NJLR James Bay Road Expedition: Driving Up the James Bay Road

After discussing this trip for a decade or so, it was strange to wake up and realize that this was the day we’d do it. The roads of Matagami were covered in a few inches of crunchy snow, and since we knew it’d be the same the whole way up, our winter James Bay Road dreams seemed fulfilled. The weather was chilly, in the negative teens Fahrenheit, but we weren’t looking at any blizzards or heavy winds. A Great Day for James Bay…

(We rejoin the James Bay Road trip log several months later, in July 2020, with the rest being written in retrospect. What have I learned? Day-by-day live blogs are too hard to keep on the road. Future trips on this site will be written up in thematic posts like this one, instead of blow-by-blow daily journals.)

We rolled out of Matagami early, just before sunrise. Since we were within but a few days of the shortest day of the year, we were already pressed for daylight; it’d be dark before 5:00 pm. We’d heard the conditions were decent on the JBR heading north, but we wanted to leave as little to chance as possible.

The Hotel Matagami was just a few kilometers south of the beginning of the JBR, so the first thing was to get a group shot by the entrance sign, creating whatever kind of fill lighting we could taking advantage of everyone’s high beams, without burning our corneas too much.

The first thing to do on a journey up the James Bay Road is to check-in at the booth a few kilometers up the road from the KM 0 sign. On such a remote road, there’s reason to take an interest in who’s on the road, where they’re going, and when they’re due back. The attendant took our information in a large ledger book, with prior returnees stricken out when they check in on the way south. The attendant also goes over safety and regulations and points out some of the more interesting spots to stop along the way.

The signs at the beginning of the JBR are intimidating, and really convey the scope of this journey. 375km — that’s 233 miles — to the first and only interim fuel stop, at the “KM 381” rest area. There would be no services in between. No food, no fuel, nothing but a hell of a lot of trees and some remote seasonal camps.

The topography actually changes quite a bit along the 385-mile stretch of the James Bay Road. As you move further north, you get deeper and deeper into true taiga territory. The trees spread out from each other, become shorter; there’s far less of a growing season up here. By the time we got to Radisson at the end of the day, the day would itself be a good bit shorter than it was in Matagami. Sunrise wouldn’t come until 8:30 AM, and the sun would be well down by 4:00 PM.

For how long we’d been waiting to come up here, I actually found myself zoning out on the scenery. It was certainly stunning, but it was also stunning in its monotony. The scenery was repetitive; Bogie, Ewa and I tried rough counting trees, before we decided there were millions of them and we were happy with that fact.

There aren’t many individual highlights along the JBR; the route itself is more a collective destination than anything specific. But the one natural feature that stands out above all the others is certainly the Rupert River, one of the great rivers of northern Quebec that has now been drained and redirected to power the massive James Bay Project to power the province. The JBR crosses the Rupert at the Oatmeal Rapids, once a massive, raging torrent of water. Now, redirected towards other uses, it’s somewhat more placid than it once was. This place had raged wild for millennia, but now instead its immense power is turned into electricity for Montreal and New York.

The Rupert is crossed by one of the larger public works projects of the entire road, a large suspension bridge. Simple in design, it’s no Golden Gate or Brooklyn Bridge, but still impressive in this otherwise stark landscape, and offering an interesting shot on Tri-X black and white film.

The drive from the security shed to KM 381 was about five hours, leaving us there right in time for lunch. I spent a lot of the drive in the backseat dozing in and out of sleep, the monotonous, peaceful scenery relaxing me and calming me after a hectic holiday season.

The JBR is plowed constantly, so a lot of our concerns on snowpack were pretty unfounded. This was something we really saw throughout our entire Canadian trip — plows everywhere. Following behind them was a dream…being in front of them in proper 4x4s could be fun. This road is so remote, but what we really realized was that the communities we were visiting were still pretty connected to the world. We thought of this as an expedition, and we had hoodies made up with the trip logo. One guy at a gas station laughed at the idea that we thought like this — to him, the JBR was just his commute. It really did hammer in that what a lot of us consider an “epic overland expedition” is just daily life to people with vehicles far less built than ours.

When you haven’t encountered much in the way of man-made attractions on a drive like this, a big rest area is pretty exciting. I mean, you can get gas!

And food!

And there’s a cafeteria!

And POUTINE, the great Canadian treat!

Katie made some new friends, too.

After KM 381, the remainder of the road was a relatively quick 239 kilometers/148 miles. At this point, the scenery was becoming much more stark and barren, as we marched on further and further north. One diversion we took was to the entrance to the Trans-Taiga Road, another road in the network up here and technically even more remote than the JBR.

There would be no time for the Trans-Taiga this trip. It’s even longer than the JBR, and there’s almost no services along it. It’s all gravel, as opposed to the paved James Bay Road. The last 84 kilometers are very rugged and rough, with a 4×4 vehicle recommended. It’s a good adventure for a summertime return one year — something we were all already talking about doing. For now, some photos at the entrance and dreams to return would have to suffice.

The sun got lower and lower, not that it had ever gotten all that high to begin with. The golden hour was a stunning, stark panorama of golden snow upon trees, silently beautiful and transfixing in a way I’d never seen before. Unfortunately, that also meant that darkness, and further cold, was coming. There was no time to dither to take photos; we had to get to Radisson and find our hotel for the night.

By 4:15 PM, the character of the road was starting to change. All day, we’d marched north in a pod of the two Land Rovers and the Jeep. Now we saw other vehicles, and the edges of civilization that made up the town of Radisson, where we’d be staying the next two days so we could explore the northern reaches of the Quebecois road network here. Then, with a bit of anticlimax, we turned left into the Radisson access road, and soon the town was in front of us, a collection of simple buildings that could more or less be any industrial village in the world.

We’d conquered the James Bay Road, after years of discussing it, and now here we were — Radisson, Quebec, a town that had taken on almost a mythical character in our late-night campfire talks. It was hard to believe we’d finally pulled it off.

Now, we needed somewhere to stay…

NJLR James Bay Road Expedition: Gatineau to Matagami

Today would be the first day of new territory on the trip – heading north from Gatineau to Matagami, the town in the Baie-James region of Quebec that’s the southern terminus of the James Bay Road. The plan was to roll out of the hotel at 7:00 AM, with about eight hours and 400 miles of driving ahead of us.

The plan was to make it to Val d’Or around mid-day, to get lunch and provisions. The drive is about five hours, including a remote 157-mile leg through the La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve. We killed most of the bottle of Fireball the night before, so the alcohol stores had to be replenished, and we needed to get some snacks. Of course, the night before, I couldn’t wait for some of my Canadian favorites – when we went to fuel up the trucks, I picked up a bag of All-Dressed Ruffles and another of Ketchup Lay’s. Canada comes second only to the United Kingdom when it comes to glorious potato chip/crisp flavors.

I rolled out of bed about 6:20 AM, jumped in the shower, put my stuff in the LR3, and walked the few hundred meters down the road to the Tim Hortons for a coffee, maple glazed donut, and Sausage B.E.L.T. Down here in Gatineau, there’s probably more English spoken due to the proximity to Ottawa, so I haven’t had the courage to totally go full-bore French. I have enough pidgin French to get by – I’ve done it in France and Quebec before – but down here “parlez-vous Anglais?” still nets me an Anglophone staffer to place an order with. The goal for today was to get more into speaking French as we head north, without falling back on my native tongue.

We headed west a bit on QC-5 and then north on QC-105, which winds along the Gatineau River’s western shore. The road was full of twisties, passing a vista reminiscent of some parts of upstate New York or Vermont. (Makes sense, I guess, since we’re topographically nearby.) The view changed from ravines to small villages as we wound north, with a smattering of trailer parks and farms in the mix. If it wasn’t so cold and potentially icy, and we didn’t have a chunky LR3 that was close to its maximum GVWR, this road could be seriously fun. The sun started to rise, slowly over a gloomy, grey sky. The snow cover built up as we headed further north. The first snow we saw sticking was a dusting at Syracuse, but here we were closing in on a foot of snowpack. Cows wandered past picturesque rustic barns hoof-deep in it.

At Kazabazua, a sort of misty rain came down. A decent-sized town, it had a few bars, a Benjamin Moore paint store, and a few signs for a horse pull competition. Just south of Maniwaki, we drove past the burnt-out remains of a house or barn, a few cops sitting in the driveway with some police tape. Instantly, my overactive brain started wondering what’s going on, and I got a bit of a vibe of a scene in Louise Penny’s Three Pines mystery novels.



We stopped at Maniwaki to re-Timmy, and change seats. Milosz and I swapped, with me taking some time with Jarek and Konrad and him hanging out with Bogdan and Ewa a bit. The ridiculous plushiness of the Rangie was a nice change, though honestly as the LR3 has heated rear seat bottoms, it’s not like it was much of a struggle.

We headed into the La Vendredye refuge around 10:00 AM, fog starting to close in as a cold drizzle fell on the windscreen of the Rangie. A sign on the roadside signaled 56km to fuel, with what looked like just four waysides on the road to Val d’Or. The various rest areas were shut tight for winter, the parking lots piled in snow. Moose-aware signs (“prudence!”) showed up on the side of the road. A tractor-trailer started riding our rear bumper, a risky move in the weather – and we had nowhere to go with a line of cars ahead of us. Roadside rock walls had turned into waterfalls of ice.



The road to Val d’Or got snowier and snowier, with a flurry reducing visibility. Val d’Or was a veritable oasis after a long stretch of nothingness. The first introduction was a line of car dealerships, followed by a centre-ville, where we stopped at the IGA for provisions.

I have a thing for foreign supermarkets, as do a few others in the expedition party, so this was an experience. The beer section was particularly interesting. It was packed with craft brews, but almost none of them were familiar – at that scale, breweries just can’t deal with exporting, I guess. Instead, there were hundreds of unknown Canadian beers, many in 330mL cans.


As a Tragically Hip fan, this amused me.



After about a half hour of provisioning, we headed to get gas, where the pump attendant was fascinated by our American-ness and was excited to buy an American $5, $10, and $20 bill off of us for his currency collection. We filled up with a snow flurry surrounding us and the bells of the Catholic church echoing through town.


The gas attendant shows Bogdan some of his foreign currency collection.


From here, the highway cut through the outskirts of Amos, the seat of the Catholic Diocese of Amos (which serves this Northern Quebec region), with the Cathédrale Sainte-Thérèse-d’Avila dominating the skyline. The road north cut through flat farmland, before turning into the seemingly-uninhabited thick forest. The road started getting slick, and Jarek did a brake test on the Rangie, with minimal impact. Smooth motions and spacing became the name of the game.

All of the rest areas on the road are closed this time of year, so it seems like the way to handle this function is in the classical outdoors manner; easier, of course, for guys. All day, we’ve passed people pulled over at the roadside taking care of business. It’s kind of funny to see people relatively cavalier about it, by requirement. We pulled over the convoy a few times for a pee break and to check the trucks. While I’m used to these kinds of inspection pauses driving an almost-26-year-old Discovery 1, at this point neither the LR3 or L322 are brand-new either.



The road is actively plowed, and we passed a number of trucks plowing and laying down salt. There are also lots of tractor-trailers carrying fuel and other supplies to the communities on the JBR. Also, considering we were convinced we needed full-tilt-boogie overland trucks for this trip, there’s a lot of Ford Focuses and Mazdas up here. (Mazdas seem significantly more popular in Canada than the USA.)

It got dark in the 4:00 PM hour, but the temperatures so far haven’t been as cold as we’d expected…they’re hovering around freezing, -2 Centigrade at the lowest so far. I’m hoping it’s colder when we hit the JBR tomorrow because I have a lot of cold-weather gear I bought for this trip. (Though, it’ll get plenty of use at the Maine Winter Romp in February.)

We got to Matagami around 5:30 PM, checked into the hotel, and found out that all of the restaurants in town are closed until January 6th. The options: snacks from the Esso, or snacks from Shell. Katie and I went to Shell, then Esso. Here are some things we found.


Back at the hotel, we made dinner on the camp stoves in lieu of a restaurant, or some of us just ate prepacked things. I had a very sad salad kit from Val d’Or, eaten with a titanium Snow Peak fork for some class. Jarek, Konrad, and Milosz went for soup in a can, while Bodgan went for Unibroue beer and cheese.


We ended the night with a driver’s meeting in Carl’s and my room, planning our assault on the JBR tomorrow. Tomorrow’s the big day: THE James Bay Road. We saw the big sign at the start today at the turnoff to Matagami, and it’s already hard to believe — it’s time! It’ll be 387 miles to Radisson, with a whole lotta nada in between. I can’t wait!




NJLR James Bay Road Expedition: Onward to Ottawa!

Sleep didn’t come easy; it never does when you’re excited about a trip. By 6:00 AM I was awake and getting ready for the day. The last things went in the bag as I finished using them, and then I paced the house waiting for the expedition party to arrive.

Bogdan and Ewa came first, and we started loading my stuff in the LR3. Jarek, Konrad, and Milosz pulled in a few minutes later, and we caught up while I showed Jarek my latest projects in the garage. Will and Katie showed up in the Jeep to fill out the expedition party, and after a lot of rearranging of luggage to insert Carl and me into the vehicles, we took some pre-departure photos and rolled out.


The expedition party prepares for departure.


We went to grab a Starbucks, but apparently I don’t know what stores are in which strip mall in the town I’ve lived in for thirty years, so we just got on I-78 west towards Pennsylvania. We messed around testing the radios as we headed west across the farmlands of Hunterdon County. We were across the Delaware by 9:15 AM and hooked north on PA-33 to I-80 and I-380.

The drive north was pretty quick. We burned some time on an extended tour of one exit’s various gas stations and restaurants, but other than that we kept a solid pace. After a bit more of that cheap American fuel, we crossed the border around 3:30 PM at the Thousand Islands Bridge. The line was only a few cars deep, the procedures were relatively simple, and then we were headed east on ON-401 and north on ON-417 towards Ottawa.



We came into Ottawa in the dark, and at some point, Will and Katie separated from us; we took a scenic (but not really, because darkness) tour of Ottawa while they took the fast roads to Gatineau. We met up at the front desk of the motel, where they were in the process of checking us in. Keys in hand, we unloaded the trucks, that sense of excitement in the air that comes with the first day of an adventure.



We headed to dinner at The Prescott, a landmark in Ottawa since 1934. It’s been the home of the Ottawa Valley Land Rovers’ monthly social for decades, so I wanted to see what it was like. Our friend Dixon Kenner, a long-time OVLR member who spends a lot of time in New Jersey, joined us for dinner. We spent a few hours over drinks and food discussing everything under the sun.



Back at the hotel, we spent a while planning the day ahead, before solving the problems of the world over a bottle of Fireball.



Tomorrow it’s off to Matagami, the southern end of the James Bay Road, via Val d’Or. It’s another 400 miles or so, via remote roads through La Verendrye Wildlife Reserve. Morning comes early ’round here.

NJLR James Bay Road Expedition: Pre-Trip Thoughts

There are certain trips that loom large in off-roaders’ collective dreams. Maybe it’s that trip to Moab, or that Pan-American expedition, or that African safari you saw in Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom decades ago. They’re the trips that linger over campfires and long days in the garage, fermented over beers and scotches across the years.

For my New Jersey Land Rovers group, that trip is the James Bay Road. A thread running north in Quebec, it serves the hydro-electric projects that provide power to a large swath of eastern North America. Built in the 1970s across ancestral Cree land, today it links the town of Matagami to the village of Radisson, 620 kilometers/385 miles to the north. It is one of the most remote places you can drive to in eastern North America.

Many have dreamed of the James Bay Road, or JBR. Our dreams had an extra layer, though: winter. Winter in Northern Quebec is unforgiving — temperatures in Fahrenheit start with a negative symbol and are usually double digits. A handful of Land Rover acquaintances have driven the JBR in summer; a select few have done it in winter.

Wikimedia Commons photo of the old sign at the start of the JBR. By P199 – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=615154

Thus, winter on the JBR has haunted our conversations for over a decade. We’ve almost pulled the trigger on this trip a few times, but never completely. In 2016, my friends Barbara and Jarek moved from New Jersey to Florida. We almost drove it on the way to their last northern residents’ Maine Winter Romp. Then Jarek and I discussed it this year as part of our “Mark IV Grand Tour,” when he delivered a 2015 Range Rover from New Jersey to Florida via the Eastern Seaboard. But it never happened.

This year, Barb and Jarek are coming north to visit family in New Jersey for Christmas, and from that seed, our date with destiny on the JBR grew. Jarek’s overlanding vehicle of choice right now is a 2011 Range Rover Supercharged, a 510-horsepower beast of a thing that’s already done three round-trips up the Eastern Seaboard this year. The JBR is paved, and even so it’s proven itself in an off-road jaunt we took to Uwharrie National Forest in September. The dreams always involved his “Medium Duty Expedition Vehicle” 1995 Discovery, but dreams adapt. He and his son Milosz would make this pilgrimage north in the Range Rover.

Next to sign up was our friends Bogdan and Ewa in their 2005 LR3, a veteran of many cross-country trips. I met up with them far away once already this year, in fact; I was in Moab with my friend Max and some of his friends from Atlanta, and we rendezvoused. Bogdan also has extensive winter travel experience, another benefit.

We made concessions to purity with Will and Kate, who are the life of the party at many NJLR events. Will’s ex-military Series III, a paintless wonder dubbed “the Battlewagon,” was not in shape for this trip, in that a 74-horsepower 2.25-liter engine could not keep up the pace with the modern V8s in the Range Rover and LR3. So, in the interest of having their excellent company in the party, while maintaining pace, we conceded for them to take Katie’s daily driver, a 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee. It may well be the impure beast that saves us all at some point.

Shotgunning we are three more. Myself, because Duncan is in no state for this trip on this notice, and Butler is still…well, horribly behind schedule. (Who knew restoring a complex mid-1990s luxury SUV would take so long when you have other things going on in life?) Carl’s Discovery 1 needed work, and life got in the way with such short notice. No matter, his good humor and skills as a professional medic were valuable. Jarek’s friend Konrad from Florida rounded out the expedition party, adding new blood and experience with modern vehicles via his career as a BMW technician.

The Route

Over the next week, we will traverse 13 degrees of latitude and 2,500 miles. We will go from New Jersey to Ottawa, then to the northern town of Matagami. From there, we take the James Bay Road, a 385-mile journey with one stop at the halfway point — the creatively-named “Km 381.” We will spend some time at the northern terminus of Radisson, exploring the Cree communities up there and the Hydro projects. Then we reverse the route, coming to America again via Montreal for the New Year on the St. Lawrence.

The JBR is fully-paved, though it’s also snowy and icy. Hydro is the main reason for its existence, but there’s also plenty of truckers to be aware of. There’s just one fuel stop — the aforementioned Km 381.


Wikimedia Commons photo of the JBR in winter.By Zulborg – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8320715

Usually, this is a camping crowd, but not at these temperatures. We’re getting hotels in every town along the way. None of them are the Four Seasons, but they’ll all do.

The three vehicles have all been serviced in the past few weeks. We’re running mud+snow or snow tires on all of them. The Jeep has a block heater; the two Land Rovers don’t since it’s extremely complex to install them in an AJ-V8. We’ll see how we do; temperatures are not as cold as we thought they’d be in the current forecast.

As for food, all of the villages we’re visiting have restaurants, and we’ll probably do dinner there. Breakfasts will be at the hotels; lunch on the road. With a bit over eight hours of daylight every day, we have to keep pace.


I’ve been keeping our UPS and FedEx delivery crew even busier than usual this time of year. The weather in Northern Quebec is cold. The only question is how cold. I expect to have temps below -10F at some point in the trip, either day or night.

I’ll be taking photos on three cameras on this trip, using digital and film. Digital will be my usual Nikon D800. With film, I’ll have my Nikon N8008, my standby for the past year as I got into film. I also acquired an N90s last week, for the steep sum of $34. As my friend Quentin put it, the N8008 is “the best manual focus camera Nikon ever made,” because its primitive autofocus is very loud and largely useless. The N90s will offer a second body, better AF (it’s very snappy), and the ability to shoot two film stocks at once. I’ve been shooting Ektachrome E100 lately, but the landscapes here and low light beg experimentation. I’ll be using Portra 400 in the N90s and Tri-X 400 in the N8008.

Other than that, I’ve done a lot of shopping for warm weather gear. Extreme cold is one of the few circumstances my outdoors wardrobe isn’t equipped for. I’m hoping this is one of the last trips where I have a big gear spend beforehand that nears the cost of the trip itself!

We ride at dawn on Boxing Day, destination: Canada. I’ll try to keep the live blog up as much as I can along the way.

Project SpennyDeux: Part 1

The Situation

My old Range Rover Classic, Spenny, rusted out. They all do in the Northeast if you don’t prevent it properly. I didn’t prevent it properly. Now I know how to for my current fleet.

But the body of the truck is the only thing that rusted badly. The chassis is in good shape, as is the drivetrain. I hate to waste those things by just wholesale crushing them. So I decided, I needed another project. I found myself planning a Hybrid, which in Land Rover terms does not mean what it sounds like to any other car enthusiast. A Land Rover hybrid is when you take the coil sprung chassis of a Range Rover Classic, Discovery 1, or Defender, and put a Series Land Rover body on top of it. It’s not a simple task, but not unachievable.

But why a Land Rover Hybrid? Why not get a “real” Series truck?

I’ve been eyeing up a Series truck lately, but I realized that my Land Rover social network has gotten pretty geographically diverse. Though I have great friends here in New Jersey, I also have close friends in Canada, the West Coast, the Rockies, and the South. Off-roading with them means a long Interstate drive. This works well with my Discovery and Range Rover. I decided that if I want a Series truck I’ll actually off-road, I need to make some concessions to creature comforts.

I need the extra power and highway speed capability of the Rover V8, as opposed to the 2.25-liter 4-cylinder in a Series truck that can’t reach the 75 m.p.h. speed limits across Nebraska and certainly can’t keep up with the real-world speeds of 80-85 m.p.h. Coil springs will smooth out the ride, making it easier to cover more miles in a day — I was able to cover almost 1,000 miles in a day in the Discovery on the Mother Country Trail trip last year with no physical issues. If I want to be able to make it to Denver in two days, I need to not be in pain at the end — and I can’t dread the drive home in two more days at the end either.

So my plan is to swap a 109″ Series IIA Regular body onto Spenny’s 108″ chassis. I can hide the extra inch in the wheel wells. I’m designing this for long-range roadtrips and topless summer cruising.

So, timelines. I now have three trucks, technically. I’m overhauling the Discovery 1 and the new Range Rover Classic this year. After that, it’s time for Project SpennyDeux.

The Disassembly

On Thanksgiving weekend, I towed him over to my friend Ben Smith’s house to put him in his Land Rover barn for disassembling.


Spenny leaving my driveway for the last time as a Range Rover Classic.


The disassembly began immediately. I’d already taken the front clip off at home, but I spent the rest of Thanksgiving weekend at Ben’s taking more parts off. Almost everything has been saved, put in yellow and black plastic Home Depot tubs. It’ll either be used on Butler’s restoration, saved for the Hybrid, or stored for spares.


Disassembling Spenny down to the body shell.


The rust was really bad. Here, you can see how the sill completely disappeared around the frame outrigger. Yet somehow, the frame is actually in good condition. This outrigger has some very mild surface rust — that’s it. I whacked it with screwdrivers and hammers and it’s solid.



By the middle of December, I had the shell mostly gutted and the roof unbolted.



After a trip to Death Valley over the New Year, it was time to wrap up. On Martin Luther King Day, Ben and I began cutting up the body shell, finishing it at the beginning of February. We left the front clip, bulkhead, and floor pan to protect the drive train I plan to reuse.



The result….



And Onward…

Next up is towing Spenny home and beginning to engineer the project. I won’t start on it until the others are done, but I can plot and plan. The more I do that, the easier it is to do it right out of the box. I’ll probably do a few updates here as that goes along this year, too.

Bringing Home Butler: My New 1994 Range Rover Classic County LWB

My Land Rover friends have been wrapped in the drama of Spenny, my rusty 1993 Range Rover County LWB, for the past five years. Spenny was my first car, a de facto replacement for the 1994 Discovery my parents bought new and planned to give me when I turned 16 in 2006. In late 2005, it got totalled in a Nor’Easter by a massive tree limb. I bought Spenny from another Land Rover enthusiast in Arlington, Virginia, towed him back to New Jersey, and put 50,000 miles of adventures on him from 2007 to 2015. Then like all Land Rovers of that era, he got quite rusty.

So, I sourced Duncan, my 1994 Discovery, as a “stopgap” car so I could take time to fix Spenny. A project himself, I spent months changing head gaskets, replacing bushings, and rewiring. Then I learned that buying cars that had been off the road for five years took a lot of work to drive again. So I spent a lot of time and money making it a pretty nice driver. Then I really liked the Discovery. I daily drove it. I drove it to rallies. I drove it to California. And Spenny sat.

Earlier this summer I tried to revive Spenny, but the rust was really, really bad. So I decided to source a rust-free body in the South to do a body swap. My friend Max Thomason found me one at his Land Rover shop in Atlanta, a 1994 County LWB. Black on the outside (sprayed over the original Montpelier red), with a rare-ish black leather interior, it was actually a pretty decent truck. It was supposed to have engine issues, but nobody was that sure. It had been sold to the shop in 2013 or so and used as a parts truck, but 98% of it was there. We struck a deal, I bought it for $500 with a title, and I booked a flight to Atlanta.

At some point, I realized that this rust-free body I planned to swap onto Spenny’s chassis…would also have a rust-free chassis. So, I decided that I’d just fix up the new one and make it the Spenny replacement second truck. Of course, for this new project, I could have probably picked a better base vehicle, but I was locked into this one at this point, and besides, I do love me a good Land Rover Reborn project. So here I am again…fixing up a truck that has been off the road for five years.

I stopped stripping out Spenny’s interior with the old plans to rebuild him and decided instead that I would transfer what was needed to the new truck, then strip Spenny down to a rolling chassis to be slowly tinkered with for some sort of future hybrid trail truck project. Duncan will need some work after the new Rangie is revived since I never totally finished that rebuild, so that was also a goal of the project. It’s tough when the truck is your daily driver; you can’t just let a project sit in the driveway and tinker with it when you feel like it, or you are never going anywhere. For example, I need to repair or replace all the door latches and lock actuators, but I can’t really drive without a latch!

Friday 7 September came, and my dad drove me to Newark Airport after work. I flew a Delta MD-88 down to Atlanta, fulfilling one of my AvGeek bucket list items. (More on that in a separate aviation-focused post.)


MD88 N932DL at Gate at EWR


Well, a quick video. The cool thing about the MD-88 is the old school low-bypass Pratt & Whitney JT8D engines, with a distinct sound you rarely hear these days. For AvGeeks, this is a cool thing, and we actually WANT to be in seat 33E next to the engines. Delta plans to retire the MD-88 fleet around 2020. Since I fly United most of the time out of EWR, this trip to Delta’s Atlanta superhub and MD-88 base was a good time to get this trip in. (It gets good around 1:50.)



It was a pretty quick flight down to ATL, and I passed it reading Chris Scott’s Desert Travels: Motorcycle Travels in the Sahara and West Africa. Scott’s various works on West Africa are favorites right now, since I have a bit of a dream to ship Duncan to England and replicate the Paris-Dakar Rally route. (This must include an early-morning run through Paris along the route of C’etait un Rendezvous.)

Max picked me up in his LR3, and we picked up burgers and beers at Grindhouse Killer Burgers. It’s a local chain, mostly in Atlanta with a few other Georgia locations, and the double Apache Style and a pitcher hit the spot. Terminal B at EWR has almost no food (compared to the cornucopia that is Terminal C), and all I had on the plane was a few of Delta’s iconic Biscoff cookies, so I was about to pass out.


Exterior View of Killer Burgers in Atlanta, Georgia


We headed back to Max’s house, kibitzed a bit, and checked out his Series III 109″, which he’s had since 1999. It’s an ex-MOD left-hand-drive vehicle. It may have also been used in one of the Reverend Billy Graham’s Crusades, according to previous owner lore. He and I have been looking into it a bit, and apparently, the Reverend broadcast a 1989 sermon from London to Africa via satellite, after which recordings were brought to remote villages. It’s possible this truck was one of those used to transport these recordings across Africa in “Mission 89.” More research is needed.


My friend Max's Series 3 Land Rover 109 Inch Station Wagon


I slept for a few hours, then we were up early to start the day. First off, though, a proper Southern brekkie at Home Grown, an Atlanta restaurant near Max’s house with some of the best chicken and biscuits I’ve ever had. Okay, actually, the only chicken and biscuits I’ve ever had. Still, it was one of the most epic breakfasts I’ve ever had, and I’m from New Jersey, home of Taylor Ham/Pork Roll.


Chicken and Biscuits at Home Grown restaurant in Atlanta


We picked the Penske truck and trailer up, which took about a half hour, and then headed across the center of Atlanta to the place where I was picking the truck up. Max had dealt with the paperwork, and the shop was closed, so it was already hauled outside the fence yesterday. I had him drive the Penske across the city’s notorious Downtown Connector, the stretch of I-75/85 that has some of the worst traffic in the country. It wasn’t bad early on Saturday morning, but I still took the chance to try out his LR3 in chase, briefly rethinking my choices in second vehicles.

And there it was: my glorious new truck. My third Rover of my own, fifth in my family. All there in its revived parts truck glory.


The first view of Butler, my new Range Rover Classic, before we load him on the trailer


Time was short, so we hooked the Rangie up to the LR3 and hauled it on, since the truck doesn’t run. This involved shackles, confusion, and using cell phones on speakerphone as walkie-talkies. Then, with a few test drives around the block, I was off, driving a box truck AND a trailer for the first time ever.


Picture of Butler loaded on the trailer


I didn’t have much time for social calls, but my timing was such that I could stop off to see my friends Jen and Greg, former members of my curling club who had just moved to the Atlanta area, without messing up my timeline (because a man’s gotta eat anyway!). We had a blast catching up — I really, really miss having them back at Plainfield.


Picture of me with my friends Greg and Jen with Butler


And so began…the schlep. First, South Carolina hit, and so Butler left Georgia, one seriously lucky former parts truck.


Picture of Butler with the South Carolina welcome sign


I had to swing by the BMW factory in Spartanburg, to get a picture with the sign. There was a cop protecting a DOT worker doing some lawn mowing, but he was nonplussed that I parked my giant truck right in front of the entrance.


Picture of Butler with the entrance sign to the BMW factory in South Carolina


I made it to Gastonia, North Carolina that night, after a lot of slow driving — I’m just not used to how wide a box truck is, the slow speed hauling a car behind it, and tracking the whole package together. It’s even tougher at night! I parked across six spots and crashed in my room until it was time to hit the road again.


Picture of Butler on trailer at Hampton Inn in Gastonia, North Carolina


The next day was a slog home. I had to get from Charlotte to New Jersey in time to sleep and go to work tomorrow. On paper, it’s not a bad drive, a bit over 600 miles. But the remnants of Tropical Storm Gordon were coming over Virginia and Pennsylvania, and after a calm ride through North Carolina, the rains started to pour somewhere around Roanoke, Virginia. Most of the day was a slog, going slow with the heavy, unwieldy load. As I got closer to Pennsylvania, it just got worse. The one highlight was crossing the Mason-Dixon Line, officially making Butler a Northern Truck.


Screenshot of my weather app on my phone showing remnants of Tropical Storm Gordon


Picture of Butler at a rainy rest area in Virginia



Pennsylvania was a slog, with rough roads — as I say, “Under Construction Since 1776.” Every joint in the road clattered the entire assembly, and I was sure I was either going to break the trailer in half or lose the Rangie.

Finally, around 10 PM, I pulled into the driveway. Too wiped to deal with anything, I left the whole Penske assembly (which I had through Thursday anyway) to deal with later and headed off to bed to go to work. Of course, with my luck, I ended up with strep throat when I woke up, so I spent most of the week working from home, feeling too crappy to work on the truck.

And so now, I have a fleet of three. It is only going briefly look like this, though. The old RRC LWB, Spenny, goes to a friend’s house soon, where I’m going to cut it down to a rolling chassis for a Range Rover Classic-styled off-road trail rig project. But I have to admit it’s pretty swank having three classic British luxury cars…all built between 22 February 1993 and 6 May 1994.


My full Land Rover fleet in my driveway. Duncan, my Discovery 1; Spenny, my 1993 Range Rover; and Butler, my 1994 Range Rover.


By the way, where’s the name Butler come from? Well, of course, that famous fictitious Georgian, Rhett Butler. I figured that Gone with the Wind was a good source for a name, especially as I’ve enjoyed visiting the Margaret Mitchell House several times over the years going to Atlanta for book industry conferences. My trucks tend to be male, contrary to the norm, and it was between Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes. Rhett is a bit rough around the edges, Ashley meant saying “Ashley, but it’s a guy” too much, and Wilkes has too much reference to the Wilks Brothers who created the Land Rover — Spenny was already named after Range Rover designer Spen King, and I wanted to go another way. So I figured Butler was a good name, and went well with the classy black-on-black color scheme and general Range Rover swankiness.

Now it’s the project of reviving a parts truck with unknown issues. I will be going through every inch of this truck the next few months, refining and improving and rebuilding. If getting the Discovery ready for the California trip was the Bachelor’s in Rovers, this is the Masters. As for the Ph.D., that’ll be whatever I do with Spenny! Keep an eye out for future blogs here on all these projects for sure.

Project ReSpenny: Day 2

Even getting the rebuild started, minor as the task was, last night felt like a huge accomplishment. My whole attitude towards the truck has now changed for the better. What was once a hulk that I had jammed in the corner of the driveway to get to eventually is now something that’s a real proposition with a future. Yeah, it was just two pieces of wood that I unscrewed last night. But I unscrewed them with intent and purpose I didn’t have before.

I’ve been reading up on the entire process of the body swap, as well as the components of stripping the interior out. It definitely is a major task, and perhaps slightly more major than I anticipated. But at the end of the day, it’s unscrewing, unbolting, unplugging — and documenting and labelling, the most important parts. There are so many odd discrepancies in Range Rover Classic wiring harnesses. Between electrics and mechanicals, there were tons of mid-year changes in these trucks. Things got stowed away and spliced in in all sorts of odd places.

I had bigger goals tonight, but I got home from work very close to dark, and by the time I ate and changed, it was effectively dark. But the goal of the project is at least one item on the list completed every night, and so tonight’s goal got reduced to just removing the driver’s knee board.

Around 2011, I added a CB radio in the truck — a big, honking, chrome-trimmed Cobra unit I got on eBay. At that point, it was no big deal to just drill into the dash panel to install a bracket to hold it…so I did that. Now, as I undid those self-tapping screws, I thought of how that panel is probably worth a hundred dollars or more without those holes. But no matter in this case, I’m putting it back soon enough in the rebuilt truck.

Breaker breaker niner niner!

Tossing out Benjamins…I worked my way around, and finally got the kick panel out, with a bit of massaging to get it fully free without breaking the fragile plastic. The whole thing has little acorns living in the foam. With the moisture that’s been hanging out in here, the dirt, and being 25 years old, I’m going to think about how to replace this foam stuff. It’ll be at the mirror end of the project in many months, so it’s not urgent, but this is a bit janky.

The moisture inside the truck in general isn’t great at all, and I’m going to really have to pay attention to wiring and textiles to prevent issues after reassembly. But that attention to detail is what excites me about this project, honestly. With the truck already laid up for years, my OCD can go wild.

And there is a LOT of wiring. The black box with “RANGE ROVER” on it is the alarm ECU module. I’m not sure it even has a bracket holding it in. They seem to have just jammed it in a corner. If only I had the remote to go with it! Maybe I’ll seek one out as a finishing touch at the end.

“Hey, Donnie, think it can go there?” “Sure. To the pub!”The panel is out, another step done. Tomorrow, since I’m working home on a nice sunny day, I’m planning to get a little more progress. But it’s a journey, not a race, as my friend/accountability partner Nathan said, and the goal is to not break anything and enjoy the journey.

Because breaking stuff gets expensive now that people actually love these great trucks.

Another piece out.

Project ReSpenny: Day 1

The first piece, removed.

Now that I’ve introduced Project ReSpenny, it’s time to begin the accountability blog. This is a large-scale project, and to keep it on pace requires doing a little something every day.

The advantage this project has over my Discovery 1 rebuild before the Mother Country Trail trip is that the Range Rover Classic is very clearly not my daily driver. Things can come apart and sit for a bit without worrying about getting to work. Jobs can be done properly and thoroughly with serious attention to detail.

The other advantage to this is that I can really pace the entire project around my life. Preparing for the cross-country trip was difficult, as I tried to balance work and an impending to-do list. But this project can go at a more relaxed pace. Since I know that I can get home late from work a lot, often very stressed, I’ve decided that the goal is that I have to do one task — only one task — a night. The first step of the project is to disassemble the dashboard assembly.

The dashboard on a Range Rover Classic is notoriously delicate. A bunch of hard plastic and wood pieces held together by screws, it’s part of the gloriously primitive nature of the RRC. However, a quarter of a century later, a lot of these hard plastic pieces have a tendency to crack as you try to take them apart. A few cracked tabs and the whole dash will never fit together quite right ever again.

The first piece to take off is the wood fascia that holds the air conditioning vents — a glorious slab of “Mediterranean Poplar” veneer, unique to the 1993 Range Rover Classic County LWB. Some things on the truck are not in great shape, but this veneer actually is pretty nice all things considered. It’s held on by 15 screws between two sections, but somehow when I got everything out of there I only had about half as many — and none of them matched. Needless to say, I’ll be replacing hardware as part of the project.

The rest of the fascia panel looks decent. There are brackets that hold it to the plastic, and they do have some surface rust. But I can definitely tidy that a bit and paint them up again to prevent further moisture damage. They’re screwed on to the back of the fascia with little tiny screws, which are probably best left undisturbed.

Do Not Poke the Bear...
Do Not Poke the Bear…

Removing these two panels took about ten minutes, and then about fifteen more to package up the screws, tidy the fascias a bit, and put them in the back of the truck for storage. But sub-half-hour tasks are perfect for this endeavor. They’re the kinds of things I can do even if it was a really long, stressful day at work.

Tomorrow’s goal is to take off the dash top — nothing more. The goal is to post here to maintain accountability, in addition to reporting to some fellow Range Rover Classic fan friends on progress. The posts are going to be titled with “Day X,” but those days need not be consecutive. Every time I do just a little bit, it counts as one of the #SpennyDaysandNights that make up this project.

Day 1 Result.
Day 1 Beginning.
Day 1 Result. Yes, I know the steering wheel is more than a bit mildew-y…but it’s been flaking in my hands for years, and I’m hoping to put an 80s 4-spoke on there!
Organizational tactics.

Project ReSpenny: The Plan

In February 2007, my parents bought me a 1993 Land Rover Range Rover County LWB. It came from a fellow Land Rover owner in Virginia, it had lived its life between New Jersey and Washington, D.C., and though it needed a little work, it was a solid truck. A fourteen-year-old modern classic, the Rangie got me through high school and college, and was my gateway drug into the Land Rover community.

But I didn’t really know what I was doing with these things until a few years hanging around the Land Rover community hands-on. One thing I didn’t get was where and how badly these things can rust. So, in oblivion, I continued driving it around the salty Northeast, as crossmembers and sills and body mounts started to chip away.

Finally, in early 2015, I realized that my beloved Range Rover Classic needed a lot of repairs. It was rusting. It needed a brake job. I kept having to replace the exhaust to pass emissions. I’d gone through several pretty bad ignition issues that had led to some tense off-road group trips. The driver’s door was literally falling off. It was time to get a new daily driver, so I got my Discovery 1, a project on its own. I rebuilt it, drove it around the Northeast, did a lot of work, drove it to California, and decided that now I felt pretty good about myself and wanted to deal with the old RRC.

At this point, the rust has gotten pretty bad from sitting off to the side of the driveway for several years. The sills are totally soft; the bottom of the A-pillar on the driver’s side having fallen on the ground of its own volition. I have a welder, but it’s clear the only rational solution here is to do a frame-up rebuild with a new body shell from a truck being otherwise scrapped. The chassis is pretty good, and many body sections are surprisingly solid, but what’s bad is very bad and above my beginner’s skill set.

Body swaps, however, seem not that difficult, in a relative way. They do it a lot in the United Kingdom, with both Range Rover Classics and Discoverys. It’s even common now with the Discovery Series II here; a poor-quality rear frame section design means a lot of really solid bodies and drivetrains are getting new galvanized chassis underneath them. So…why not my truck?

The plan is a Northeast-proof truck. At the least, I will be galvanizing the frame. I’d love to galvanize the new bodyshell, something that some people have, in fact, done. Everything will get rust-prevention coatings. All of the rubber will be new from bushings to belts and hoses. Some parts will be off-road uprated, and as that part of the project comes along, cash permitting it may become a mid-tier off-road beast. The interior will get renovated some. The entire truck will get a ten-foot paint job — the best part about a Range Rover Classic is that the body panels bolt to the inner bodyshell, so while the core of the truck won’t be mine, the outside will be almost all original material, my dents and all. Only thing is, I’ve always hated the Beluga Black, so I’m thinking a change of shade might be in order.

This is not a minor task. It’s not an economically intelligent task, perhaps. I could have one of my friends from the Mendo_Recce list in California find me a stunning western Range Rover Classic, truck it home or have another epic roadtrip, and drive it here. But just one winter stored outside, driving on salty highways, will send it down the same path. The only way to have your cake and eat it too is to do something like this — a frame-off no-holds-barred winter defense.

When I took this truck off the road in the spring of 2015, this whole project was an optimistic pipe dream. It’s a pathetically sentimental endeavour, for sure; I’ve tried and failed to junk this truck several times now as it’s sat in the driveway stationary.

Now, three years later, I’m ready to tackle it and see every challenge that it can bring on. I love nothing more than blazing trails in the Land Rover world, and this is a great chance to go off-piste.

Mother Country Trail 2018, Day T-30: Sealing the Deal, Part 1

Snow fell on New Jersey again, but this time it didn’t seem to match the forecast in a good way, not a bad one. A few inches certainly accumulated, but it hasn’t matched the fury of a few weeks ago. So, with electricity powering the lights, heater and stereo in the garage, it was time to dive back into the case.

First I sealed the rear housing with The Right Stuff. I got it in a 5 oz. caulk gun package, which makes it a lot easier to dispense. Then the bolts were torqued and I attached the front housing.

Once I had the front housing attached, I continued through the order of operations in the manual. Now, the manual is designed for use in a dealer service bay setting, I assume with a full set of factory tools, parts, and components on hand. One of these components is a core plug that goes in the end of the differential lock shaft. I’m pretty OCD about this stuff, but even that is a bit beyond my level of detail. I smacked and torqued the front housing on only to see the error of doing things “in order.”

So, off the front housing came, and I rebuilt the diff lock selector fork to spec. At this point, the old Right Stuff, which now had to be cleaned off to re-attach the housing, hadn’t even dried yet, so I decided to wrap for the night and deal with it tomorrow when it would be easier to clean off.

This is how I felt after all this.

The good thing is, at this point, if I have no further issues, I think this can be sealed up tomorrow, and I can turn to the transmission fixes over the next few days. On the one hand, I’m stressing the timeline; on the other, I’m looking at the list, and this is the biggest chunk. There’s a lot of transmission work as part of this, which is new territory for me, but after that’s done and the bottom of the truck is buttoned up, what should be left is a lot less dirty and a lot less intense. At some point, I’ll also get into interior prep for the journey, which is the fun part! I have to start thinking up what to do there so my dad and I can fire up the Walker-Turner in a few weeks and fab up a sleeping/storage setup. At some point I want to fab up a really nice semi-permanent setup, but before I make that investment I think it’s a good idea to experiment with a few ideas and see what works in the field.

We’re just over four weeks, but everything is fine.

Soundtrack: Dire Straits, Brothers in Arms; Green Day, American Idiot