The Trials and Tribulations of a Land Rover Owner, Part One

The first thing the new owner of an older Land Rover will learn is that breakdowns are always to be expected at the point where you have finally become totally confident about the state of your vehicle. You learn this lesson very, very quickly. After a few years, the underlying anxiety that accompanies any road trip becomes a part of your psyche, and you throw a bottle of Xanax or whatever in the center console and be done with it.

The second thing you learn is that most things in an old Land Rover are possible to bodge together again with some basic tools and knowledge, and possibly some RTV sealant. By “basic tools,” I mean the three large Husky tool bags I keep in the back of my Discovery, plus the crate of extra fluids, plus the spare parts artfully placed throughout the vehicle. (Upper coolant hose under the driver’s seat, spare serpentine belt next to the atlas behind the back seat, spare radiator cap in the glove box.)

And this is where my latest Trials and Tribulations — the first of this blog column — began.

A few weeks ago, I was heading to the Ottawa Valley Land Rovers‘ 33rd Annual Birthday Party rally, one of the biggest and oldest Land Rover events on the East Coast. With the goal of exploring some parts of the Ontarian side of the St. Lawrence Seaway, I rolled out of the house at 3 AM, streaming BBC Merseyside on TuneIn to track the returns of the Brexit referendum. By Scranton, David Cameron had resigned, the sun was rising, and everything on the Disco was feeling pretty tickety boo. I hit Syracuse at rush hour, headed up I-81, and just south of Watertown, decided to fill the truck up with some sweet ethanol-free 91 octane petrol that we’re not allowed to have in the good ol’ Garden State.

The ungrateful bastard rewarded this gift by not starting. Shit.

I flicked the key; the solenoid in the starter clicked once, the fuel pump’s familiar two-second startup buzz was absent. I thus realized two things: one, I should swap out the fuel pump I wanted to swap out anyway; and two, my friends were coming up to the same event from Connecticut via Albany, and I should probably get in touch with them to rendezvous if needed.

I was thus sat front of a gas pump at a moderately busy Sunoco station, taking the entirety of my camping gear out of the back of the truck and laying it out on the forecourt so I could access the fuel pump in the tank, and somehow the entire patronage of the station was entirely nonplussed, oblivious to the old green truck with the New Jersey plates expelling its contents out of its rear.

Someone finally noticed me, helped me push the truck onto the side of the station, and in a move that forever cements him on the good side of my Rover Karma Book, offered me a lift to the NAPA a mile away to score a new fuel pump.

These things would never happen Downstate.

I scored a Delphi fuel pump to serve the purposes of the famous Land Rover/General Motors pump swap, and nothing more. This will become important later and was quite bone-headed.

Back at the truck, I proceeded to remove the entirety of my fuel pump from the tank, feeling not that bad about spilling some of the fuel, because it’s a bloody gas station, and I’m quite proud of myself because I’m a New Jerseyite and I didn’t spill any this time at the pump like I always do because we don’t do this shit ourselves. On speakerphone with some friends, which I don’t think you’re supposed to do either but whatever, I got it done and in, and it still didn’t start.

I directed my friends to rendezvous, and regretted not buying that damn wire. I fiddled for about an hour, until my friends arrived in a glorious convoy. One of them went to purchase the wire so we could hot wire the fuel pump. The starter solenoid seemed to have also gone decidedly wonky, causing part of these issues, so we jumped the solenoid with my jump leads and headed northward to a fantastic event, where I alas played it safe and didn’t wheel the truck, because no way was I jumping that solenoid if I stalled in a river. We tinkered some over the weekend, but nothing we hypothesized seemed to actually work, except for our theory of “let’s drink for now and worry about it later.”

The extent of Duncan’s Canadian fun.

And thus, with a hot wired fuel pump and a starter that works sometimes on its own and sometimes by crawling under with the jump leads and being careful to not scald yourself on the exhaust, I go into the third lesson of a Land Rover owner.

Lesson Three: because these things break down so frequently, and because they’re so bog easy to repair, once you have some kind of workaround to fix things you sometimes become incredibly complacent with things like your convoluted starting procedure that includes connecting something submerged in a 23-gallon tank of waiting explosion to a live battery of waiting fire, and consider using jump leads to start your car without involving another car totally fine and acceptable.

Complacency in action.
Complacency in action.

So I drove around town with said complacency, and felt so damn confident with my vehicle’s bodged together state that I decided, I shall take this vehicle off roading with my friends in Vermont two weekends after the Ottawa adventure, having put minimal effort into fixing anything.

This is the source of the Fitzgerald Corollary, which is that whenever I take my trucks on any trip with other Land Rovers, they get incredibly antisocial and decide to expound all their grief and woes of any degree into one gloriously large and dramatic breakdown. The lead-in hint was an expulsion of coolant from the expansion tank at a rest area in New York, as I ironically sat waiting for my friend Jarek’s Mercedes-Benz OM617-powered Disovery to cool down from a sustained 70mph highway run. And then to make it worse, I found myself on a hill climb into a crazy trail in Southern Vermont, with a truck that has now compounded all of its issues into a fit of stalling and cutting out whenever asked to perform between 700rpm and 1800rpm on an incline, requiring immense group effort and use of tow straps to coax it to the top of said complex hill climb, until such point as I jumped in at the top of the hill and drove it down the other side with the CD changer spinning and the truck performing near enough perfectly. The only issue was that the speedometer wasn’t working, due to the Vehicle Speed Sensor that has not worked since December, and the absence of which has caused minimal issue for 5,000 miles of driving since then. That may or may not have still been a cause of the trail issues; jury’s out.

Disco Woe on the Thruway.
Disco Woe on the Thruway.

To make matters more fun is another tenet, the one of “just because you think you engineered something better than everyone else ever has does does not mean it is.” In my case, I learnt that my method of dealing with a seized center differential lock lever was brilliant and convenient in the driveway, but beggared second-degree burns when implemented in the wild, which I have the scars to prove such on the back of my left hand and back of my right arm.

And so, I got to that point of caving to all of the lessons and tenets, and realized We Have Issues and headed home early to solve my woes, by way of my friend Eric Riston in Albany who sells parts for Atlantic British and will help you with your woes as much as he helped me with mine if you call him there on extension 231.

At a Land Rover Holy Land, Atlantic British in Clifton Park, NY.
At a Land Rover Holy Land, Atlantic British in Clifton Park, NY.

Because I have found that I do not need to drive this truck during the week, since I carpool to work and get home too late to actually have a life, I’ve parked it in the driveway the past two weeks and have done heavy tinkering on it at night. Although I’ve done tons of work on this truck lately, I did purchase it as a sort of step above a barn find in Vermont, having been off the road approximately five years. It’s structurally in quite good condition considering its age and location, but there’s lots of little stuff still to keep on top of to get it in the great shape it has potential to be in.

The results of said tinkering? To be figured out Friday night, when Duncan comes out again for yet another rally — fortunately, closer to home.

Opening Doors in My Own Backyard on A Weekend Journey Through the Past

There are three township-owned historic properties in Warren, New Jersey. I’ve lived in this town my entire life, and somehow I have never set foot in any of them — until today.

This is a bit embarrassing since I’m a member of the Township Historic Sites Committee, but we have low demand for tours, and don’t always end up hosting our monthly open houses. This weekend, however, brought an opportunity: a Somerset County-run event that brings these historic homes, churches, and commercial buildings across the county to the public all together for one weekend a year. Tours run both days of the weekend, from 10-5 on Saturday and 12-4 on Sunday, at about two dozen sites across Somerset County. The County has created three routes, connecting the Watchung Mountains, the Delaware and Raritan Canal, and the Old York Road into curated driving tours.

I took the opportunity today to journey though the past, jumping in with both feet, giving tours at both the Kirch-Ford-Terrill House and the Mount Bethel Baptist Meeting House. Both are among the oldest buildings in Warren, each dating from the 18th century.

The Kirch-Ford-Terrill House, sitting on the corner of Reinman Road and Mount Bethel Road, today looks across a series of office complexes. In the early 18th century, however, when the Terrill family built a one-room dwelling with a large hearth and windows looking southward, the view would be fields and forests all the way to the horizon. The house is a fantastic contrast to the McMansions that have sprung up across Warren in the past few decades. The house is comprised of many additions over three centuries, each bringing its own style and purpose to the building. Heavy wooden floors; magnificent brick hearths; and a secret room designed for Underground Railroad refugees, Prohibition moonshine, or Revolutionary War munitions (take your pick, nobody really knows) create a cozy abode that typifies many of the homes that dotted Warren in the 18th and 19th centuries.

A half-mile down the road, the Mount Bethel Baptist Meeting House sits in the historic center of the village of Mount Bethel, one of six or nine villages (depending on who you talk to) that came together to form Warren Township in 1806. Across from the abandoned and endangered landmark King George Inn, the Meeting House looks upon a vista of its historic cemetery, the modern Morris-Union Jointure Commission school for autistic students, and the rolling hills of the Appalachians. Built in 1761 further to the eastern border of town with Watchung, it was moved in 1785 to its current site. The building is plain, in the tradition of religious buildings of the time, but is filled with natural light from large windows all around. There is class division, as there would have been at the time; the lower level’s pews would be rented (up to $28 per year) to the wealthier residents of Mount Bethel, while the poor, Native Americans, and slaves would be on the upper balconies with their steeply sloped floors. The Mount Bethel Baptist Church moved to a modern building in the 1970s, donating the original building to the Township. Today, it stands as an anchor of the past in a rapidly-changing town.

Inside the Mount Bethel Baptist Meeting House
Inside the Mount Bethel Baptist Meeting House

As a history lover, today, I was invigorated by giving tours of these newly-discovered places in my hometown. (Yes, I catch on fast to give tours right off the bat!) But even better, I saw a new generation inspired when I gave a hectic tour to eighteen Cub Scouts from the local troop at the Kirch House. As seems the case with so much regarding history and kids today, many weren’t interested much, and were horsing around the centuries-old floors. But two or three were asking questions, noticing details, taking interest in my rope bed tying demonstration and my schpiel on chamber pots.

These kids…they were me fifteen, twenty years ago, when I dogeared and marked up fellow Committee member Alan A. Siegel’s book, Images of America: Warren Township. It’s getting more and more difficult to involve people, young people especially, in local history projects, but maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance that another generation of Warrenites will take on the torch of telling our town’s story.

The Somerset County Weekend Journey Through the Past is usually held on Columbus Day weekend.