Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas, everyone.

I'm not much of a holiday person but it's still a good time to think back on the year and consider everything that I (each and every one of us, really) have to be thankful for. I particularly want to recognize and thank all of you - readers and members of my online community - for making me welcome, and for giving me your support and encouragement. At the same time, I try and forget all the miserable stuff that makes me depressed . . . . and I hope for a brighter year in 2010 . . . .

I was going to put up an online form where people could sign up and join my Christmas Card Mailing list but I just did not get it together in time. Therefore, for those of you who missed my annual Christmas card by mail, I have here a hi-res downloadable version . . . And i promise to have the sign up form online in plenty of time for Christmas 2010.

I like to use my own photos for cards. This card depicts an old Buick Invicta at the Hemmings Classic Car Show which was held in Vermont in July 2009 I chose it for the vivid red and blue, which was almost as Christmasy as vivid red and green, which I did not have in my image library.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A simple brake job isn't always as simple as it looks

Many people have suggested that they can have a quick lube or corner garage do the "easy work" on their high end car, while leaving the "tough jobs" for specialists like Robison Service. That sounds like a good idea, but how do you know what the easy jobs are?

Oil changes used to be simple, but that's out the window on many cars. BMW and Mercedes dropped the dipstick, so you check level through the dash. Most cars have some complex procedure to reset the oil reminder. Many require special oils and the other fluids (like coolant) are often brand or even model-specific too. Can your corner garage get that right? And who buys the engine if they don't?

I'm not suggesting you abandon local service. What I suggest is that you have talks with your various service providers and make sure they can actually handle what you want of them. Blissful ignorance and incompetence are the bane of the auto service trade.

I'd like to show you an example of how simple service has gotten complex on a modern Land Rover. Join me while we slap some brakes on a late model LR3 . . .

In this photo you can see the brake and strut assembly. The new pads and rotors are in place and the wheels are hanging, ready to fit the tires. Do you see the strut assembly inboard of the brake? It's full of air, and the air charge is sometimes lost when the vehicle if put on a lift for a few hours. Most of the time it recovers, but occasionally, it doesn't, and it goes into fault mode.

When that happens, the fix is simple. Just hook your $10,000 IDS or Autologic system to the car and reset air suspension. Presto, you're set. But what if you don't have an IDS or Autologic . . . .??

If that's the case, you have an even bigger problem, because you can't set up the parking brake without one. Here our technician uses one of our test systems to release the parking brake cables on this LR3. If the tester isn't used properly the result is usually a smoked parting brake a few hundred miles down the road, and a fresh $800 repair bill.

It's still possible to do some work on these new vehicles at home, and local garages can still handle quite a bit of general service. For example, anyone can swap pads only - no special tools are needed for that. However, these particular Rovers are notorious for eating up rotors. Here's a worn out one to prove my point at 25,000 miles . . . .

The trick is knowing the limits of what you can do without special tools. In one of my last posts I wrote about all the trouble I had over a wrong spark plugs brand in another Land Rover. Sometimes there is just no substitute for experience.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Time for brakes and struts?

This is the look of new brakes and struts on a Porsche . . .

Struts need to be changed when they blow out. When that happens, the side of the strut will be black with dirty oil, and the vehicle will bounce like a pogo stick over bumps. All too often people look at struts during other service, and they say "These look okay" if they are dry.

But are struts really okay, just because they're not leaking?

In this car, the struts were not visibly failed. However, the car was 8 years old, and the struts had over 60,000 miles on them. In the mind of this particular owner - a driver enthusiast - that was reason enough to take the strut loose for inspection.

That proved to be a good call. When compressed and extended on the workbench, there was a night and day difference in the damping power of the old struts versus the new replacements. The old struts hardly had any damping left, it seemed. And when we installed them that feeling translated into much firmer handling. The car once again drove like new. It just goes to show, a quick visual check often fails to tell the whole story.

What about brakes? Can they be checked visually?

In the "before" photo above, you can see a ridge along the outer circumference of the brake rotor. That visible ridge is a sign the rotor is at or near the wear limit. How do I know? Simple . . . modern cars don't have a huge margin for allowable wear. But the time the wear is visible at the rotor edge, you are near the end. If you want to know more precisely, you can gauge the rotor and look up the thickness in the workshop manual, but this rule of thumb will serve you well most of the time.

There is also a good rule of thumb for pads. Most European carmakers say pads should be changed when the friction material is worn to the same thickness as the metal backing plate. You can't see that in this photo, but if you'd crawled into the monitor and looked sideways you'd surely have seen the worn pads.

Max Klawath and the Global Detour

Everyone should do something fun before they are 25. I had my years with rock n roll bands and sound companies. Today I’d like to introduce you to Max Kawlath, a German fellow who’s going round the world in a Land Rover at 23. So far he's been to France, Spain , Italy, Switzerland, Finland, Norway, Holland, England, The Faroes, Iceland, Canada and now the USA

Here's Max's Land Rover. It's a well equipped Defender 110

All Defenders are capable off road. We had to be careful with this one in brushy terrain because he has a roof top camper setup.

I met Max at the Amherst Brewery this Saturday night. He came down from Canada, where he landed when his Rover was shipped from Iceland. He stayed with my friend Julie Jones, who is hosting him here through a group called Couch Surfing

Max is on Facebook, and he has a website, Global Detour where you can follow his journey.

When I heard he was coming to town I called my friend Dave Rifken and we got our three Rovers together for what turned out to be Max’s first experience snow driving. Here are Max and Dave, on their respective Defenders:

Here are a few shots of our run . . .

We went up and over Mount Toby at the end of our day. The area is popular with hikers, and we met a group of four lost in the middle of the woods. I don’t think they had any grasp of the difficulties they’d have been in once it got dark out there. Anyway, I stuffed them into my red Discovery and brought them out of the woods.

It’s not often that we see foreign vehicles in Western Massachusetts. It was really cool, having Max and his Land Rover pass through on his way round. We wish him the best of luck in his travels . . .

Friday, December 4, 2009

Check those axles before you find yourself walking . . .

With winter coming it’s a good idea to check your car’s axles and cv joints. If you read the auto magazines, you’re already getting lots of advice about batteries, antifreeze, and wiper blades. But I’ll bet you haven’t heard a peep about axles, till now. Why not, you ask? Axles aren’t cute or sexy, and they aren’t sold by mass merchandisers. Yet they will strand you more completely than anything short of a broken timing belt.

How could such an important part of your car be so badly overlooked? I don’t know. But there you have it. Today, I am going to take you on a journey toward automotive enlightenment.

Have you considered how the power gets from your car’s engine to its wheels? Many of you know there’s a transmission between the engine and wheels, and some know there’s a differential, the thing that allows the wheels to roll at different speeds on corners.

Some of you know the differential as the thing that lets you get stuck, for it’s the differential that lets one wheel sit still on dry pavement while the opposite wheel spins helplessly on ice.

What connects that differential to the wheels? Axles. The axles are shafts with flexible joints on each end, to allow them to bend up and down as the suspension moves and the wheels steer. Those flexible joints are called cv joints, or constant velocity joints.

Each joint is packed in grease and wrapped in a flexible rubber boot. Joints are supposed to last the life of the car, but they seldom do. What happens is this: The rubber boot cracks and splits, which allows the grease to escape and gritty dirt to get in. When gravel gets exchanged for grease, the joint soon fails, and it comes apart. As soon as that happens, passengers in the vehicle experience the thrill of pedestrian conversion.

Pedestrian life isn’t too bad if it happens somewhere like New York’s Fifth Avenue, but it totally sucks at 2AM on a snowy night in Vermont. Unfortunately, that’s when joints tend to fail.

You see, a boot can crack during the summer and nothing much happens. The grease escapes slowly, but nothing really gets in to hurt the innards. However, when winter arrives, everything changes. The grease gets cold, and it gets thrown off more easily. At the same time, the axle is sprayed with wet salty water from winter roads. A joint that would survive months in the summer can come apart in weeks or days in a new England winter.

And there is no warning that this is going on . . . unless you look. So that is what I urge you to do. Here are some photos to guide you.

In this first shot, you can see a complete undamaged axle. The axle is the black shaft extending across the frame from the left. You can see the rubber boot at the axle’s right end. The wheel hub is on the far right, and the tire would be fastened to that. Chances are, you’ll see something similar if you look under your own car.

This is what a broken boot looks like. In fact, you are looking at the very same axle, when it arrived at our shop. My thumb is spreading the split boot to make it more visible. You can see the beginnings of dirt working their way into the axle.

Here’s what the axle looks like removed from the car. Now the damage is obvious.

This is what the joint looks like inside. As you can imagine, it does not thrive on dirt and salt water

And here we are, fixing the thing. Master technician Bob Toti has taken the axle apart and fitted new boots on each end after cleaning the joints and packing them with fresh grease. The whole process takes a few hours, but it’s vital to the car’s health.

Today, the roads are clean and dry. Tomorrow it may snow. Check your axles and cv joints now.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The persistent check engine light

Last week, we had a Land Rover in our shop with a check engine light. The first step with any warning light is to connect the diagnostic system to the car’s service port to see what its computers have to say. Sometimes the tester points you straight to a repair; other times the results are more ambiguous.

In this case we had a simple fault, a misfire on cylinder #3. Unfortunately, it wasn’t acting up at the moment we tested it. If the car had a misfire code and it was actually missing, diagnosis would be easy. But repairs seldom play out that way. This particular Rover was running just fine but it had that code. It also had brand new Bosch spark plugs fitted. Could it have a defective plug? Maybe. A flaky plug wire was also a possibility. We decided to change the #3 plug and the wire.

The car drove 200 miles before setting the same fault codes. At that point, we figured we had eliminated the plug and the wire, so the next step was the coil pack. We changed that, and the car went 100 miles and set the #3 misfire again.

We were now on our third try with a simple-seeming misfire. What should we do? I considered our plight. The car had a new coil, new wires, and new plugs. There seemed to be three possibilities:

1) The diagnostic equipment might be lying to us as to the nature of the fault.
2) One or more of the new parts might be defective.
3) The car might have some really bizarre problem that will defy resolution a bit longer

In my time as a service manager, I have seen all three situations. In this case, I had already tested the car with two different diagnostic systems, both of which said the same thing. Either they are colluding to trick me, or the car really has a #3 miss. I ruled out the possibility of lying test equipment for now.

I knew the car might have a one-of-a-kind problem, but I hoped it didn’t. The easiest possibility to test was the parts. I decided to start with spark plugs. I replaced the eight new Bosch plugs with a set of genuine Land Rover plugs.

The problem went away. I cringed, thinking we swapped all that other stuff and the problem was wrong plugs, all the time. We had started with plugs, but I had simply replaced the new Bosch plug with another new Bosch plug. I had not thought to try a different kind of plug.

We relied on the parts catalog, which told us what Bosch plug was right for the car. Obviously, the catalog was wrong for this particular vehicle. It would be easy to say, those people at Bosch just sell incompatible parts! But I have seen many other Land Rovers with those same plugs, and they don’t miss. I know from experience that those Bosch plugs work just fine in many Rovers. Did I get a batch of bad plugs? Or is this car particularly sensitive? We have no way of knowing. All I know is, it’s fixed.

What can we learn from that experience? Some cars are very sensitive to spark plug brand, and this model of Rover may be one of them. Next time I plug plugs in a 2003 Discovery, I will make sure they are genuine Land Rover plugs.

Parts compatibility is a big problem in this industry. Bosch is the world’s largest auto parts maker. They sell millions of spark plugs to car makers every year, and millions more to the aftermarket. Yet their plug did not work in this car.

Yet there are other situations where an aftermarket part is better. For example, Bilstein shocks outperform the stock Rover shocks every time. But how do you know which parts will be better, and which ones worse? There is no substitute for experience, and sometimes it’s hard won.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A few of today's cars . . .

Here are a few of the cars at Robison Service this fall day . . . .

We've got a Bentley Continental at the end of restoration, waiting on stereo:

Here's a Mercedes with a fried transmission, waiting for some new gears

This Turbo R just arrived to be prepped for painting:

Mercedes G Wagens are rare anytime, but we have two of them here today, a green grey market truck and a black US model:

A Mercedes waits its turn . .

Land Rover master tech Paul Ferreira puts brakes on a Supercharged Range Rover:

Master Tech Bud Orlich puts a door frame into a vintage Rolls Royce

At the same time, a diesel Beetle gets a new turbocharger:

Bosch Master Bob Toti sorts out a tail gate latch in a 2006 BMW wagon. This car proved highly resistant to repair but we prevailed in the end

Jon Miglitz is swapping cam cover gaskets on this Mercedes

This is a neat project. It's a 1973 BMW 2002 that's here for total mechanical restoration and paint and interior. This is going to be better than new when it's done . . .

This one was a little too far gone, and we sold it on eBay for $203:

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Getting ready for winter

Is the car you drive every day ready for the cold weather to come? If your not sure, read on for a few suggestions to help you on the way . . .

Everything begins with the battery. If your battery is dead, you aren’t going anywhere. Batteries last 3-4 years in most cars, and they tend to fail without warning during extremes of hot or cold. If your battery is four years old I suggest you replace it because it’s on borrowed time. How do you know its age, you ask? Many batteries are stamped with a date code that your service technician can read. Failing that, you should keep service records, and some motorists can actually lay their hands on such things!

Well equipped shops have battery testers that can warn you of a battery’s impending demise but in my opinion it safer to just change them on a time schedule because I’ve seen batteries that tested 80% fail totally on the next subzero morning. Test technology only goes so far, I guess . . .

How are your windshield wipers and washers? You really need them in winter, so this is the time to replace marginal blades. We’ve had good luck with the new Bosch Ikon blades, which are all-rubber so they don’t freeze and jam like traditional metal-and-rubber wipers.

Washer nozzles can clog (you can clean them with strands of wire) and get bent out of aim. Fix them now, and make sure your washer reservoir is filled with the right washer solvent. Don’t know where the solvent goes? On most cars the washer reservoir is white or translucent and has a pop off lid, as shown. Most washer fluid is light blue in color.

The next item to check is your coolant, which is also called antifreeze. Early cars used water in their cooling systems. Not any more! Newer vehicles use sophisticated chemical blends to achieve the combination of cooling efficiency and corrosion reduction that today’s cars require.

Coolant absorbs chemicals from the engine, and it can become corrosive if it’s left in a car too long. That’s why most car makers suggest changing coolant every three or four years, even if you don’t drive a lot.

For many years there was only one kind of antifreeze, which was green in color. Many of today’s cars use special coolants that have additives to protect the various metals and plastics in modern engines. In our shop, we’ve learned to use BMW coolant in BMW cars, and Jaguar coolant in Jaguars. If you drive a late model import it almost surely takes special coolant. I suggest you follow the manufacturer recommendations in this area because I’ve seen the wrong coolant cause leaks, clogs, and even overheating failures.

The coolant reservoir for the engine usually has a screw-on lid and it’s filled with green coolant in older cars. In newer vehicles the coolant can be yellow, red, or dark blue. Don’t confuse those two liquids!

In the picture above I'm pointing to the washer reservoir. The coolant reservoir is to the right.

How’s your heat? We don’t pay much attention to our car’s heater during summer, but we’ll be needing heat any day now. In a modern car, a weak or inoperative heater is usually a sign of other problem, like low coolant or a stuck thermostat.

The final thing to check is your tires. Where I live we fit snow tires, and this is the time to be doing that. In other areas people use the same tires year round, but it’s important to make sure you have good tread. Remember that a tire can wear unevenly, so it looks good on the outside edge but the inside or center is totally bald. Don’t be fooled by tire trickery!

If you do have uneven wear it’s probably a sign your car needs alignment.

The staff at Robison Service are always here to answer your questions and resolve any service needs. Remember that it’s always less costly to maintain your car preventatively that to respond to breakdowns.

We are located at 347 Page Boulevard in Springfield, Massachusetts. Call 413 785 1665 or email service manager Maribeth White at

John Robison

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

All you ever wanted to know about . . Land Rover V8 Engine Failures

Welcome to John Elder Robison's Land Rover pages.  My latest story in on collectible Land Rover models from the 1990s. This next story is about liner and block failure in V8 engines and it's current as of Jan 2018 . . .

Land Rover V8 Engine failure
Land Rover V8 liner failure
Land Rover engine block failure
Land Rover Discovery engine problems

There’s a problem in the Land Rover world. Engines in Discovery II and P38 Range Rovers are dying, and I’m about to tell you why . . .

The story begins at the foundry in Solihull, England, where Land Rover engine blocks were cast from aluminum alloy. The block is the innermost component of the engine; it’s the foundation everything else is built upon. After the engines are cast the rough holes for the cylinders are bored out and finished. After that, eight sections of steel tube are pressed into place, one for each bore. After being cut off and machined flush, those tubes become the cylinder liners. It’s those blocks and liners that are going bad.

At the plant, the raw aluminum blocks are expanded by heating, while the liners are shrunk by chilling. The block swells to maximum size, while the liners contract as much as possible. At that point, the two are pressed together. Even then, the liners are a tight fit into the block, but that’s what powerful hydraulic rams are for. Once in place, the liners expand for an even tighter fit. They are there to stay, or at least, that was the idea.

Unfortunately, things did not quite work out that way. The liners started moving, and engines began failing. How could that happen? The liners are subject to constant up-and-down forces as the pistons move within them in the running engine. In some engines, the press fit between steel liner and aluminum block just wasn’t tight enough to last.

When Land Rover started making V8 engines – thirty-plus years ago – the tooling was all fresh and everything was spot on. The engineers had calculated exactly how big the block bores should be, and what diameter was needed for the liner tubes. When those liners were pressed in place, they never moved.

Whatever else went wrong with Land Rover engines, the blocks stayed strong. And that was good, because it seemed like everything else gave trouble. Some would say, the vehicles required a lot of tinkering. Such is the British way.

That’s how it was for the first couple decades of engine production. Most engines don’t last that long on the production line, but the Land Rover V8 held on. Other manufacturers introduced more sophisticated overhead cam engines, but Rover stood firm with the old 1960s vintage pushrod V8.

I wish I could say that was a testament to its wonderful design, but the truth is, Rover really didn’t have the money or engineering resources to develop a replacement. The longer it stayed in production the more worn the tooling became. Machines that originally bored holes with an accuracy of a few ten-thousands of an inch lost their precision. In some cases, the tolerances slipped by a factor of ten. The result? Some engines left the factory with tight liners, while others were a tiny bit loose. Those were the engines that began failing.

The designers knew that steel and aluminum expand at different rates when heated. And car engines make the transition from cold to hot every time they are run. So it was absolutely vital that the steel liners be fitted tightly enough that they would never move, no matter hot how the engine got. When the tooling was new, that was what happened. When the tooling wore out, the liners weren’t always so tight anymore.

The block problems were compounded by ongoing engine development. The first Rover engines displaced 3.5 liters and made a little over 120 horsepower. In thirty years the displacement grew by 35% and power almost doubled. The displacement increase meant there was less metal in the block to soak up heat and energy, and the power increase meant there was a lot more to handle.

At the same time, today’s need for fuel efficiency and low emissions has resulted in significantly higher operating temperatures, especially inside the combustion chamber. That puts even more stress on an old design.

Problems began appearing in the early 2000s. Mechanics began talking about “dropped liners,” a phrase I’d never encountered before. The constant heat cycling as the engine ran combined with the running motion and caused the liners to break loose. When they did, coolant leaked around them into the combustion chambers, and the engines failed. The solution: a new engine block, and a repair bill near $10,000.  Current overhaul costs (winter 2017-18) with the new flanged liners run $12-15,000 parts and labor, removed and installed.

As you can imagine, owners were outraged. To most people, the engine block is like the back seat. You just take it for granted, and it lasts the life of the vehicle. It does not wear out or fail. It’s not a wear item like a fan belt, tire, or spark plug. Yet the blocks were failing, and in large numbers.

I wrote an article about the situation a few years ago, and we developed a way to repair the blocks. We used sleeves with flanges on top, referred to as “top hat” liners. The flange kept them from moving up and down, and the problem seemed solved. Unfortunately, it wasn’t permanent.

Failures happened when the engine got hot enough that thermal expansion made the liner loose in the block casting. For most people, that meant liner failure followed what we euphemistically called a thermal incident. In other words, the engines failed after the cars were overheated. The initial overheating could be caused by anything – water pump leakage, fan belt failure, or a blown hose.

The out-of-place liner was a visible evidence of failure, but some engines had more serious problems hidden inside. It turned out that the overheating was also causing cracks in the aluminum block castings. Sometimes the cracks allowed oil and coolant to mix, leading to another engine failure. Other times, cracks allowed combustion gases to get into the coolant, which led to another thermal incident.

That was when we saw our first Rover that had combustion gases leaking into the coolant with no prior history of overheating. And when the motor was torn down for inspection, all the liners were in place and there was no sign of thermal damage. Yet the block failed a pressure test where we applied compressed air to the cylinder to simulate what happens when pressures build up as the motor runs. The air leaked right into the coolant passages. How could that be?

We removed the leaky liner, and made an alarming discovery. The aluminum casting that should have supported the liner had rotted away. The inside of the block looked like a piece of decomposing cheese. It was an ugly situation, one of the only failures for which we could see no repair option. It was like looking at rusted floor boards . . . at a certain point, there is no solid metal left to fix.

Since that time, we have seen a few more engines failed in the same way. Other blocks that didn't rot, cracked instead.  The symptoms can be subtle at first. There may be slow loss of coolant, and the truck may develop a misfire as spark plugs become fouled by white deposits from coolant that leaks in and burns.

We’ve been wondering what would cause this new, severe, failure and I think we’ve got some answers.

The first problem is the tooling. As the tooling aged, production tolerances became sloppier and sloppier. We’ve seen new engine castings with actual holes where the aluminum failed to fill in. Overall production quality on the last pushrod V8 engines was a far cry from what we saw at the beginning.

That means the last crop of engine blocks – those made from the late 1990s through the end of production in 2005 – are weaker than the blocks that came before. That makes them more vulnerable to corrosion because there’s less consistency in the metal. Something must have changed, since these blocks have been in production a long time and we’ve never before seen these gross corrosion failures.

That’s where the second issue comes in - the coolant. In 1999, Rover began using Dex-Cool in place of the green coolant they’d used for the previous thirty-some years. There have been some recent lawsuits alleging corrosion when Dex-Cool is used in late model engines, and the revelations of those cases may shed some light on the Land Rover situation.

It appears that Dex-Cool can react with the materials in the engine if there is an excess of air in the cooling system, as happens when the level is low. Dex-Cool can also react with other coolants, something that happens if old style green coolant is added to the system.

I believe those are the issues that underlie the current block failures, but I can’t rule out the possibility that something more is going on. What does it mean for you? I’ll close with some specific tips for any of you who own or service 1999-2004 Land Rover Discovery or P38 Range Rovers.

First, I urge you to follow Rover’s recommendation and change your coolant every 30,000 miles. It’s very important that you use the correct Dex-Cool product. If your system has been contaminated by mixing several types of coolant, flush it thoroughly before filling.

Before you drive, always make sure the expansion tank is full to the proper level. Don’t drive the vehicle if the level is low, and don’t drive it at all if it’s overheated.

Finally, if you work on these cars pay close attention to the cooling system pressure. One early giveaway of block failure is high pressure in the system before the engine is really warm. I’ve seen Rovers that pressurize the radiator hoses rock hard while the engine is still cold. That’s a sure sign of a serious internal problem.

Another thing to look for is white deposits on spark plugs. If you see six or seven clean-looking plugs and one or two fouled with white a deposit, that’s a sign of coolant intrusion into the cylinders.

I wish I could close with a quick and easy answer, but I’m afraid there’s no such thing. It’s a serious problem that can be managed but if you experience a failure, the only cure that has lasted is overhaul with new pistons and flanged liners.  We at Robison Service are proud to have pioneered that process in North America.

I have an article about that situation here that covers the decision process

This article tells all you want to know about the flanged liner overhaul

Land Rover V8 engine with flanged "top hat" liners at Robison Service

We keep a stock of rebuildable blocks at Robison Service, and we continue to overhaul client engines.  This article describes the ex-Buick V8 engine.  We also support the Land Rover diesels, and the new Jaguar-derived V6 and V8 power plants used through the current model year.

Until next time,
John Elder Robison

John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, restoration and repair specialists in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the Land Rover, Mercedes, and Rolls Royce Owner's Clubs, and he’s owned and restored many of these fine vehicles.  His company has been independent Land Rover service specialists since their return to North America in 1987.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Two days at the British Invasion, 2009

This article also appears in print, in the Rover News
Words and pictures (c) 2009 John Elder Robison

It’s that time of year again. Last weekend, I left my Massachusetts home for a trip to the wilds of Northern Vermont, all in the name of British Motoring. I’m a diehard Land Rover lover, but the 2.5 diesel Defender is too slow for a five-hundred-mile road trip and the Range Rover was out of town. And this year I wanted plush. So I climbed into the Big Red Bentley and headed north. I moved out onto I-91 and muscled my way past pugnacious thugs in Escalades and granola-powered Prius drivers. My speed climbed as I approached the border. I tried to hold it back, but there's only so much one can do.

The car had a nasty shake at 85, but it smoothed out nicely over 110. Most cars struggle to attain those speeds but this brute takes them in stride. At the century mark the engine is just above fast idle, at 1,900 rpm. You’ve got six inches of travel remaining in the gas pedal, and 2,500 rpm to go on the tach. There’s a certain magic to five hundred horsepower. I wish Land Rover had a product like this. Perhaps one day I will stuff a Turbo R engine into a 110 County to create one.

We ate up the road all the way to White River, where I took a left onto 89 North. My Beast coasted down as the exit approached, rolling past the Exit 30MPH sign at a smooth 75. I hit the bend and slewed my way around, exiting onto 89 with a subtle trail of smoke. A tip of the throttle and I was back to speed for the final run in to Stowe.

I reached my hotel only to find it was Under New Management, a euphemism for, "I'm sorry sir, your room reservation has vanished." Grabbing the hapless clerk by the throat, he regurgitated the key to 124, the room I have occupied for years, which to his great good fortune was as yet empty. I wandered down the hall, where a wedding dinner was in progress. I shared some fine wine and cheese before being found out and evicted. Afterward, suitably fortified, I cruised down the hill into Stowe.

By the time I arrived the block party was in full swing. I made sure my car was well hidden out behind the hotel before walking over the covered bridge to town. A Beatles tribute band was playing, and an intoxicated female dragged me into a dance as I passed. I tried to extricate myself as two drunken revelers snapped pictures. I was saved by the arrival of a freak in a Chicken Costume, singing at the top of his lungs while swinging a golf club to clear a path to the bar.

A short while later I was joined by my friend Dave Rifken with his 1997 Defender 90

Dave and I headed to the Blue Moon Grille, where we were seated and fed immediately, thanks to the economic collapse. In better days they’d have taken a reservation for next weekend, if they fed specimens like us at all. I ate grilled scallops as Dave texted his kid, who was lost somewhere on the highways of rural Vermont.

I remember being lost like that myself, years ago. In my case, it was a result of eating mushrooms. I don’t know what Dave’s kid’s excuse was. Thirty some years ago I found myself hungry and deranged in Rock Island, Quebec, where the border crossing had apparently closed for the night. When I chose the self-service option and took the old 88 through I was rounded up and detained by bad tempered Customs Agents for almost eight hours. By the time I got loose, the mushrooms had worn off and my money was gone. All in all, that was one bad trip.

Our reverie was interrupted by flashing lights and sirens. We saw Police outside the restaurant, and we slouched low in our seats. We didn’t think we’d done anything arrestable in Stowe but you never know . . . Sometimes the Natives get greedy, and invent laws to extract revenue from sweet innocents like us. My mind went back to the Shamokins of rural Pennsylvania, who rolled boulders into the highway so they could stop motorists and rob them. At times like that I regret leaving my preacher outfit home.

Fortunately, the cops were merely clearing the riffraff from around the stage. No one was after us. When we emerged from the Blue Moon, we refrained from song, and our refined and upright appearance made us seem the farthest thing from rabble. We passed unmolested. As the shouting subsided to the snick of handcuffs we slipped back up the hill. Our rigs were safe, surrounded by British cars in all the important colors: red, white, black and most of all, green.

We awakened to a crisp, cool Vermont morning. The fires from the previous night’s bacchanalian debauchery had burnt themselves out, but the smoky smell lingered in the air. It was a pleasant odor for anyone whose house or car had escaped destruction, and I was pleased to be part of that group. We cranked up the Rover and the Bentley, and headed for the Invasion.

We arrived at the show field early, but the scene was already mobbed. Hundreds, thousands, maybe tens of thousands swarmed through the gates on Weeks Hill Road in Stowe. We parked our machines among others of their own kind, and set out to wander the field.

Within minutes, three Guardsmen showed up in a Series III Air Portable, parked near Dave, and emplaced a heavy machine gun to survey the field. I ducked and passed as they shot off a test burst or two. Everyone was well behaved after they arrived. I was lucky to pass when I did, because I heard they began collecting tolls from passerby but I didn’t pay a cent.

Their actions reminded me of some City Parking Lot Attendants who worked a lot down the street from me when I worked at Pink Floyd's sound company in Long Island City back in the nineteen-seventies. After watching them all one summer, I was surprised to arrive at work one day to find them gone, and the lot chained up. It turned out they had not been City Employees at all. Instead, they were Enterprising Lowlifes with Bolt Cutters who had seen an opportunity and seized it. I wondered if the same thing might be occurring today, but I declined to mount a challenge.

Land Rover was well represented at the show. In fact, one 1959 Series truck actually won the concours, something I have never seen accomplished with a Land Rover. I don’t know if the judges were drunk, bribed, or what, but there was some heavy competition out there and they putted away with a trophy. What a sight – an old Series truck sandwiched between a massive Rolls Royce limousine and a dainty Morgan roadster in the winner’s parade.

The Guardsmen also won an award for the tailgate picnic, but it’s not clear if they earned it or merely menaced the show’s managers with their weapons. Either way, though, they exited as winners. And I don’t want to give a false impression – they were not thugs. Far from it; they were clean and very well behaved and their heavy machine gun certainly had a calming influence on every rowdy who exited the beer tent. Robert Heinlein said it very well: An armed society is a polite society.

There was a good field of Land Rover entries, starting with some Series trucks from the late fifties all the way to the current Range Rover Sports. Series trucks made up the biggest contingent but the P38’s made a good showing this year too.

You find many kinds of car enthusiasts at the Invasion, but the ones I love the best are the Rover owners. One of them lounged behind her rig,

while another handed me a beer

after opening it on his back bumper. Two Canadian females at the next Rover fed me kiwi fruit while extolling the virtues of cross breeding strawberries.

All the while, the sound system played vintage tunes from the Kinks, Pink Floyd, and Jimmy Buffet.

Who wouldn’t identify with that?

With 650 British vehicles on the show field, there were some noteworthy non-Rover entries. For example, some deviant with a welder had shoehorned a blown Hemi into a yellow MINI Cooper. The idea seems shocking at first, but upon reflection, you realize that’s exactly what every MINI dreams of turning into, when it grows up.

I saw a genuine Elva, yellow with a red stripe, parked near a fine red TVR. Out behind the cars, revelers sat, drank, and told stories, and I stumbled and bobbed my way through their midst. At one point, I encountered a six-hundred-horsepower supercharged Aston Martin, an authentic Morris Moke, and two Norton Commando motorcycles.

I left as the bikers were fighting over tent poles for the Motorbike Joust. I did not get to see how it turned out, but I’m sure the details appeared in the town Police Log.

We dined at the Olde English Pub, where I had Bangers and Mash followed by a Spotted Dick washed down with tea. All in all, a respectable British feed. Alex had a problem with the concept of Spotted Dick, but I introduced him to Patrick O’Brien’s excellent writing, including his cook book which includes the Dick, and he calmed.

The next morning dawned colder and clearer than the one before. Tops on the day’s agenda was the backseat driving contest. In that competition the driver is blindfolded, and the navigator guides him over a complex route from the backseat. When someone told me the course started on the show field and ended at the Lake Champlain Ferry I decided to get out while I still could.

Until next time . . .