I Took My Unreliable Old Land Rover Off-Roading, And It Broke Down Almost Immediately
Told you you were in for some vehicular schadenfreude
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A few years ago, we shot an episode of my old web show at the Hungry Valley SVRA, just north of Los Angeles. The highlight of both the day, and the episode, was my buddy Sean looping a quad bike while trying to climb a big hill. Despite bouncing down the hill underneath it, he was fine, many laughs were had at his expense, and we all left with a newfound respect for the off-road park. So when I took my truck there for the first time to see what it was capable of, it was that hill that I most wanted to conquer.
And it almost defeated me. Pulling to the side of the trail at the bottom, I switched the truck off and got out to walk the obstacle first, pointing out to my friend Casey where I wanted my wheels to be, so he could spot me. I left him and his extra set of eyeballs up top, then walked back down to give it a try. Got in, turned the key, and…nothing. Just a month or so into ownership, those old Land Rover electrical gremlins you hear so much about had rendered the Disco utterly immobile. No dash lights, no ignition, no power to anything at all. Uh oh.
(Why are you reading about an old Land Rover on Outside? This is the second instalment of Wes' new column about unreliable old vehicle ownership. Click here for the first.)
And out here, way up in the mountains, a few miles into a narrow, winding trail, there was going to be no AAA. I was going to have to fix it myself. For this exact eventuality, I’ve been carrying around a big Pelican case filled with tools and a load of commonly-needed spare parts the previous owner, Sinuhe, left me. Just to give you an idea of how much is in there, it feels about like an Olympic bar and two plates—135 pounds—when I lift it in and out.
Casey walked down, I explained the symptoms, he grimaced in sympathy, probably feared for his ride home, then suggested we start with the fuses. My accessory box is under the steering wheel, but the main fuses remain in their original location—in the engine bay. By this point, my heart was racing as I approached panic, so I fumbled with the hood release a few times before I got it open.
What disaster of British engineering was waiting for me? Well, the battery cable had rattled free of the negative terminal, apparently while we warmed up on some bumpy hill climbs in the practice area, before hitting the trail. Ten seconds with a crescent wrench, and it was back on, and the 3.9-liter aluminum-block V8 fired up immediately. Thank the off-road gods for deep cycle batteries—we’d been driving for probably an hour or more with a constant electrical drain.
Crisis avoided, I put the Land Rover in 4 Low, and powered right up pronghorn hill. It’s so steep we were falling over just trying to walk up it, but with all three diffs locked, and with its super short gearing, the Discovery muscled right up with without drama.
A big reason I’m writing this irregular column about owning awesome old vehicles—this 1999 Land Rover Discovery 1 SD, and a 2008 KTM 990 Adventure—is to try to break through the Internet’s hive-mind of horror stories and show you how easy and trouble-free doing your own maintenance and repairs can be. I’m not an expert mechanic, just a vehicle enthusiast like you who’s prepared to turn his own wrenches and learn in the process. Honestly, my biggest problem so far has just been learning to stop worrying that every bump or vibration or strange noise is some sort of disaster on the brink of stranding me somewhere.
Back in town, I’ve actually been enjoying driving the Discovery through Los Angeles’ hellacious traffic. Lifted three inches and sitting on 33-inch mud terrains, it’s in no hurry to get anywhere, so I can sit back, relax, and enjoy the looks it gets. Parking it outside a fancy cafe in West Hollywood or driving it to a meeting at a member’s club and handing the keys to the valet never fails to draw appreciative looks and compliments. Hell, the truck gets almost as many as oohs and ahhs as Wiley. And all that for something I picked up for the same price as a used Nissan Versa. I think a big reason for that is because it’s old and obviously takes a lot of upkeep. This isn’t a Ferrari or Porsche I just put on my daddy’s black card—it’s an utterly unique expression of hard work, good taste, and an adventurous life. It makes people want to go places.
Unfortunately, my pride in it was a little dampened for a few weeks by a mysterious rattle coming from underneath. At first, I was worried it might be the sleigh bells that often accompany a failing water pump, but an examination of that revealed no leaks or weeping. In fact, the part looks new. And everything else in the engine bay is in similarly good repair. I was stumped. After the trip to Hungry Valley, all the mud and rocks had obviously worked whatever it was even looser, and the sound was now louder and more persistent. Sadly, it was also dependent on engine load, only appearing while accelerating down the road, not while just idling or revving in my driveway, where it could be easily diagnosed.
My new neighbor John walked over one day, and I threw him in the truck and drove him around the neighborhood with the windows down, listening for the rattle. I was insistent it was coming from my side of the car, but he was saying the same thing about his. We stopped by a do-it-yourself car wash to blast the undercarriage clean of mud from the previous day, then took it back to my driveway to crawl underneath. As soon as I was under there, poking around, I found the culprit: both the O2 sensors downstream of the cats were so loose they were just spinning freely and bouncing around in their mounts. Another 10 seconds with a crescent wrench, and that problem was fixed, too. It’s the only tool I’ve used on the truck in two months of ownership.
Sadly, I’m headed to New York for a couple weeks, and will have to leave both vehicles in my garage. Once I’m back, I’ll be getting the bike as sorted as I can on short notice, then riding it out for a canyoneering trip through Capitol Reef in Utah, stopping by Arizona on the way to do some off-roading in an as-yet-unreleased new truck. The weekend after that, my friends from ARB, plus IndefinitelyWild contributors Ty and John, and all the girls and dogs, are going to load up and hit Baja for a long weekend of beach camping and spearfishing by the Sea of Cortez. Then it’ll be time drive up to Seattle for the Northwest Overland Rally. I’m aiming to take both vehicles and Wiley to that, so need to figure out some type of trailer situation for the KTM, plus wire the Discovery for the trailer’s lights. Any suggestions on trailers? I’ve never actually owned one before, so just have no idea where to start.