Driven: Land Rover Series 1 on the 70th anniversary convoy

We drove a 1956 station wagon on the historic convoy – and it turned out to be a very special occasion in a Land Rover with a remarkable story

Have you ever driven a Series 1 Land Rover? It’s a quite unique experience in itself. But to drive one on the 70th anniversary of the Land Rover’s launch, from the Solihull factory to the Land Rover Classic HQ in Coventry in a convoy of historic models – well, that’s about as good as it gets.

VAC 265 was the second-oldest Land Rover in the convoy, which meant we were the second to arrive at Classic Works. What an honour. And VAC 265 is special in itself; a 1956 station wagon with a few mysteries to its history, including its fitment with a prototype 2.25-litre petrol engine.

Better than this, though, is the car’s later history. It was the transport of choice for a family that drove across Europe in the 1960s – check out the wonderful pictures further down this page – and more recently it’s been restored by the famous Dunsfold Collection and reunited with two of the family members.

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And what’s it like to drive? Basic. Noisy. Draughty. Slow. But fantastic. You wonder why Series 1s command such high prices? It’s because they’re so very evocative and characterful to own and drive.

At the Solihull factory, various VIPs and a handful of journalists from all over the world were gathered up and ferried in extended-wheelbase Defenders to the on-site Land Rover Experience centre, where the convoy would begin.

In collusion with Land Rover Monthly magazine editor Patrick Cruywagen, a sneaky plan was hatched – we would tactically position ourselves by the first Defender, and ensure we each sat by a door rather than get pinned into the middle. And as soon as the Defender arrived at the Experience centre, we would run for the nearest, earliest Land Rover we could spot.

And that’s how we came to snaffle the best vehicle on offer, much to the annoyance of others who’d been less keen/devious. Our convoy route took us out of the famous Lode Lane factory gates, through the Solihull suburbs, out to the beautiful grounds of Packington Hall – the location for many Land Rover publicity shots over the years – and on a picturesque route to Coventry. We even passed the house of the late Spencer Wilks, the ‘inventor’ of the Land Rover.

It wasn’t a fast run. VAC 265 is typical of a Series 1 in that 50mph feels like a comfortable maximum, although another 10mph or more can be squeezed out if you really have to. But we couldn’t have been happier in that basic cockpit.

Everything about the Series 1 is utilitarian. Just opening VAC’s doors feels special, taking in the clever hinges, so basic and robust, which allow the doors to be lifted off in one movement should they need to be removed. They slam shut with a clang, and there you are in a surprisingly cramped cabin, sat on the most basic bench seat.

The steering wheel is huge, the indicator switch is a non-cancelling Bakelite switch (like an Austin A35’s) just to the driver’s side of the centrally placed instrument panel, and the gearlever sprouting from the transmission tunnel seems unfeasibly long and thin. Down on the floor are levers for the four-wheel-drive engagement and low-ratio control. We’re not straying off-road, so we won’t be needing those today.

The large, all-metal pedals feel too close, but there’s nothing to be done about that. Legroom has always been an issue in Land Rovers. The steering is heavy as we move off, but the wheel is so large that it’s really not a problem. As soon as we’re on the move it lightens up, and with the front wheels following their own path via chunky, wander-prone tyres, it’s difficult to resist sawing back and forwards on the wheel to correct every movement.

Actually, after a while you realise it’s better to relax and let the movement of the tyre treads and the play in the steering do its own thing. Meanwhile, we’ve gone right through the gears, with a pause after the first ratio to try to avoid the otherwise-inevitable crunch into the non-synchro second. Trouble is, pause too long and it feels as though you’ll come to a stop.

The gearshift movement is long, and there’s not much of a gate to keep you away from reverse, far, far away to the left. But it’s not vague. In fact, through that spindly-looking stick you can feel the cogs engaging. There are very few vehicles in which you’ll ever feel so ‘engaged’ (sorry) with the transmission.

Oh, and the engine? Well, you’ll have heard it’s a rough old thing, but that’s not the case with these early petrols, even in this prototype 2.25-litre form. It’s a four-cylinder, and long-stroke, yet it’s wonderfully sweet, never hesitating, never fluffing. It’s got reasonable torque, but the gearing is so low that you still end up revving it slightly harder than feels right – or perhaps it’s just that the noise levels and accompanying transmission whine make it seem like it’s working harder than it is.

Still, it’s hard not to occasionally reach for an extra gear or two when you’re bouncing along at 50mph in fourth with all that noise going on. My goodness, it could do with another ratio (or an overdrive facility, which is of course a brilliant option on so many Series 1s).

Bouncing, did I say? Ah yes, the suspension is leaf springs all round, and hard enough not to go all silly and saggy when laden down with farm goods or a trailer. So the ride is bouncy, the steering is wandersome, the engine has to work hard and battles with the transmission whine for aural supremacy, and the sidescreens rattle and let in great draughts of Midlands air. We’re doing 50mph and it feels like 100mph. We’re doing 50mph and it feels great!

The big old drum brakes haul up VAC without a problem, but actually we don’t want to stop. Best driving experience of the year so far? Absolutely.

For all its noise and bounciness, it’s clear that this is one incredibly well restored Land Rover. It came close to being sold for scrap, though, and was only rescued because Philip Bashall of the Dunsfold Collection was intrigued by its prototype engine and factory registration number.

It seems that VAC 265 had been completed on 24 January, 1956 as a right-hand-drive export station wagon. It was painted in an unusual grey with blue chassis and wheels, and carried chassis number 1766-01126. Curiously, it wasn’t registered for another eight months, and it never was exported.

It was sold in November, 1956, almost certainly to Land Rover salesman and enthusiast Michael New. Certainly by early 1957 Michael owned the vehicle, and used it in competitive off-road trials. Photos of the time show it with the 2.0-litre engine, but the earliest DVLA records on the vehicle, dating back to the early 1970s, record it as having a 2.25-litre overhead-valve Rover unit. Perhaps Michael used his factory connections to buy this as a replacement.

Michael and wife Maria drove VAC 265 all over Europe, often towing a caravan, with sons Paul and Steven in the back. They visited the former Yugoslavia and Switzerland among many other places – all at rather slow speed.

In 1989 Michael sold VAC, and it passed through two more owners before being advertised again on eBay in around 2000. It was bought by a Norwegian Land Rover enthusiast, who had a collection of around 130 vehicles in Stavanger, Norway. He had VAC moved to Blyth, Northumberland, ready to collect, but then got into difficulties and was forced to quickly sell off his collection.

Poor VAC and several other Land Rovers at Blyth were almost scrapped, but Philip Bashall had become aware of their plight and made a last-minute rescue. The Collection restored VAC, completing it in 2017, and reunited the vehicle with Paul New and mother Maria – sadly Michael had died in 1995. Paul told Gary Pusey, writing for Land Rover Monthly, how VAC brought back strong childhood memories.

‘The smell, the sound of the engine, the distinctive tyre noise – it could only be a Land Rover, and it all brings back so many memories,’ said Paul, adding that ‘our holidays were slow and leisurely affairs’…

Our hour-long convoy around the Midlands has been incredible fun, but also exciting and atmospheric. VAC has been a joy, although whether I’d feel the same after driving it across Europe towing a caravan I couldn’t possibly say. Still, what a machine!

Grateful thanks to Land Rover Classic, the Dunsfold Collection, Philip Bashall, Gary Pusey and Patrick Cruywagen. Period pictures courtesy of Michael New

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