What’s the Story?
Mention the Rubicon in off-road circles and heads will turn, hairs will stand up and warm-blooded four-wheel-drive enthusiasts will typically get a stirring in their loins!
The Rubicon Trail has been on my bucket list for a long time. So imagine my excitement when an opportunity arose to not only run the Rubicon, but in my favourite Land Rover too – a Series I.
The 1955 Series I 86in that Timm Cooper, a fellow Series I nut, and I have borrowed for the day belongs to Mehdi Saghafi. The Land Rover has been in California since new and is being used as a daily driver and for light off-roading.
It has been very tastefully restored and upgraded too. The original four-pot 2.0-litre has been replaced with a Rover P4 (The Rover P4-100 car) 2.6-litre six-cylinder. This is coupled up to a Series III gearbox using a Land Rover Series IIA six-cylinder bellhousing.
The extra power is relayed through the standard transfer case and original front and rear axles with standard 4.7:1 Rover differentials. And, to help with highway cruising, a Fairey overdrive has been fitted. This enables the Series I to cruise at higher than normal speeds and engine noise is reduced thanks to fewer RPMs – however, the howl from the overdrive still makes the noise levels in the cabin challenging!
To help round off all the performance enhancements, Mehdi has sensibly fitted disc brakes all-round as the six-cylinder engine is quite a lot heavier and more powerful than the older four-cylinder 2.0-litre.
Our Favourite Bit
Jumping back into the Series I, hoping that my driving partner Timm has an ample supply of wag bags, we roll past the ranger hut with the engine loping at idle, and enter the Rubicon.
Buried into the rock are a series of cats’ eyes showing the centre line of the trail. I secretly hope that the over-zealous authorities haven’t ruined the trail by mounting cats’ eyes along the whole route…
Moving over the flat-rock Granite Bowl we soon lose sight of the start and are surrounded by rocky outcrops, trees and various plants in bloom. Progress is steady and the leaf-sprung suspension starts to get a good workout.
The burble of the straight-six engine at idle is an audible indicator of the effort and patience that is required to crab over the embedded rocks on the trail. However, the oil pressure light flickers as the engine revs drop lower when the going gets tougher.
With the slightest squeeze of the skinny throttle pedal the engine responds immediately.
As it develops more than double the horsepower of the original engine, the Series I has no problem in maintaining forward motion. The civilised part is that Timm and I can still continue our conversation at normal volume without the road noise and transmission din!
The morning drizzle isn’t going anywhere so, leaning forward, I flick the switch of the individual windscreen wiper motor. The wiper starts to move, albeit slowly, the motor groans and protests as it’s not used very often – it doesn’t rain that much in California.
With darkening skies it’s not long until steady rain changes the colour of the rocks from a shade of light sand to a battleship grey. Traction disappears as the Series I’s wheels start to spin on the slick, greasy rock.
Venturing further up the trail, sections of rock gardens make for technically challenging spotting, as a wrong turn will surely result in a dented sill panel or grazed chassis. There are bypasses for most obstacles, so those people hoping to keep their vehicle in the condition it started in can still move forward, and watch those more spirited off-roaders satisfy their egos.
And the Verdict?
Nearing the end of the trail we can’t help but wonder how the wagon trains of old had made the same journey, their frail wooden wagons being pulled by four or six horses. I now have an even greater respect for the early pioneers and settlers. What we are doing for pleasure, they were doing out of necessity.
However, coming to the end of the trail, the ‘war’ is over, and we and the Series I have won!
The full story can be found in the May 2014 issue of LRO. Download a digital issue, or order a back issue by calling 01858 438884.