The last thing my wife Melanie thought we'd be doing when I was home on leave from Afghanistan for just 10 days was to traipse halfway across the country to look at an old Land Rover. But I saw this Series IIA on eBay and was desperate to go and have a look - the auction was due to end after I'd returned to Afghanistan.
So we drove to Suffolk from our home in Nottinghamshire and, when we got there, we could see it was good. She whispered: 'We're not letting this get away!' I asked the owner how much he expected to sell it for, then offered to give him the money there and then, and drove it home.
The guy knew what he was selling was a Searle, and that Searle made Carawagons, but he didn't know much about them. A friend had told him it couldn't be right because it didn't have a Carawagon roof, which is a really common mistake - a lot of people just don't know what these Searle short-wheelbases are. If I'm at a show people will walk past, and you can almost see them thinking 'It's just a station wagon with a few bits for camping.' And I'm thinking: 'No - look! It's a Searle Safari, it's really rare.'
It's in really good condition, but I'm trying to get it back to how it would have been when first converted. Under the bonnet I've replaced the radiator with the original type, changed the cylinder head and replaced its Weber carburettor with a proper Solex. I've fitted two little oil cans in the engine bay, in a way that looks like it was done in the period of the vehicle.
The best find was a long-wheelbase Carawagon in Lancashire. It had been rolled, and was in a scrapyard being broken. I asked if there were any window blinds, because they were missing on mine. He had the blinds! The place was closing in an hour, but I couldn't risk missing out - when would I come across another full set of window blinds? Melanie and I jumped in the car and zoomed up there. We were all over it with screwdrivers, taking off the blinds and whatever special Carawagon fittings there were. That was really good.
The awning is original. You slide its edge though a channel on the back of the Land Rover, and it sits on a frame that pulls out from the back of the roof - that's a Carawagon feature. For the bed, you remove the bulkhead strengthening bar, push the front seatbacks down and put the seat bases on top. Then you pull the bench seat across to the centre, and put the backrest between that and the side of the Land Rover. I've got a Dormobile cupboard at the other side - but I'd like to find a proper Carawagon cupbaord.
There was an option to have a chemical closet installed where the centre seat is - but that's not one I would take up!
Other unique touches include a two-burner cooker on the back door, a wooden map-table that clips to the bulkhead and a map-reading lamp above the windscreen. That table cost £6 (about £80 nowadays), the lamp £3 (about £40); a lot of money in 1965. There are two ammeters, one for the vehicle battery and one for the leisure battery; and there's a split-charging system and an alternator. Quite high-tech for the mid-1960s.
We've been all over in it, including to France and Spain - we took the long-haul ferry down to Santander and drove over the Pyrenees. We did it the hard way by sticking to the minor roads.
Here's to many more adventures in my special old Land Rover.
Originally featured in the Spring 2014 issue of Land Rover Owner International. Download a digital issue, or order a back issue by calling 01858 438884.
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