘Oxford’ all round the world, fixed her over and over again, and bonded over their shared love for all-terrain adventure. Could this be the most driven Land Rover on the planet?

Regardless of the number of miles covered, and the countries visited, Oxford has brought together the Land Rover community in a rare and special way. When all this is over, maybe that will be its greatest achievement.

SNX 891 Oxford, rear, Land Rover
Oxford's travels will continue... ©Damian Peyroux
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