Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve been fascinated by machinery,’ says Chris Cowdrey. ‘I used to drive my dad mad by taking the lawnmower
to bits, putting it back again and usually losing a piece. I wanted to know how everything worked.’
For a youngster with such an aptitude for engineering, the simplicity of a Series Land Rover was obviously a match made in heaven. But it wasn’t until summer 1985 that Chris had his first encounter with his Series IIA’.
‘My dad’s pal, Tim, came round for a family barbecue and asked if I wanted to go off-roading with him,’ recalled Chris. ‘He had an old Land Rover called Woody, because its reg was WUD 613.
‘We went out that day, got stuck, got water in the sump, destroyed the engine and tore off a crossmember. Tim lost interest in it and couldn’t be bothered to repair it.
‘Two years later, when I was 15, I was wondering what I would drive when I was 17 and had passed my driving test. I reckoned Woody would be ideal and Tim agreed to sell it to me for £300.
‘It’s fair to say it was a glorified, rusty Meccano set. But you realise that, although it’s a £300 wreck, it’s also worth working on, so I put all my efforts into getting it back on the road.’
That rebuild was pretty much standard fare, tidying up the bodywork and making sure the essential bits like brakes and electrics worked. It flew through its MoT just as Chris reached his 17th birthday.
The only trouble was, the 1963 SIIA was well past the first flush of youth and, by the summer of 1992, the chassis was crumbling before his eyes. Luckily, Chris had been earning pocket money in the evenings by delivering pizzas in the Series IIA and had saved enough for a galvanised chassis. He stripped down and rebuilt Woody in a week.
While it worked well on local journeys, moving to Bangor University in north Wales to study engineering meant a slow, noisy 250-mile round trip back to his family home in Reading.
‘The ideal engine at that time would have been a 200Tdi, but I couldn’t afford one so I bought a 3.5-litre V8 EFi instead and fitted a four-speed automatic gearbox and power steering to go with it.’
‘I ran the vehicle like this for a year, but the extra power and speed wasn’t matched by the braking system, so during the summer of 1994 I built a new front axle, complete with disc brakes. When that broke a year later I built a better, stronger one.
‘All this time I was still running on leaf springs, but a trip to the Isle of Wight caused me to have a re-think. The lanes on the island were really appalling and the ride was very uncomfortable, so
I decided to fit coils.’
It also meant another chassis swap – this time one built to Chris’s specifications by Designa Chassis, tailored to accommodate Range Rover running gear, which meant coil springs and disc brakes all round.
The rebuild, which took place between 1997 and 1998, also involved converting the 88-inch hard top into a truck cab and creating a flip-up front end, which allowed unrivalled access to the V8 engine.
In February 2000, the V8 EFi finally blew up, so Chris replaced it with the V8 from a Rover SD1 car. He also fitted the servo from a 90 to improve the braking.
‘In 2003 the big ends were starting to go on the engine, so I decided to build a new 4.6 V8 myself, with the aim of running it on LPG, which would be much more economical.
‘LPG has a very high octane, so I knew it would benefit from a higher compression ratio. I took 2mm from the cylinder heads and used tin head gaskets to get the compression ratio to about 11:1. This made the pushrods too long, however, so I fitted 1.3mm shims under the rocker shaft pedestals.
It ran brilliantly – but only for 10 minutes. Then disaster struck. During the rebuild, Chris had inadvertently fitted the oil filter pipes back to front, thus starving his new engine of oil. Deep inside the V8, the crankshaft was badly scored and the main bearing and big end shells wrecked. It meant another costly rebuild.
Happily, the subsequent rebuild was a success and Chris ran the latest incarnation of Woody until 2008 when he decided a few more tweaks were necessary…
‘I’m a bit of a perfectionist,’ says Chris. ’It’s a sort of inverted snobbery, I suppose. I hardly ever clean it and I don’t care if it’s mucky, but I like everything to run properly.’
That, of course, was a good excuse for fitting Megajolt distributor-less ignition, which in turn created enough space between the front of the engine and the radiator to fit a viscous, belt-driven fan to back up the electric fan in front of the rad. Oh, yes – and SU carbs and heated wing mirrors (three resistors glued behind the glass; an easy DIY job if, like Chris, you happen to be an electronics engineer…).
Woody still plays a prominent role in his life. So, when Chris married Joanne, the much-loved Land Rover got a rare wash and polish and, suitably bedecked in ribbon, acted as limousine for the day. There was even a Series IIA made of icing atop the cake.
‘My Land Rover has been part of my life for so long that I would never think of parting with it,’ admits Chris. And although he’s happy with its performance and handling – which he describes as ‘car-like’ – he doesn’t rule out a future rebuild.
‘I think I can detect a bit of piston slap, so the engine will have to come out soon. You can’t buy oversized pistons for this engine, so I’ll have to have liners put in. Apart from that, I don’t have any plans.
‘But never say never.’
This owner review appeared in the July 2011 issue of LRO. Current and Back issues are available to download on digital devices here. Please note, we only hold stocks of the the last three back issues.