From Panama to platinum – 70 years of Land Rover at FOS
A record-breaking Range Rover was just one of 70 Land Rovers taking part in an historic anniversary parade at the Festival of Speed.
Straddling the border between Panama and Columbia sits the Darién Gap – a huge swathe of rainforest that’s virtually impassable by car. The Gap is criss-crossed by swamps and rivers, forest and marshland, and plays host to scorpions, biting ants, vampire bats, deadly snakes, trench foot and malaria. If you were choosing a route for a road trip, it would not include this inhospitable stretch of sweaty rainforest.
Between 1971 and 1972, though, a 64-strong team of Royal Engineers and scientists took two Range Rovers across the Darién Gap on their way from Anchorage, Alaska to Terra del Fuego, Cape Horn. It was the first expedition to cover the entire length of North and South America, and the first to cross the infamous Gap. The 17,084-mile journey started on December 3rd, 1971 and eventually finished – with both Range Rovers still running – on June 10th, 1972. The Range Rovers were almost completely standard and, at that time, very new to the roads. The Embera-Wounaan and Kuna people in the Darién Gap would never have seen a motor vehicle before, let alone Land Rover’s new model.
The journey was not without its problems – the rainforest slowed progress to as little as a quarter of a mile a day, while one car crashed into a lorry in Canada and the other almost sunk during a river crossing. Gavin Thompson was the main driver in one of the Range Rovers and, during the perilous crossing of the Darién Gap, drove both cars. Many years later a journalist drove the one that had taken a plunge and commented that there was “a rather strong smell of damp”. Having parachuted in more oil and pumped the water out of the cylinders, the engine fired without a problem. The only casualty was the cassette player. Once through the Gap the team left the scientists behind and raced south.
Nearly half a century later Gavin Thompson’s Range Rover greets us half an hour before Land Rover’s 70th anniversary parade at the Festival of Speed presented by Mastercard. Stood in front of the car is a smartly dressed and smiling Gavin. His recall is as sharp as if the trip had happened only a year ago, and his story telling is the sort you hear from someone who has either been in the army or who has experienced far more than the average person. “Yes, well, we did get shot at in Nicaragua, but really it was fine.”
The stories flow over the next hour as we make our way to the Startline as one of the 70 Land Rovers celebrating the manufacturer’s birthday. Ahead of us is everything from the original centre-steer prototype and ‘HUE 166’, the first Series 1 pre-production prototype, to our very early Trans-Americas Expedition Range Rover. Behind (we are 42nd in the parade) sit the millionth Discovery built and the more recent Velar.
The very early models are perhaps the more sought after, but is there a car that typifies what Land Rover has been about for the past 70 years more than the Trans-Americas Range Rover? A car that was submerged in water on a 17,084-mile trip that no vehicle had managed before… A team of Chevrolet Cosairs did attempt the Darién Gap challenge in 1962, but it wasn’t a success. The team of two Range Rovers came across the wrecks of the cars near the Columbian border 10 years later.
Happy birthday Land Rover – here’s to another 70 years of ground-breaking challenges and expeditions.