Bought for ‘just over £3,000’ 11 years ago, and intended as a paternity leave project, it wasn’t until five years, a new chassis and engine rebuild later that it emerged from his Chichester garage.
A life-long Land Rover fan, Thornton-Smith’s passion was ingrained at a young age: “I had a childhood misspent hanging out the back of Land Rovers on holidays, so I’ve always liked them,” he explained.
“And then when I was a student I always bought Land Rovers because they were cheap – you could buy them for about 500 quid and still keep them going. And being a poor student and having terrible cars, I had to learn how to maintain them…
“They’re just big Meccano kits and I quite like tinkering and taking things apart. I had a series of slightly newer Land Rovers over the years, but had always quite fancied a Series 1, and this came up and I thought ‘oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound’.”
As it turned out, the 1955 86-inch wheelbase model needed more than a few pounds to be spent on it…
“It was complete, but it was pretty worn and tired and I thought I could just tart it up a little bit, but actually the more I looked, the more I started taking it apart, the more I realised there was wrong. It did have a new bulkhead which was what sort of tempted me about it…” Beneath the multi-coloured bodywork, he found a rusty chassis warped beyond repair. Whether it had been crashed or just ‘off-roaded carelessly’ he was unsure, but he eventually decided to sell another Land Rover in order to be able to afford a new £2,000 chassis.
As for the bodywork, he enlisted the help of a friend who spent hours straightening out the panels and lacquering them in a traditional Land Rover green. But his work wasn’t done there – far from it in fact. The rough-running engine was next…
“I took the engine all apart myself and sent all the parts down to a chap in Yeovil way,” Thornton-Smith said. “He rebored it and ground the crank and got a new camshaft and all that sort of business and then I put it all back together again.”
A time-consuming and costly process, I wondered? “The engine rebuild itself didn’t take too long at all, but it was all the sort of other, slightly more fiddly bits and pieces that took time. And then trying to do it in between working and looking after children, that was the difficult part really.
“I dread to think how much it cost in total,” he admitted. “Somewhere there’s a box of receipts that I’ve never looked at…
“But I shan’t be selling it – it’s going to go to my children, that’s the plan. They already quite enjoy driving it around fields.”
After installing seatbelts – at his wife’s request – Alexander uses the Land Rover to ferry his children to the beach on sunny days.
A priority of the rebuild was adding an auxiliary ‘mode’ to the car, he explained as we peered around the cab. “The most important button is this – the adventure button. When my kids were young, I used to tell them bedtime stories about these children that had the same names as them and they had a magic Land Rover, with an Adventure button on the dashboard. And when they pressed the button there would be a flash and a bang and they’d end up on an adventure somewhere, so when I rebuilt it I put the adventure button in there – I thought that was very important.”
“They now know that it does nothing, because they spend a lot of time flicking it up and down, but it’s just for fun really.”
Gesturing to the cluster of levers sprouting out of the floor, he elaborated: “There’s also a lever for high and low ratio, one for four-wheel drive high ratio, one for the overdrive, and the gear lever. The car has four gears and a non-synchromesh gearbox so you have to do lots of double declutching.
“The odometer has about 68,000-miles on it or something but whether or not that means anything, I have absolutely no idea. I don’t even know if it’s the original engine, or just a reconditioned engine that came with the car, because somewhere there’s a little plaque saying that it has been reconditioned by Land Rover at some point in the 60s.
“And in the footwell, those are Ikea’s finest doormats cut to size…”
The leather clad seats feature detailed curly contrast stitching, a relic from the previous owner, who worked with leather and pewter.
“He’d bought it off a family friend who was an anaesthetist up in Kingston, hence it’s got the British Medical Association badge on the front. I’m a Doctor myself so I quite like that bit of history.”
Aside from that, and the DVLA revealing that it had been registered in Hertfordshire, Thornton-Smith knows little about the car’s history.
“It’s an inlet over exhaust inline four, which is the standard Rover engine of the time, and it makes about 50 horsepower on a good day, so it’s quite slow. It does 0 to 60 by written application. I think it might have done 65mph once, maybe, on a good day with the wind behind it.
“We’ve had number of breakdowns too, but it’s all easily fixable. I have a nice toolkit under the passenger seat and I’m surprised at how easy it is to rebuild a carburettor at the side of the road…”