Historic

High-mileage champions

My first car, at about 110,000 miles.

My first car, at about 110,000 miles.

“As with old Toyotas, nice old Hondas are perpetually rare. People buy the cars and squeeze them of use, then wake one day to find the things spent, not worth enough to rebuild. The curse of ordinary nobility.” Sam Smith, Road and Track

I remember when my first car, a 1971 Toyota Corolla 1600, accumulated 100,000 miles on its odometer. My friends were impressed.

Nearly two decades later, when my FJ40 passed the mark, I started a tradition by pouring a shot of single-malt whiskey into the radiator.

In between those events, much had happened in the automotive world. We’d passed through the dark days of early emissions controls, when Corvettes came with 160 horsepower and everyone thought performance was dead. Then came the magic of electronic fuel injection and ignition, through which a central processing unit (CPU) could precisely control fuel delivery and many other engine parameters—and thus hugely reduce emissions while increasing power. Slowly at first, then rapidly, power began to rise again, and before long we could buy cars that produced more horsepower than we had ever experienced during the so-called glory days of muscle cars. And yet those cars also used far less fuel—it was a win-win-win triumph of technology.

But that wasn’t all. In part due to the cleaner-running internals, and in part due to better machining methods and higher quality control, championed at its best by Japanese makers, engines and transmissions began to last longer and longer as well. Soon, racking up 100,000 miles on a Corolla or Civic was not even worth mentioning, and these days pizza-delivery kids still run clapped-out examples with 200,000 miles and more on engines that have never had the head off. Without doubt, 200,000 is the new 100,000—and yet even now statistics show that only eight tenths of one percent of vehicles reach that mileage.

My FJ40 now has 322,000 miles on it, and a comprehensively rebuilt engine courtesy of my master Toyota mechanic friend Bill Lee. So I wondered how many vehicles reach the 300,000-mile mark—and the answer came through the site iSeeCars.com. Herewith the stars, and the percentage of them that survive to that lofty distance:

Ford Excursion: .2%

Toyota 4Runner: .2%

Toyota Sequoia: .2%

Chevrolet Suburban: .2%

Toyota Tacoma: .2%

Toyota Tundra: .2%

Notice a trend? :-)

Incidentally, the all-model average for reaching that distance is just .1%. Also incidentally, the five longest-lasting sedans/vans (and the percentage of them that attain the 200,000-mile mark) include, in order, the Toyota Avalon (2.5), the Honda Odyssey (2.5), the Honda Accord (1.9), the Toyota Sienna (1.8), and the Toyota Prius (1.7). Note, especially, that last one, all you doubters who claimed the Prius would bankrupt owners with expensive battery replacements at 50,000 miles.

The 10 longest-lasting vehicles by brand look like this:

  1. Toyota

  2. Honda

  3. GMC

  4. Chevrolet

  5. RAM

  6. Ford

  7. Accura

  8. Subaru

  9. Dodge

  10. Cadillac

I was surprised to see Nissan in 14th place, below Volvo, Jeep, and Chrysler. I was also surprised to see that Volvo was the only European manufacturer to appear anywhere in these lists.

Of course, as they say, your mileage may vary . . . 

A different Dormobile

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Most people reading this are familiar with the iconic Land Rover Dormobile and its clamshell pop-up roof, which converts a long-wheelbase Series II into a stylish camper with full standing headroom. But I didn’t realize that Dormobile modified other vehicles as well, such as this 1961 Bedford CA van. Very practical if you didn’t need the four-wheel-drive of a Land Rover. Read more about it on Silodrome, here.

So, you think your Zarges cases are stylish?

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How about an aluminum-clad explorer’s trunk from Louis Vuitton?

Apparently only a few of these trunks were produced in 1892, and of that few only two known examples survive. This one was recently auctioned by Christie’s for the astounding figure of £160,000 ($206,000). For that price you could buy 412 similarly sized Zarges cases.

But they wouldn’t say Luis Vuitton on the label.

Apparently this one spent much of its life in the UK basement of a family who had no idea of its value.

More here.

Classic Kit: The capstan winch

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If you’ve ever crewed (or skippered) a sailboat longer than 20 feet or so, you’ve probably used a capstan winch to control lines such as the jib and spinnaker sheets. A basic capstan winch comprises a vertical drum geared so it will only turn one way (always clockwise on a sailboat). When you wrap the line around the drum (again, clockwise) two or three times, you can more easily control the forceful pull of the sail. The friction of the wraps helps prevent the line being pulled away from you. If you need more power to sheet in a sail in a breeze, a a fitting on top of the drum allows you to insert a crank for extra leverage. There are more elaborate capstan winches with two speeds, self-tailing mechanisms—and electrically powered winches that eliminate the need for manual cranking.

For many years, a capstan winch could also be ordered as a factory option on Land Rovers and a few other vehicles. Visually the vehicle-mounted capstan winch was very similar to our sailboat winch; however, it was powered through a gearset from a driveshaft usually connected directly to the vehicle’s crankshaft via a sliding coupler. The worm-drive gearset reduced the 600 or 700 rpm of an idling engine crankshaft to just a dozen or so turns per minute of the drum (which, curiously, rotates counterclockwise on every one I’ve seen).

A capstan winch at LR-Winches. Engagement lever is at upper right. The rope is led under the roller from the anchor or object to be moved.

A capstan winch at LR-Winches. Engagement lever is at upper right. The rope is led under the roller from the anchor or object to be moved.

A capstan winch has an entirely different method of operation from the common, horizontal-drum electric, hydraulic, or even PTO winch with which we’re familiar. You don’t store line on the capstan, and it cannot use steel cable. Instead you carry a separate, low stretch rope—traditionally 3/4-inch manila or an equivalent natural fiber—of whatever length you chose, with a hook on one end.

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Let’s say you’re driving your Series II 88 along a forest track and you come across a downed tree blocking the way. Pulling it out of the path would go like this:

Position the vehicle so the winch has a clear route to drag the tree off the path. Leave the engine idling, transmission in neutral (obviously), parking brake on and, if possible, the wheels chocked as well. (If you have a hand throttle you can bump up the engine rpm a bit.) Wrap a strap around the tree and connect your winch rope to it with its hook. Take the free end of the rope back to the vehicle, run it under the roller guide and around the drum three or four times counterclockwise in an ascending spiral, then lay the free end of the rope off to the left of the vehicle as you’re facing the front. With the coils of the rope around the drum still loose, engage the lever to connect the drum to the gearset and the drum will begin turning slowly—but the loose rope will simply slip around it. Now stand back from the vehicle a few feet and pull on the free and of the rope to tighten the wraps around the drum. The drum will grab the rope and begin pulling on the downed tree, as you take in the rope fed you by the winch. You now control the speed and engagement of the winch simply by pulling or slacking off on the rope to tighten or loosen it around the drum. Once the tree is off the path, let the rope go slack, disengage the gearset with the lever, and de-rig. It’s that simple.

Of course you can also connect the rope to a standing tree or another vehicle to free yours if it is bogged; however, since the capstan winch requires someone standing outside the vehicle to operate the winch, it’s nearly mandatory to have a second person in the driver’s seat to steer the vehicle and stop it once it’s free. Solo vehicle recovery with a capstan winch can be a very dicey operation indeed.

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Consider the situation pictured below. Tom Sheppard was in Mali in 1978, en route to Timbuktu, driving his Land Rover Velar—that’s right, the original prototype of the Range Rover—and towing a trailer full of fuel and water, when a section of mud proved a bit deeper and stickier than was apparent from the driver’s seat.

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Tom’s Range Rover was equipped with a Fairey capstan winch cleverly hidden behind the grille—note the horizontal roller on the bumper. To deploy it one simply unscrewed the center grille section, a matter of a couple of minutes. However, Tom was, as is common with him, traveling solo. Therefore he first unloaded all 21 (!) jerry cans from the trailer, decoupled it from the Range Rover, and recovered the Range Rover with aluminum sand (i.e. mud) ladders. Then he positioned the Range Rover in a spot where he could use the capstan winch to recover the trailer, re-connect it to the Range Rover, reload all 21 jerry cans, and continue on his way.

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(Tom’s story made me remember the tour Roseann and I got of the Gaydon Museum, courtesy Land Rover historian extraordinaire, Roger Crathorne. I looked up one of the photos, which shows, in addition to Roger and me, one of the Range Rovers used on the 1971/72 Trans-Americas Expedition—and there was a capstan winch peeking out from behind the grille.)

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The capstan winch’s labor-intensive method of operation, combined with its modest power—most were rated for around 3,000 pounds, as was the rope used on them—saw them fade from popularity with the increasing availability of horizontal-drum electric winches of considerably higher rating. Yet the capstan had its advantages. It could work all day without overheating or stressing the vehicle’s electric system, and its line capacity was essentially unlimited—if you needed to rig a 200-foot pull, all you needed was a 220-foot rope. And that labor-intensive method of operation gave the operator instant control over the procedure—let off on the rope tension and the pull stops instantly. The capstan winch, with its leisurely speed, hands-on attitude, and natural-fiber rope, always struck me as, well, the friendly winch compared to the whining, straining, ozone-smelling electric winches of today (hugely capable though they certainly are). Go ahead, laugh.

This is the driveshaft and engagement mechanism that allows the capstan to be powered off the front of the vehicle’s engine.

This is the driveshaft and engagement mechanism that allows the capstan to be powered off the front of the vehicle’s engine.

You can still, very occasionally, spot a vehicle equipped with a capstan winch—virtually always a Series Land Rover. If you own a Series Land Rover and have a hankering for a curious and historical piece of very useful equipment, you can still buy one (or parts for one) through sources such as the experts at LR-Winches (where most of these images originated). You can even buy a synthetic rope suitable for a capstan winch, from LR-Bits.co.

But I’d recommend sticking with the manila rope. It’s just . . . friendlier.

For a . . . curious . . . installation of a capstan winch, see here.

Outback mystery . . . or tragedy?

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Here’s something I’ve concluded over three trips to Australia and a cumulative 15,000 kilometers or so of driving: Ninety percent of the time, 90 percent of Australia’s great historic tracks are more or less simply very, very long dirt roads that traverse vast expenses of bush and desert—terrain that can be considered strikingly beautiful or forbiddingly barren, depending on your sense of aesthetics. (Count me firmly in the former group.) 

All that changes when it rains and many of those tracks become simply undriveable, and a few routes (such as driving east to west on the Madigan Line) require skill and frequent four-wheel-drive use even in optimal conditions, but otherwise such legendary routes as the Birdsville Track can easily be driven in a Subaru Outback—or a Corolla. The world-class corrugations (washboard) you’ll find will test the structural integrity of the stoutest chassis, but your Land Cruiser’s dual lockers and low range will go unused.

With that said, one aspect of travel in central and western Australia has never been exaggerated: It is a very, very remote region. Even on the Oodnadatta Track—one of the most popular routes in the Outback—we sometimes drove for hours without seeing another vehicle. On other tracks, such as the Madigan Line, you can go a week not knowing if all other humans on the planet have been raptured away. So while ultimate capability might not be a critical requirement in your outback conveyance, reliability surely is, along with your ability to repair likely problems if you travel solo.

Tales of epic repairs, jury-rigged and otherwise, abound in outback literature—and video: If you’ve seen Bush Mechanics on YouTube you’ve been exposed to the wackier side of this skill, but real, and sometimes desperate, examples abound.

However, I found myself wondering if the owner of the vehicle whose parts I found in the Australian desert had the skills, and the spare components, to recover it. 

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We were camped in a wash off Mulga Park Road, actually a renamed section of Australian legend Len Beadell’s Gunbarrel Highway, about 150 kilometers southeast of Uluru (aka Ayers Rock). I was wandering through the scrub with my binoculars in pursuit of a new bird (which, if you’re curious, turned out to be a western bowerbird, a prime find), when I caught a dull glint of metal among the grass. A closer look revealed it to be an ancient single-barrel carburetor—one side of which was melted aluminum slag, the obvious result of a serious engine-compartment fire. The choke plate was locked in place by wrinkled solidified rivulets of non-ferrous metal; where the float bowl had been was an amorphous gray blob. The aluminum base appeared to be fine, leading me to think the fire might have been contained relatively quickly. However, the cast iron throttle plate housing was still attached to the bottom, as was linkage. If my broken-down fellow traveler had access to a spare carburetor I would have thought the ancillary fittings would have been swapped out.

Then the mystery deepened considerably—a few meters away I found an entire rear axle assembly, almost certainly from the same vehicle as the carb, judging by its configuration. Nothing else within a subsequent search circle of 50 meters or more—just an orphaned carburetor and axle from a vehicle at least a half century old, if not much older. 

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The carb on its own suggested a straightforward breakdown scenario. The addition of the axle left me scratching my head. I’m afraid this mystery will remain one.

 

To climb or not to climb . . . Uluru

I'm confident most people reading this will recognize the image above without the need for a caption. Formerly known as Ayers Rock (as christened by William Gosse in 1873 in honor of Sir Henry Ayers, the Chief Secretary of South Australia), it is now preferably referred to by its Aboriginal name, Uluru, bestowed some few thousand years before Europeans chanced upon the 1,100-foot tall (from the base) sandstone inselberg.

We very nearly missed seeing it, fearing the commercialization of the site would spoil it for us. We're glad we decided to go, because the overwhelming grandeur of the place simply crushes any banality humans might tack on to it—besides which we found the visitors' center and associated community extremely well-run, and observantly respectful regarding the deeply held Aboriginal spiritual traditions attached to Uluru.

However. We also uncovered a disturbing controversy.

The local Pitjantjatjara Anangu never climb Uluru, partly because, as I read it, the route to the top crosses a sacred Dreamtime track. Around the site are numerous signs requesting that visitors also refrain from climbing it, both to respect this spiritual tradition and because the people feel responsible when someone is injured or needs rescuing—which apparently occurs with some frequency. 

Why not simply ban climbing? Because the 1985 agreement with the Australian government, which finally granted co-management of the rock to the local people, forcibly included a clause that precluded them from doing so. Numerous pleas from them to rewrite the agreement have fallen on deaf ears. As a result, each year several thousand tourists ignore the local beliefs and requests and climb the rock. Some do so simply to say they have; others apparently believe they gain their own special spiritual benefits from doing so. For some even this is not enough—one visitor apparently thought it would be oh so clever to hit a golf ball from the top; a young French woman decided it would be equally clever to have herself filmed running topless along the crest, to be posted on her Facebook page.

More? Sure: There are no facilities on the summit. Many of those climbers who feel their needs are more important than the beliefs of the local people also suddenly feel the need to urinate or worse after their triumphal ascent. When storms deluge the rock with rain, it forms stunning waterfalls, each carrying with it a little something from all those climbers.

Amelie, lovely young French woman at the excellent tribal arts center, informed us of much of this, expressing disgust at the solipsism of her topless compatriot. She also let us know there was a book we could sign, declaring that we had chosen not to climb Uluru in solidarity. We did so proudly.

The Anangu still hope to change the restrictions the government places on their management of their own sacred site. In the meantime, I'll state this: If you visit Uluru and ignore the requests of the local people because you have something to prove, or your shaman told you your spirit would be healed by the magical air on top, and you fall off—I won't shed a tear.

 

The most interesting Land Rover I ever saw . .

. . . was not the fully kitted double-cab 130 in Namibia, or the 110 pickup veteran of the Rhino Charge in Kenya, or even the ex-Camel Trophy Defender owned by a friend. 

It was in the spring of 1986. Roseann and I had been doing surveys to map Harris’s hawk nests in the deserts north of Tucson. We’d driven up Highway 79 to the Gila River area early one morning, and after several hours of glassing for nests stopped to refuel our Land Cruiser in the dusty little town of Florence, whose single claim to fame was and still is the massive state penitentiary on its outskirts. We pulled into a Circle K, and Roseann went in to buy a couple of Cokes while I filled up.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a vehicle pull in to another pump, and did a double take. It was an ancient Series 1 Land Rover 86—essentially an impossible vehicle to exist in Florence, Arizona, where anything not from the Big Three would have still been looked on even then as deeply suspicious and probably Democrat.

That it was local became apparent when the driver, a craggy 60-ish gentleman, got out, dressed in faded Wranglers, a tattered western work shirt, and a generic feed cap. I walked over and said hi, which he returned in a drawl as thick as gear oil. Yes, he lived there, yes, he’d owned the Land Rover for a couple decades, although, “I can’t remember where it’s made—somewhere in Europe I think.” As I silently gaped at this, he continued, “When I need parts the fellas at the NAPA here get them for me. Never had any trouble with it though.” He raised the hood and started the engine, which ticked away with a barely audible murmer through its oil-bath filter. 

The Land Rover was dead original—even the tires looked like they might have rolled it out of Solihull. Winch. Canvas hood. The only additions were a rifle rack and a CB radio.

“That your Tiyota?” He pronounced it tie-ota. Nodded when I nodded. “Mmm-hmm. Nice looking vee-hicle.”

Improbable enough already, but then—look closely at the photo here, scanned from a black-and-white print that is the only record I have of the encounter. See the bottle mounted in front of the windscreen on the driver’s side? Look even more closely and you might spot the pipe leading from it, through the fender, and attached to a fitting on the exhaust pipe.

“That? That’s my gopher getter.” Said with not a little pride.

It turned out that Mr. . . . I never got his name . . . derived a fair amount of his income from eradicating the “gophers”—actually pocket gophers—that plagued the nearby farmers, burrowing up from underneath their crops. The bottle contained some viscous and evil-looking brown poison—I never got its name either—which gravity-fed through the tube and was emulsified in the exhaust stream, whence it was pumped via a hose into the holes of the unlucky gophers.

“My own invention! Kills ‘em real quick. No reason for 'em to suffer.”

I was not sure how he had determined this, but . . .

All the nearby landowners had his phone number as well as his CB handle, he said. Nope, no business name, just . . . whatever his name was. Paid in cash per dead gopher.

After a few more pleasantries, he said, “Well, you take care, young fella. Be seein’ ya.”

But we never did again.