‘There were many narrow escapes. Captain David Bromhead, descendant of Bromhead VC, of Rorkes Drift, was bitten on the boot by a deadly 6ft Bushmaster snake. Feeling the reptile strike him, he drew his .45 Smith & Wesson revolver and shot its head off…’ That’s proper Ripping Yarns stuff, but those words were written in 1972, not ’22, and the story’s a true one.
Lethal reptiles were among many hazards facing the 1971-’72 British Trans-Americas Expedition during its crossing of the infamous Darien Gap, the narrow stretch of land that links North and South America. No road goes through this expanse of rainforest and swamp, which meant there was only one vehicle suitable for the job in the early 1970s: the newly launched Range Rover.
The Darien Gap is just 100 miles long and 30 miles wide, but it’s the only missing link in the 18,000-mile Pan-American Highway that runs all the way from Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina. There had been previous attempts at crossing it by motor vehicle, notably in 1962 when Chevrolet sent a team of Corvairs along with a bulldozer. It failed; ten years later the British expedition found one of the abandoned Corvairs rotting in the jungle.
The 1971 expedition had the benefit of two Range Rovers, a pure fluke due to events a couple of years earlier: Rover had planned to enter Range Rovers for the 1970 World Cup Rally, but was forced to substitute Austin Maxis instead (!) when the Range Rover launch was pushed back from late 1969 to mid-1970. So it was looking for another PR opportunity, and the Darien Gap crossing promised great publicity. The plan was that the Range Rovers would drive the full length of the Pan-American Highway, starting in Alaska and ending in Tierra del Fuego, crewed by a team of six Army officers.
Both of the expedition Range Rovers were left-hand-drive vehicles originally built for the Swiss export market and hurriedly resprayed for their new role – you can see the original Sahara Dust colour in the engine bays. Both have survived: VXC 868K, chassis no. 35800230A, is in the Heritage Motor Centre, while sister car VXC 765K, chassis no. 35800231A, is in the Dunsfold Collection. Mechanically they were completely standard; only the interiors were reconfigured for more storage space, by stripping out the rear bench and installing a Rover P6 saloon seat in the back.
In 2010, the 40th anniversary of the Range Rover’s launch, we’ve become rather satiated with big SUVs, but there wasn’t anything directly comparable on the market in 1970. The Range Rover wasn’t the first luxury SUV – the Jeep Wagoneer appeared in 1963 – but it was the best all-rounder, both on- and off-road. Most 4x4s, Land Rovers included, relied on beam axles and leaf springs for strength and simplicity. The Range Rover’s innovation was to use long-travel, relatively soft coil springs for maximum wheel articulation and a good ride. Rover engineer Spen King said he had the idea after driving a Rover P6 saloon across a rough field, and being surprised by how fast he could travel thanks to its famously good ride quality.
The structural design of the Range Rover didn’t change much in 25 years of production. A ladder-frame chassis carried a Rover V8 engine, driving through a central differential and a high/low-range transfer box to beam axles; unlike nearly all Land Rovers, the Range Rover had permanent rather than selectable four-wheel drive. This was a deliberate policy to ensure torque was always split front and rear, so the axles didn’t have to be made unduly heavy to cope with a full torque delivery at one end, and hence spoil the handling.
The early models were pretty basic inside, aimed very much at working professional people such as construction site managers rather than land-owning toffs. There were no carpets, just washable PVC mats, and moulded foam seats with plasticised facings. Other now quirky-seeming details included a giant fuel filler neck that telescoped out to make it easier to use a jerrycan, and a rear numberplate that was hinged on the tailgate, like an early Mini’s, so it would hang down if you had the tailgate open.
Like a Land Rover, then, only better. But the British Army is not always known for its mechanical sympathy, and even a Range Rover is not unbreakable. The crossing of the Darien Gap was hard on men and machines – but it was harder on the latter than it needed to have been, as Rover’s engineers were soon to find out.
The trip started well. Both vehicles were shipped to Alaska in December 1971 and made it down to the end of the North American section of the Pan-American Highway, at Canitas in Panama. This was where the real work started. Under the leadership of Major John Blashford-Snell, already a seasoned explorer, a team of some 100 people, consisting of British, American and local army personnel, recce’d the route through the jungle and cut a path for the Range Rovers to follow.
Major, now Colonel Blashford-Snell, is still leading expeditions 40 years later, and Octane caught up with him the night before he was due to leave on yet another rainforest trek – at the age of 73. Was the Darien Gap crossing the hardest trip he’s made?
‘Without a doubt!’ responds Blashford-Snell, instantly. ‘I lost an awful lot of weight due to the testing terrain and climate. Fortunately I didn’t suffer anything nasty other than a poisoned hand, but about 50% of the team had injuries of one form or another.’
Blashford-Snell wrote a detailed promotional brochure on behalf of Rover, once back in the UK in 1972. It’s full of stirring passages like the one at the start of this article. Here’s another:
‘Our sweat-soaked clothes rotted on us. Leather equipment grew mould, even the best jungle boots available began to fall apart. The mosquitoes, gnats and flies became a constant plague… Clusters of aggressive and vindictive hornets nested in hollow trees and swarmed out to meet anyone who disturbed them. I have never seen insects so vicious. Within seconds a well-ordered column could turn into chaos under attack from hornets… Inch-wide centipedes and black scorpions also took their toll, whilst spiders as large as dinner plates were fearsome to behold.’
Range Rover project engineer Geof Miller remembers those hornets well. He was sent out to assist when rear differentials started breaking on a regular basis; he soon realised that the fault lay not with the vehicles but with the way they were being driven:
‘The problem was that the Army was overloading them drastically. They were still carrying all the kit they’d taken for cold-weather driving in Alaska. Then there were crates of stuff from sponsors, like Bird’s Custard, and even the officers’ full dress uniforms!
‘So the vehicles were full of spares and living gear, and then they’d put all the equipment like the inflatable boats and outboard motors on the roof-racks. I calculated that by the time they got on a 30º slope the overload on the back axle was something like 100% or more. They broke a rear diff in one vehicle, and carried on driving… and then the next thing to go was the front diff, so they would tow that dead vehicle with the second vehicle, until the rear diff on that one broke and then they had to stop and call for help.
‘It got to the stage where I just said, “Right, everything is coming out of the vehicles.” It took three flights of a little Beaver aircraft to take the excess baggage back to Panama City.’
Inappropriate tyres were another cause of diff breakages. Initially the Army fitted huge swamp tyres, designed to spread the load over soft ground. Not being trained in off-road driving, when their vehicles became stuck, the soldiers would sit there with the wheels spinning – until the rear diff got so hot it melted the Tufnol spacer washers inside, which led to excessive backlash between the gears, which resulted in broken teeth… In a misguided attempt to find more traction, the crews wrapped rope around the tyres, which then snagged on the disc brakes and ripped the calipers off.
Another veteran of those early Range Rover days, Roger Crathorne – now its most senior off-roading instructor, who’s somehow never managed officially to retire – says simply: ‘The British Army just wasn’t trained in this type of driving. I got very friendly with the bloke down at Birmingham Airport in the cargo shed, because we were continually sending bits out.’
But what they lacked in off-roading skill, the Army drivers and expedition team made up for in persistence. Although more than 30 people had to be medevaced out due to illness or injury – and five Colombian soldiers drowned when their boat capsized – the team never gave up. Following a path cut by an advance party, the Range Rovers crawled on relentlessly, using bridging ladders to cross gullies or ease the passage up and down steep slopes.
There was also a third vehicle on this section of the trip: a humble 88in Land Rover that was used as a pathfinder to help clear the route ahead of the Army team. Geof Miller explains:
‘You could tell what time of day the advance party had passed through by the width of the track – as they became more tired, the track got narrower and narrower! Problem was, none of them had ever seen a Range Rover, so they had no idea how wide it was.
‘I was asked to go to Panama City and buy a Land Rover from the local agent. I found a nearly new vehicle that had been rolled by an American serviceman, so I told the agent to put a winch on the front and take the upper bodywork off, and that made it perfect for what we needed. If the advance party could drive a Land Rover through what they had cut, we could get the Range Rovers through.’
No-one is sure what happened to that unsung Series IIA, but it survived to the end and was flown back to Panama. And that’s a good cue to mention that another Land Rover had made the Darien Gap crossing 12 years before the Range Rovers. In 1960 a privateer team consisting of two Panamanians, a Brit and an Australian took a Series II and a Jeep from Panama to Colombia. They did, however, travel much of the way on the Atrato River, covering much more of the distance on water than did the Range Rovers did 12 years later.
Even the Range Rovers had to take to inflatable rafts to negotiate the Great Atrato Swamp, on the final leg of their Darien crossing. ‘Forcing a way through the matted weed was a very difficult problem,’ wrote Blashford-Snell in 1972. ‘We tried cutting with machetes, pulling on it with grapnels, and eventually used necklaces of dyamite. The side benefit of the latter was some good fish breakfasts.’
The British Trans-Americas Expedition – ‘a party of ragged, filthy men and women, mules and vehicles’ – finally crawled out of the swamp and onto the beginning of the southern section of the Pan-American Highway on 23 April 1972: St George’s Day.
Once back on paved roads, the Range Rovers enjoyed a comparatively easy run down to Tierra del Fuego, and were then shipped back to England. At the factory they were completely stripped and the chassis cut up into sections, to check for stress fractures and cracks, while oil company Duckhams inspected the engine internals to see how its lubricant had performed. Although externally battered, the vehicles were found to be in excellent mechanical and structural shape, and they were reassembled onto new chassis and presented to Leyland’s heritage collection. The vehicle in our studio pictures, VXC 868H, is normally on display at the Heritage Motor Centre, just off the M40 at Gaydon in Warwickshire.
In crossing the Darien Gap, the new Range Rover had proven itself as the ultimate all-rounder. Inevitably, being born into the maelstrom of British Leyland politics, it wasn’t perfect and it could have been even more successful with a bit more support from senior management – the lack of an automatic transmission option and a four-door bodyshell severely restricted sales in the US and Middle Eastern markets. Those key features weren’t introduced until the early 1980s: ten years of opportunity lost.
As for the Darien Gap, it seemed that the British expedition had stirred up enough interest that the last section of the Pan-American Highway would finally be built. It never happened. The Darien Gap is still just that; although the upside is that the local ecology has been preserved. In 1972, Blashford-Snell said that he would like to return one day and ‘motor through the Gap in comfort’. Does he still feel the same way now?
‘I’m not altogether sorry the road wasn’t built,’ he considers, ‘even though it would have brought economic benefits to the locals. In fact, our expedition did focus attention on the need to preserve the forest. Some interesting projects came out of it, including an initiative to pay the locals not to cut down old-established trees but to harvest and replant.’
Even the British Army, with its experience of the jungles of Borneo and Malaya, found the Darien rainforest particularly hard work. But it wasn’t going to be beaten. Land Rover’s Roger Crathorne remembers how, later on the same day they’d come out of the Arato swamp, they stopped at a Colombian Army base. Next morning the local soldiers were drilling on the parade ground, and one of the British privates said to his sergeant: ‘Let’s show them how it should be done.’
‘I was so proud to be there,’ says Roger. ‘These guys had been in the jungle for 100 days and they put their kit together and they marched to breakfast. They stopped the parade ground.’
Thanks to Colonel Blashford-Snell, Roger Crathorne, Geof and Pat Miller, and the Heritage Motor Centre (www.heritage-motor-centre.co.uk).