JUE’s Big Mongolian Adventure

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JUE leads the way on Day 3 of it's Mongolian epic : credit: © Ineos 2023
Land Rover chassis number one celebrates its 75th birthday in style…

​​​​​​So here we are. An historically very important Land Rover (chassis number R860001 and the first production Land Rover, no less) goes off on an exotic foreign adventure that has a whiff of pioneering 1950’s Land Rover overlanding about it, supported by four modern, extremely capable off-road expedition vehicles.

But these support vehicles are not Land Rovers, they are Ineos Grenadiers. And I don’t need to remind you that this is happening in the year that is the 75th anniversary of the Land Rover’s debut at the 1948 Amsterdam Motor Show, a birthday that JLR seem to be hell-bent on ignoring.

To be honest, I’ve been expecting a Grenadier-Land Rover ‘moment’ like this ever since Ineos founder and chairman Sir Jim Ratcliffe, who is a big fan of the old Defender and its Series ancestors, publicly disagreed with JLR’s decision to stop making the classic Defender. He tried unsuccessfully to acquire the rights to continue production himself, but when his efforts were allegedly rejected by JLR, he announced that he would build his own off-road vehicle “from the ground up” that would be, according to Ineos, “the natural successor to the Land Rover Defender.”

Mind the paintwork!

It’s interesting to see Ineos ringing the historical bell to celebrate Land Rover’s diamond anniversary, while JLR itself appears to be declaring its illustrious history to be irrelevant and is even starting to push the Land Rover brand into the background. Maybe Sir Jim should make an offer for the green oval?

We have written about the Grenadier in LRM before, even though we know that it clearly isn’t a Land Rover. Some have suggested it is the vehicle that should have been built by JLR to replace the original Defender, while others have wondered whether JLR should have mimicked Mercedes, who famously scrapped their original G-Wagen and replaced it with a new one that was bang up-to-date but looked almost exactly the same as the old one.

In the middle of all of this, Sir Jim managed to acquire chassis number R860001, which according to the DVLA was given the registration number JUE 477 in April 1948, the same month that two pre-pro Land Rovers were displayed at the Amsterdam Motor Show. I’ve heard that JLR was also allegedly interested in acquiring chassis number one, but either way it ended up in Sir Jim’s hands.

Pre-restoration JUE on display at the RAC Club in London

JUE has been known about within the enthusiast community for many years, and in 1998 its long-term owner, Northumbrian farmer David Fairless, even trailered it to the Land Rover 50th anniversary event at Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire, where showgoers marvelled at the corkscrewed remains that clearly indicated the chassis was no longer doing what it was designed to do. Most who saw it thought there was very little that could be saved.

After Mr Fairless died in 2017, JUE 477 was offered for sale in a sealed bid auction. Potential purchasers were approached in strictest confidence and, if they were interested, could sign a non-disclosure agreement and then arrange to examine the vehicle. Then they had to decide if they wanted to bid. If they did, they had to write down their offer price, seal it in an envelope, and submit it. Only a single bid was allowed, with no chance to up your offer and have another go. Sir Jim’s bid was the one that was accepted, although how much he paid has never been revealed.

Julian Shoolheifer – Land Rover preservation and restoration specialist © Revelstoke films

​​​​​​To cut a long story short, JUE’s resurrection to working order set a new bar for conservation and preservation in the old Land Rover world, and possibly in the old car world generally. The man who led the team that did it is Julian Shoolheifer. If you want to know more about the history of chassis number one, its acquisition by David Fairless and the years it spent out in the open on an exposed Northumberland hillside, you should treat yourself to a copy of Martin Port’s lavishly illustrated book JUE 477. The renovation story is told in magnificent detail. Easily one of my favourite Land Rover books by far.

Julian is well known in the Series Land Rover world as both a restorer and a ‘patina conservation’ pioneer, and (full disclosure) I was for several years the proud owner of one of his early projects, the renowned and hugely entertaining 1949 ‘Supercharged Series I’, which was pretty much capable of one mile per hour for each of its 80 wheelbase inches, as long as you had the nerve and the belief in your own invincibility to take it there! Julian’s son, Jake, is now a regular LRM contributor and a valued member of the team.

Day 7: Running well – Land Rovers supported by the Grenadiers

​​​​​​Julian explained to me how he ended up being asked to lead the project to resurrect JUE. “After the sale, JUE was stored in my workshop for over a month, which gave me an unparalleled opportunity to examine it in great detail, in fact, probably more than anyone else had. I remember writing to Sir Jim asking him what he wanted to do, and the message came back asking me what I would do if it were mine.

“I put together a proposal setting out the options, and I felt strongly that the two extremes of doing nothing and doing too much were both very unattractive. So I suggested it should be restored using every single piece of it that had survived. A forensic rebuild that would retain the originality of the vehicle but allow it to be driven.

Day 8: Dry river beds posed a hazard on the steppes, solved by Mongolian bridge technology

“Ineos loved the idea and asked me to recommend people who had done something like this already, and I put forward a number of people around the world whom I considered to be expert Land Rover restorers, but I also had to say that no one had actually completed a project like the one I was suggesting. And that’s the point when the response from Ineos came back saying, ‘We’d like you to do it’.

“It was such a shock I had to go for a walk to gather my thoughts, because it could have been the greatest thing I’d ever done, or equally the worst decision I’d ever made. The consequences of getting it wrong were huge.”

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Day 10: Leaving the granite monolith in the background © Revelstoke Films

When the first post-auction, pre-renovation pictures of JUE appeared in The Sun newspaper and online in early 2018, there was no shortage of comment from enthusiasts as to what should happen to it, ranging from sealing it in a glass case ‘as found’, through to a full concours restoration. There were many, including Julian, who were horrified at the prospect of a rebuild to ‘show queen’ standard, arguing that it would have ‘stripped the very soul out of the vehicle’.

Sir Jim was certainly interested in getting it back on the road, but his focus was on preservation and conservation rather than mint and factory-fresh shiny. In fact, Sir Jim had enlisted the help of Ben Cussons, chairman of the Royal Automobile Club in London and a well-known historic racing driver, to examine the Land Rover before he decided to submit his auction bid, and Ben’s report was very positive. “There is absolutely no question as to whether or not this vehicle should be restored,” he wrote.

Day 11: JUE and ROG doing what comes naturally to Land Rovers

​​​​​​The rebuilt Series I made its public debut at the 2020 Hampton Court Concours of Elegance, where it came first in its class, and it has featured in the press a few times since, but JUE is itself a 1948 vehicle and Ineos felt it could not let the 75th anniversary pass without allowing JUE its moment in the sun.

As Sir Jim Ratcliffe himself said, “Rather than store JUE in a museum to gather dust, it should be doing what it was designed to do, which is take on an epic road trip, over the Altai Mountains in Mongolia and across the Gobi Desert to the British Embassy in Beijing.”

Ben Cussons, Chairman of the Royal Automobile Club, poses with JUE

And that’s how in June this year JUE 477 and a posse of four Grenadiers, one of which was a Quartermaster pick-up, found themselves at Ulaangom, the capital of Uvs Province in northeastern Mongolia, about 45 miles from the Russian border. You might wonder why the Series I required four fully-laden Grenadiers as back-up, and the answer is that JUE wasn’t alone. Another of Sir Jim’s restored Series I Land Rovers was there, a 1955 station wagon, as well as a group of other classic vehicles. Ben Cussons was also there, and drove JUE extensively during the 1870-mile journey to Beijing.

“I first met Jim through mutual friends, when he was looking to acquire some cars of historical interest,” Ben tells me. “We got on well and became good friends, realising that we had a shared passion for cars, motorbikes, and doing adventurous things, including exploring the wilder parts of the world.

“I was delighted when Jim’s bid for JUE was successful because I knew he would be up for what would probably be the most sympathetic restoration of any vehicle ever. Initially we hadn’t decided who was going to take on the project, but we knew we wanted to keep the patina and the authenticity, and re-use as much of the vehicle as we could. Julian was the logical person to do it – he knew the vehicle better than anyone else. Jim was delighted when the ‘restored unrestored’ JUE was shown to him for the first time.

Day 14: Gathering dust, but not in a museum!

“Every few years Jim likes to pose a challenge to go to see a bit of the world that he and his friends haven’t seen, and he came up with the idea of driving from Paris to Beijing, the reverse of the famous 1907 Peking to Paris automobile race. Further research showed that it would take more time than we had available, but we realised that the area of the journey that truly was an unspoilt wilderness was Mongolia and the Gobi Desert.

“We put together a group of ten cars, and apart from the Grenadiers the only ones that were completely suitable were the two Series I Land Rovers, JUE and ROG. The others were three 1929 Bentley 4.5-litre Vanden Plas-style tourers, and a 1983 Porsche 911 Safari, all of which were absolutely not the most suitable vehicles, and driving them for 1870 miles [3000km] across Mongolia involved a degree of jeopardy.

“JUE never missed a beat mechanically, until the starter motor failed in the final few days of the journey, although we had constant problems with things like exhaust brackets fracturing because of the vibrations caused by the surface corrugations. We had to replace all the brackets several times before we found a lasting solution. Even though it was a case of the tortoise and the hare when comparing JUE with some of the other vehicles on the trip, everyone who drove it loved it, and drove it with genuine respect.

Day 18: Flying the flag. JUE and Grenadier Quartermaster

“Our route took us broadly south from Ulaangom into the Altai Mountains, and across the Gobi Desert to the southwestern corner of Mongolia, where we crossed the border into China and drove on to Beijing. We experienced temperatures as low as -8°C in the snow-covered mountains, and as high as 45°C in the desert. It was easily the toughest motoring I have done anywhere, and every mile was different, from the corrugations on the desert tracks that were particularly harsh on the Land Rovers, to Mad Max moments driving ten abreast across smooth, grassy steppes. We had to be careful of the dry stream beds that cut across the levels, deep with floodwater when the mountain snows melt, but very dangerous if not spotted in time and easily capable of causing a vehicle to roll.

“The whole expedition was a great success, and we all came away with a feeling of genuine achievement. The trip really epitomises Jim’s approach to life, to business, to Ineos and, of course, to the restoration of JUE 477. There’s only one answer with Jim and it’s yes, and let’s make it happen! As far as JUE was concerned, I thought the expedition had a real sense of ‘passing the torch’, with a 75-year old Series I built with a very clear purpose in 1948 handing on the flame to its worthy successor in 2023, which was also ‘built on purpose’. That said, I definitely think that JUE has a few more adventures left in it yet.”

Martin Port’s book JUE 477 – The remarkable history and restoration of the world’s first production Land Rover is available at porterpress.co.uk

 

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