The winch that wouldn't work

My friends are always sending me photos of vehicles they know will intrigue (or horrify) me. Most Series I, II, and III Land Rovers fit in the former category (although there are exceptions). The one here, spotted by Bruce Douglas in Seattle, looked nearly perfect at first glance—mostly stock, not quite concours and thus drivable without angst, lovely contrast of the dark green bodywork and tan hood, proper skinny tires on factory wheels.

The aftermarket seats were a bit much, although given stock Series II seats somewhat understandable—but why not just install the appropriate and excellent Defender items? Still it was a striking vehicle.

Then I noticed the winch.

Like quite a few early Land Rovers, this one was equipped with a capstan winch (whether from the factory or added later is impossible to say). A capstan winch differs from the more modern and much more common horizontal drum winch in having an upright drum, or capstan, like a winch on a sailboat. The capstan is powered by the engine, normally via a driveshaft connected to the front of the crankshaft. Unlike your Warn, Ramsey, or Superwinch, the capstan winch is designed to be used with a free length of rope, which is attached to the object to be winched (or to an anchor if winching the vehicle itself) and then wound around the capstan three or four times to provide friction. When the capstan is engaged, the operator pulls the free end of the rope to provide tension, and the capstan pulls in the attached end at slow speed. The advantage to this system is that there is no practical limit to the length of rope—if you need a 200-foot pull for some reason and have a 220-foot length of suitable rope, you’re good to go. It will also work as long as the engine is running, without overheating the winch or overtaxing the alternator. Disadvantages include limited power (most were rated at just 3,000 pounds, suitable for the 3/4-inch manila rope used) and the fact that if the engine isn’t running the winch isn’t either. Finally, solo recovery of a bogged vehicle is extremely awkward if not impossible. These downsides explain why capstan winches have been almost universally superceded by much more powerful horizontal drum winches that store their own line. 

But the capstan on the Seattle Land Rover was—bewilderingly—wound with a long length of steel cable. This configuration cannot possibly function properly. You cannot use steel cable on a capstan as it is intended to be used—there would not be enough friction on the capstan and you would find the cable impossible to grip. And you cannot attach the free end of a steel cable to the capstan and expect it to wind in like a horizontal drum. It simply wouldn’t work and would likely destroy the winch in short order if it didn’t result in some much more serious failure. Note the horizontal bar on the mount, under which the rope is designed to run to properly feed it on to the capstan. Even if you managed to attach the steel cable and attempted to winch with it, it would instantly bunch up at the bottom of the capstan. 

I’m at a complete loss to explain what the owner of this otherwise fine vehicle was thinking. I suspect he or she had no idea how a capstan winch worked and, seeing the steel cable attached to many horizontal winch drums, ordered one and somehow managed to attach and spool it on this poor capstan. To the uninformed it might look cool, but one can only hope its owner never attempts to put it to use for anything other than posing in front of some well-known Seattle coffee shop.