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Owner Merlin Thomas takes a first drive in the 80in that has been returned to celebrate its trialling roots : credit: © Martin Port
A botched restoration job was the perfect opportunity to return this early Series I 80in to its sporting roots, as Martin Port explains

It takes a bold owner to fly in the face of tradition, but that’s exactly what the husband and wife team Merlin and Ann Thomas did when they found themselves with a late 1948 model Land Rover that, despite its outward appearance, had a whole different story to tell beneath the shiny green bodywork.

Their newly-purchased 80in might have promised much at first glance; the recently-restored vehicle bearing all the right signs of being able to offer a rewarding ownership experience, but when the pair had trouble getting it to run and drive as expected, they turned to Julian Shoolheifer for assistance and issued a simple request: that he fettle the Land Rover – probably a few days’ work in the right hands, and then they could begin to enjoy their latest acquisition.

However, as Shoolheifer and his family-run team started to investigate, they quickly realised that the Series I needed far more than just a fettle. To start with, they couldn’t even get the vehicle to run and a compression test eventually revealed that the engine – a later replacement unit – was barely able to produce a reading and showed virtually no oil pressure. Further investigation on the running gear was similarly damning, and although both the gearbox and axle casings looked to be original to the vehicle, all were full with muddy water that had resulted in obvious damage. It was clear that very little on the mechanical side had been touched in the recent overhaul.

As the detective work deepened, evidence of poor workmanship became even more abundant. The original chassis had been painted silver – correct for the vehicle – but that paint had been applied over a backbone that contained severe amounts of rot and even had filler applied in places. In other areas the paint had been sprayed directly over mud and horse droppings collected on its previous travels.   

The bodywork fared little better, with sections of almost inch-thick filler covering older dents and what looked to be more recent, poorly executed, repairs – the shiny paint and freshly galvanised cappings proving better than ever that you should never judge a book by its cover. A new wiring loom had been fitted, but even that had been done badly, with wires trapped and pinched between bits of bodywork and even nuts and bolts used to join sections of cable together – all of which left Shoolheifer with the unenviable task of breaking the less-than-ideal news to the new owners: the vehicle needed a proper restoration. Not just a fettle.

And yet through the gathering grey clouds, came a chink of light. Faced with the inevitable news that, either way, money needed to be spent in order to get the 80in on the road again, Merlin Thomas saw this as an opportunity. Both he and Shoolheifer were acutely aware that JM 8199 had a significant past. Recent efforts may well have been inspired by the desire to return it to factory-fresh, light green, 1948 model spec – certainly that’s where the financial return would have been – but in the hands of several previous owners, this particular Series I was a frequent player in the trials scene and, in its heyday, sported a noticeable bright blue paint job and a variety of gentle period modifications and additions.

With another competitor at the wheel, JM 8199, takes a dip at Malham Tarn in 1972. Photo: Jonathan Stockwell

In fact, Merlin had very nearly purchased the vehicle when it was still largely in its original guise. Although still requiring attention and having clearly had some minor work already done, the all too evident patina was as a result of a life well led but, it was presumed, much of that was now lost under the most recent coat of paint.

And yet here was a crossroads and both owner and restorer needed little encouragement about which path needed to be taken. They willingly reassured each other that, although brave – after all, who else had returned a 1948 model Series I to 1970s competition spec? – this route was an exciting one that celebrated the vehicle’s unique history.

“Tempting as it was to keep it in its pseudo-restored green guise,” explains Merlin, “it felt completely wrong. Like an imposter… a dishonest vehicle. We decided that its real self was as a trialler and, faced with having to choose which path to take, returning it to that felt absolutely the right thing to do.”

At the 1970 Proteus Trial, Nottinghamshire

Previous owner, Brian Pickup, in the driver’s seat at a Pennine LR Club event

With JM 8199’s prominent past in the scene, there was at least a smattering of photographs in existence, mostly from the late 1970s/early 1980s and in the hands of then owner, Brian Pickup, at various Pennine Land Rover Club events. These revealed the appearance that would now be recreated. The vehicle had also been committed to film several years before, when it played a role in a now famous Pathé News reel that covered a 1964 Land Rover rally (https://www.britishpathe.com/asset/37656/), the 80in popping up in its original light green paintwork a little over two minutes into the film.

Results of an earlier restoration of the 80in

Perhaps ironically however, the strongest link to its past came courtesy of those who had carried out the recent – arguably, poorly-executed – makeover. “I had seen the Land Rover for sale a few years ago,” explains Shoolheifer. “I was interested in buying it then, and it was, for the most part, still in its trialling outfit in the photographs. Although clearly some of the bodywork had been recently replaced, we wondered if the original parts still existed somewhere and so began the hunt.”

That search didn’t take long. A phone call from Merlin to those that had done the work revealed that the rear tub and doors were still in their yard, and although money had to change hands in order to procure them, it resulted in three major components being reunited with the vehicle, still with their original trialling stickers attached.

Investigation also revealed that, while thick with filler and poor repairs, the front wings, bonnet, grille panel and bulkhead were still the original items – proof of both the original light green and later blue paint being uncovered beneath those repairs – meaning that only the tailgate and door tops were missing.

​​​​​​With suspension mountings literally tearing away from the chassis due to the rampant rot, the decision was made to replace the original with a new Richards backbone. As had been proven previously, with enough time and money, anything can be repaired, but in this instance the constraints were rather more realistic and so a JUE 477-style approach wasn’t quite on the cards.

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The repainted interior was left to age on its own and give an indication of the level of work carried out beneath the patinated exterior

The team then set out to do what they do with any build: ensure that the vehicle has an excellent base upon which the rest will sit. As was commonplace among earlier trialling vehicles, there was no huge lift kit or extreme suspension – just later spring hangers and shock absorbers with slightly longer travel, the combination of which, along with alternatively routed brake lines and flexi-hoses, gave just a few inches of extra articulation. These weren’t the days of spending big on your weekend trialling vehicles; these were times when your Land Rover was prepared on a budget and, crucially, usually had to still serve a purpose when not on a trial. Ingenuity was king and even something as subtle as swapping the standard 1/4 inch brake lines for 3/16 inch items (as on this vehicle), resulted in noticeable improvements to the pedal feel and effectiveness.

With all suspension and braking components rejuvenated or replaced as necessary, thoughts turned to the running gear. Those original axle cases were cleaned of accumulated rust and completely rebuilt, still to the correct specification, but using slightly later differentials, as would have been done in period for competitive use.

Rover 2.0-litre engine fitted and upgraded with an HIF44 SU carb. Battery tray modified to allow original-style air cleaner to remain

Although the gearbox was salvageable, the later, non-original engine was not and so the decision made to again follow the example of other period triallers and source a mid-1950s 2.0-litre unit from a Rover 60. With alloy cylinder head and high compression pistons, this made an effective swap – particularly in the 1970s, by which point those slightly long-in-the-tooth Rovers would have been reaching the end of their intended existence. To make the most of this upgrade, Shoolheifer also pulled another trick out of the competition handbook and decided to swap the original HS6 SU carburettor for an HIF44 – taking it from 1 ½ inch to 1¾ inch, a change that needed a bespoke adaptor plate that son Jake neatly machined from aluminium.

So that the carburettor had the smoothest possible operation, the original-style throttle rod and lever arrangement was substituted for a cable linkage and, although this sort of SU swap was not unusual, historically it meant that owners had to dispense with the standard 80in air cleaner because of the carburettor’s position. Keen to not adopt the usual path of fitting a little pancake air filter, the team worked out that by shortening the battery box (another modification expertly executed by Jake), the whole tray could be moved forwards and the standard air cleaner retained. It does mean using a smaller battery, but that shouldn’t pose an issue.

The original tub – complete with authentic patina – is a world away from the previous, skin-deep attempt at a restoration (above)

With the mechanicals now in fine fettle and engine starting on cue, the bodywork was the next – and major – concern. The presence of the trialling-era paint on the rear tub and doors would helpfully provide Shoolheifer much needed reference material and, with the front wings, bonnet and bulkhead stripped of recently applied paint, work could begin on matching their finish. As ever, the team’s investigations were crucial and, having uncovered evidence that the original blue paint had been applied over a mist coat of etch primer, then light green and patches of dark green, the decision was made to replicate the evolution so that as the new blue top coat started to age and pick up knocks and scuffs, the exposed finishes would be largely the same.

With some of the original trialling stickers still present and others pictured in period photographs, the team were able to find exact replacements for those now missing, although with the Vladivar door sticker originally being of a relatively fragile paper type, the decision was made to have it redrawn and a more robust vinyl alternative produced.

Original green paint still visible on the inside of the doors contrasts with seats beautifully trimmed in blue leather – another nod to the vehicle’s earlier subtle modifications

As with previous patina builds, Shoolheifer opted to keep the interior looking slightly less worn. “It needed to feel like a nice place to be,” he explains. “We made the decision to keep the new paintwork largely untouched and, with evidence of non-original seats being present in the past, had a set of Series I backs and bases trimmed in blue leather by Undercover Covers – they don’t clash with the paintwork like green would, plus the leather will soften and age nicely compared with vinyl.”

The original rear tub, whilst looking fantastic on the outside, was in less than desirable condition when viewed from beneath or within. “It really had led a hard life and there are even stories of Brian Pickup keeping a barrel of beer in the back during trials, but we had little choice other than to repair the strengthening ribs and fit a new floor – at least you can now stand up in the back if you wanted to!” Although evidence that the original tailgate still existed in private ownership – complete with a Newcastle Strong Brown Ale sticker on the inside – a replacement had to be sourced and painted to match, but maybe this is another part that will one day be reunited with the vehicle.

Ann enjoying finally being at the wheel of the 80in following it's extensive restoration  

With any build, it’s the details that make it special, even if they’re not standard. With early photographs showing different headlight units positioned slightly lower in the grille panel, Shoolheifer opted to replicate this set-up, as with the non-original spec indicator units positioned on the bulkhead panel. “We spent a lot of time matching various details to the photographs,” he reveals. “Indicators, brake lights, spot and fog lamps and badges – all involved a lot of research and time trying to find the right, non-original parts, but when you buy something and the screw holes match up exactly, you know you’ve hit the jackpot.”

With so much faith placed in the Shoolheifer team and with a vision that was clearly shared, revealing the finished Series I was – as it always is – a nerve-wracking moment. But, revelling in the transformation, and fresh from getting behind the wheel for the first time, the smiles and knowing nods from Merlin and Ann Thomas said it all.

Their bravery and trust had clearly paid off and instead of JM 8199’s history being restricted to a collection of faded photographs and distant memories, the pedigree and trialling past of this particular 80in can once again be celebrated three-dimensionally. And who knows, maybe its competition days aren’t over just yet…

 

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