I Just Bought Two Famously Unreliable Vehicles. Here’s Why—And How You’re Going to Help.
If you enjoy vehicular schadenfreude, you’re in for a treat
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Not one famously unreliable vehicle, but two. What was I thinking? Well, for one thing, I figured they’d make for interesting reading. So welcome to the first in a regular series in which I'll be writing all about the trials and tribulations of old Land Rover, and old KTM ownership. I’ll be wrenching on them myself, then taking them on various (mis)adventures off-road. The idea is to share what owning these things is really like, hopefully offering a genuine dose of reality in a conversation that’s too often made up entirely of conventional wisdom and Internet-forum group think.
I’m by no means a skilled mechanic. But I did work as a carpenter and handyman once, so I have always been comfortable turning a wrench. I figure that can, or should, describe a lot of you, too. I’ll have to learn a bunch of stuff to make this work and hopefully, along the way, you will too. Life’s too short to own boring vehicles.
The Land Rover was the first purchase, and for reasons we’ll go into a bit later, the one I’m most excited about. The first thing I did after buying it, of course, was take it beach-camping in Baja. Well, that’s untrue. The first thing I did upon buying it (even before picking it up), was post a picture of it on Instagram and Facebook, where I was immediately informed by dozens of people what an idiot I am for purchasing such a vehicle. It seems like Doug Demuro (who partially influenced this column, and to whom I hope to offer some contrast) has had quite the impact on general old-Land-Rover fear mongering, and there were tales from former Discovery owners of $1,000 water pumps and blown-out rear windows. Did I make a huge mistake?
The thing is, this is far from a normal Discovery, and I think I’m probably an atypical owner, too. I bought the truck from Sinuhe Xavier, the creative director of Overland Journal. A few months ago, I posted on Facebook that I was looking for an affordable, fun truck. He saw the post and asked me what my budget was. I told him my max number, he said that’d do nicely, and I was sold the second I opened up the pictures he sent. I mean, just look at this thing. He and the previous owner, Marc Olivares, thoroughly transformed it from a capable, but mundane soccer-mom mobile into what I think may possibly be the most capable street-friendly off-road truck I’ve ever driven.
Every mechanical part has been replaced with the best possible aftermarket upgrade, much of it spec’d just for this vehicle. The list is too long to include here (if you’re ever curious about anything, just ask), but the general gist of it is a three-inch lift riding on 33-inch tires. It’ll happily (and noisily) cruise at 80 miles per hour all day, and is relatively safe and comfortable to drive on the road. But it also has the kind of extreme angles and mechanical capability needed to tackle the most challenging off-road terrain. And inside, it’s built-out for camping, with stuff like a custom storage system, a fridge-freezer, a compressed air tank, and more.
The base vehicle is also worth mentioning. It’s a 1999 Land Rover Discovery SD, the last year of the first generation Discovery, with the second generation’s nicer interior. So that’s before all the newer vehicle's complicated computers and differential-emulating ABS, but with the older model's center-locking differential, simpler mechanicals, and smaller dimensions. Haven’t heard of a center-locking differential before? You won’t find them on much besides old Land Rovers, and it’s a big part of what makes them so capable. It locks the front and rear axles together, in addition, of course, to the aftermarket locking differentials on each axle, which lock each side together. Do you like locking diffs? This Discovery puts locking diffs on your locking diffs so that all four wheels are locked together. The result: extraordinary traction.
Sinuhe took great care of this thing and there’s really nothing to add that wouldn’t just be frivolous, so most of my burden will simply be on maintenance and fixing stuff that breaks. As Sinuhe told me on the test drive, “It’s an old Land Rover, shit’s gonna break.”
So far, that’s only been a simple window regulator, which of course popped as I drove the truck home on its first day. But after spending $30 on eBay, a new one arrived the next morning. If you’ve ever had an electric window stop working, even though the button appears to be powering the motor, then there's an issue with the regulator—the mechanism that pushes the window up and down inside your door. This is made up of just a few metal pivots and arms, frustratingly connected by flimsy plastic washers, that will break with time. Don’t ever feel a need to pay a mechanic, or worse, a dealership, to fix any of these: just pop your door card off, peel back the moisture barrier, unbolt the old one, and bolt the new one in. The whole process takes 30 minutes if, like me, you spend half your time taking photos and treat it as an opportunity to enjoy a beer, too.
I’ve also satisfied myself that part prices aren’t what the fear mongers have claimed them to be. A brand new water pump is $150, a remanufactured power steering pump is $66, and a head gasket kit—the Discovery 1’s Achilles heel—is just $200 and a case of beer to bribe a buddy to come help you fit it. (Add a zero if you get that done at a Land Rover dealer, which is why people are so scared.)
I just ordered new seals for the two alpine windows. The right one cost $85 from the friendly people at Atlantic British and will be here next week. The left one is, inexplicably, no longer produced by Land Rover, and I had to track it down by part number to a big repository in England. Once that’s here, in two weeks or so, my next job is going to be pulling those windows out of the roof to examine the small rust bubble that's formed underneath each. That’s a typical problem for these trucks, and the only place I can find any rust on the whole vehicle. I figure I’ll correct the problem before it spreads. I’ll take photos of the process, and tell you about it in a future column. Be warned that I am up on my tetanus shots, so there shouldn’t be any emergency room visits involved, sadly.
Which brings us to the motorcycle. Somewhere between fulfilling my childhood dream of becoming a road-test editor for a car publication and deciding to become the world's number-one dog camping journalist, I built and ran the most-read motorcycle website in the world. That was equal parts great and terrible, but it ended really badly, nearly killing me in the process. So I burned out on motorcycles, and I haven’t really ridden in a long time. This KTM is an attempt to fix that.
I had been saving up for the new Honda Africa Twin, but a friend offered me this 11,000-mile 990 Adventure, fresh off its major valve service, for a price I’d have been dumb to say no to. While it has been relatively well cared for mechanically, with dealer services on schedule, it looks like it sat outside, not being ridden, for most of its time since first being sold in 2008. A bunch of the fasteners are a rotten mess, and the wheels are in even worse condition. So, once I actually make it to the AAA office and get it registered, the first job is going to be replacing those. Then the upgrades are going to start.
One of the things I learned while writing about bikes for a living was that most stock components, even on a relatively high-spec European bike like this one, are total garbage. So I’m hoping to upgrade the suspension first. At the same time, I’ll need to tune the ergonomic package so I can stand comfortably for hours at a time, and fit protection parts for the inevitable spills. I also want to find brighter lights that will either fit in the original headlight housing or mount seamlessly under the air intake, in the front “wheel arch,” rather than simply bolted to the crash bars that are on their way from Touratech.
The goal is to get the bike totally off-road ready in time for that company’s big off-road rally in Washington this June. I’ll be riding the bike there and back—2,200 miles of Interstate 5—so it’ll have to remain road friendly—no crazy gearing or knobby Dunlop 606 tires for me.
All in, I now own two seriously awesome, peerlessly capable adventuremobiles—ones I’ve lusted after for much of my adult life—and spent a bit less than $20,000 combined. Considering the average transaction price for a new car in America is something around $28,000, it’s probably not out of the realm of possibility for you to do the same. Obviously the trade off is that, to continue to be able to own these vehicles, I’m going to have to work on them myself. And the first step to doing that is to acquire a decent set of tools, both for my garage and to take into the field. Anyone have any suggestions? My current setup is just a random conglomeration of stuff I've needed across the last few years, since I've moved to Los Angeles. I'd like to pick up something more comprehensive, organized, and higher quality. I figure this column is a two-way street. You can live vicariously through my ups and downs of dealing with these things, and I can ask you for advice and input.
So go ahead, tell me, what should I do with them?