First (and Last) Overland

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By Gary Pusey

11 December 2019

First overland 1955 London to Singapore Series I : credit: © Antony Barrington Brown

In 1955 six young men set out on an epic journey from London to Singapore and back in two Series Is. Among them was Tim Slessor who, at the age of 88, was inspired to make the return journey again. Sadly, it was not to be…

The 1950s were arguably Land Rover’s golden years as far as scientific exploration and adventure expeditions are concerned. The first Land Rover, introduced in 1948, had very quickly been appreciated for its sturdy construction, its easy-to-fix mechanicals and, of course, its off-road capabilities. Land Rover soon realised the marketing and public relations potential of such expeditions, and the company’s engineers were quick to appreciate the benefits of seeing how their vehicles performed in extreme conditions. For a few years in the 1950s the factory provided vehicles and technical support to adventurers about to set off on their voyages of discovery. Those were the days when anyone with a plan could approach the company asking for vehicles, and many did. The Land Rover now provided a practical and readily accessible means for anyone to set-off to explore the wider world.

Among the most well-known of these expeditions are the three Oxford and Cambridge Universities treks: the Trans-African Expedition to Cape Town in 1954, the Far East Expedition to Singapore in 1955/56, and the Expedition to South America in 1957/58. Today, by far the most widely known is the middle of the three, invariably remembered now as First Overland after the book of that name written by expedition member, Tim Slessor.

The Trans-African Expedition members had to buy the two 86-inch Station Wagons that they used for their four month drive from London to Cape Town and back but, when Tim and fellow Cambridge undergraduate Adrian Cowell came up with the initial idea for the expedition to Singapore, one of their first thoughts was to approach the Rover Company to ask if they would provide two vehicles. Adrian Cowell had been in contact with Rover the year before, when he was involved in the planning of the Trans-African Expedition, and he remembered how much interest the two Series Is had generated during their journey to and from Cape Town. Perhaps this interest might mean that Rover would be prepared to loan them vehicles this time? Cowell wrote to Rover, outlining the Far East Expedition’s plans, and was invited to a meeting in Solihull. It obviously went well and, to both his and Tim’s mild astonishment and great relief, the answer from Rover was yes, two Station Wagons could be provided for the expedition’s use. Rover prepared the vehicles and painted one in light blue and one in dark blue, and they were immediately named ‘Cambridge’ and ‘Oxford’ respectively. Those names have remained with the vehicles ever since.

The news of the embryonic expedition had meanwhile permeated through the Oxford and Cambridge grapevines, and Adrian and Tim were quickly joined by Antony Barrington Brown, known to all as ‘BB’, who had graduated from Cambridge three years earlier and now ran his own photographic business in the city. It was Barrington Brown’s superb photography, later turned into a short film by the BBC after a young producer by the name of David Attenborough had been sufficiently inspired by the expedition that he provided suitable quantities of ciné and still film stock, that combined with Slessor’s highly-acclaimed book to ensure the expedition would be immortalised for posterity.

The fourth to join was Henry Nott, secretary of the Cambridge University Auto Club and an accomplished mechanic, although the team still did not have a member that would justify the inclusion of the word ‘Oxford’ in the expedition’s title. This was finally resolved when Nigel Newbery, an undergraduate at Worcester College, Oxford, and also an enthusiastic mechanic, volunteered his services. The sixth and final member of the team was Pat Murphy who, like Tim Slessor, was studying geography. The expedition had also set out its stall regarding the field research it proposed to conduct en route, which focussed primarily on irrigation programmes, and as Murphy had spent the previous summer studying such schemes in Morocco, he brought some useful experience to the team.

A so-called ‘Home Team’ was also required to manage the multitude of issues in relation to sponsors and dealing with the press that would emerge as the expedition made its way to Singapore. Three people who had already given a great deal of help volunteered: Gethin Bradley, John Deuchars and Peter Wills. The team was now complete and detailed planning could begin.

And why did they choose Singapore as their destination? Simply because when Adrian and Tim got out their atlas they could see that Singapore was the farthest point from London on the Eurasian landmass, which meant they could drive all the way there with only two water crossings of any note: the English Channel and the Bosphorus at Istanbul, which traditionally marks the boundary between Europe and Asia.

On September 1, 1955, the expedition departed from a pub in London’s Belgravia called The Grenadier, heading for the airport at Lydd in Kent to hop across to France on the Silver City Airways car ferry service to Le Touquet. Given the significance of this pub in Land Rover’s history it can be no accident, surely, that it was chosen by Sir Jim Ratcliffe to announce his intention to build a successor to the utility Land Rover under the title Projekt Grenadier, after he had expressed his profound displeasure at JLR’s decision to halt Defender production in early 2016!

Tim Slessor’s book provides an entertaining, insightful and thoughtful summary of the expedition’s journey to Singapore, and I can do no more than recommend it to anyone who wishes to know more about that  fascinating journey through France, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia (through what are now Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia), Greece and on to Istanbul in Turkey, where the Bosphorus was crossed before the expedition continued on through Turkey to Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Persia (now Iran), West Pakistan, India, Burma (now Myanmar), Thailand, Malaya (now Malaysia) and finally to Singapore.

The Rover Company’s decision to provide the two vehicles was proved to be correct in Tehran, where the expedition team was called upon to demonstrate the capabilities of their Land Rovers to a gathering of Persian military top brass. The tests took place at a military proving ground and Tim wrote about it in his book. “Henry and I chose the roughest course that we could and practiced all morning. The final hill was so steep that, try as we might, we could not get the cars to the top before the wheels started to spin on the loose surface. We tried everything: reduced tyre pressures, a slow approach, a fast approach, going straight up, going up obliquely; but none of these methods was consistently successful. The weight of the empty cars was too light on the back axle and too heavy on the front. This was caused by the 1½-hundredweight winch on the front bumper. Eventually we found the solution – the cars were driven up backwards, and they sailed up without any apparent effort. If anything, it was better showmanship, for the cars looked far more impressive climbing in reverse than forward.” The Persian general in charge confirmed an order for 100 Land Rovers!

It had been clear since the earliest stages of the expedition planning process that the most challenging part of the journey would be from Assam in India through Burma to Thailand. After the Japanese army had cut the Burma Road in 1942, the Allies needed an alternative supply route from India to China and the Ledo Road was constructed by 15,000 US soldiers and 35,000 local workers under the command of General Joseph Stilwell of the US Army. It cost an estimated $150m to build, which is over $2bn today, but the human cost was even greater. Over 1100 Americans died, together with countless local workers, before the 1079-mile road was completed. It was renamed the Stilwell Road in 1945.

The expedition found it all but impossible to obtain reliable information on the state of the road ten years after the war had ended, so the team could not be sure that it was passable until they tried it! The first hundred miles were, as Tim said in his book, “very much easier than we had ever expected” and in fact they traversed the necessary 228 miles of the Stilwell Road in just three days.

But it was not without its challenges. “The embankments on the steep hillsides had long been washed away but,” Tim wrote, “but with one of us ahead guiding on foot, we eased the cars tenderly over the remaining ledge. In the first hour we covered six miles. Often, we had to bulldoze our way through the undergrowth, but seldom did we bother to cut back the branches and even then only because they caught in the stubby wireless aerials. In one place a fallen tree lay across the track. The Cambridge winch cable was quickly run out and then, with the winch whining powerfully, the obstruction was easily dragged clear’.

There were many rivers to cross as well, some of them wide enough and deep enough to present significant challenges. “The river was 120 yards wide,” Tim wrote about one particular crossing. “By the time Cambridge got out to the middle we, in Oxford, were worried. There was an impressive bow-wave creaming around the bonnet and a wake that would have done credit to a cross-Channel steamer. Eventually, the car emerged on the far bank with water streaming off and out of it like a bedraggled dog after a swim. Our turn next. We did very well until the middle. There the engine died. Quite a lot happened in the next few seconds. BB and I did an emergency exit through the roof-hatch and Nigel followed quickly behind. Screwdriver and spanners in hand, he clambered down onto the bonnet and fiddled inside. BB, realising the unique filmic potential of the situation, plunged overboard fully dressed towing his ciné camera and tripod behind him. I took off my boots and trousers, hitched my shirt up under my arm-pits and waded off to the far bank to fetch the Cambridge winch cable, the crew of that car being so paralytic with laughter at our expense as to be almost useless. With the winch run out we hooked on to Oxford, and the long tow began. All highly humorous – to Cambridge anyway. It took an hour to dry out the engine.”

First Overland is generally reckoned to be one of the finest books on travel and exploration ever written and it remains in print to this day, although many prefer the first edition of 1957 with its charming black and white images and colourfully illustrated dust jacket. But the most noticeable thing is that the book offers nothing more than a cursory mention of the drive home to the UK from Singapore, extending to no more than a two-page appendix despite the fact that it accounts for a considerable proportion of the expedition’s total distance travelled of 32,300 miles.

As Tim wrote in the book, “It was never the expedition’s intention to try both outward and homeward journeys wholly by land; once overland was reckoned to be enough. But, apart from this, there were other reasons which made a wholly overland return impossible. First, the monsoon would already have broken in northern Burma, thus almost certainly making the Stilwell Road impassable. Second, it was extremely doubtful whether we should ever have got political permission to make the journey back through Burma to India.” And so the team and their Land Rovers boarded the MV Sangola and sailed to Rangoon (now known as Yangon), where Oxford disembarked and Cambridge continued on to Calcutta (now Kolkata).

Once there, Cambridge drove up to the Punjab where the team spent six weeks studying the effects of the partition of India on the Punjab’s irrigation network and, after the completion of their field research, they “left the furnace of the Indus plain for the cool of the Himalayan valley of Swat”. Meanwhile, the Oxford crew spent seven weeks in Burma carrying out fieldwork on mineral development before the team returned to Rangoon and also sailed for Calcutta, and the two vehicles and their crews were reunited at Kalam in the Swat valley where they prepared for the overland drive back to the UK.

At Peshawar in Pakistan temptation was placed in their path when the captain of a United States Air Force transport aircraft offered to fly them back to his base in Cambridgeshire, an offer that, to their eternal credit, they resolutely refused! From Peshawar they drove through the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan and then via Kabul to Iran and then north through the Elbruz mountains to the Caspian Sea for, as Tim put it, “a swim”! From there, they drove through Tabriz, past Mount Ararat and into Turkey where they diverted again to the Black Sea before turning their noses to the Bosphorus. From there the journey across Europe “was straightforward, via Greece and Yugoslavia to northern Italy and Switzerland”. And a brief diversion to Monaco!

It is this missing piece of the overland return journey, the section spent crossing the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal aboard the MV Sangola, which Tim Slessor had felt compelled to address, 63 years after the First Overland team arrived back in the UK and parked jubilantly outside the Royal Automobile Club in London’s Pall Mall. “I kept hearing a little whisper in my head, telling me it’s now or never, before I get too old,” Tim said when Last Overland was announced.

But the thing is, Tim wanted to drive Oxford, the very vehicle he drove on the expedition that left London in September 1955, the dark blue 86-inch Station Wagon with the registration number SNX 891. It is really a quite remarkable thing if you stop to think about it: that same Land Rover setting out on a similar journey to the one that it made all those years ago and being driven by one of the original crew of three. The story behind the survival of Oxford is worthy of re-telling, because it is little short of miraculous.

After the Far East Expedition came to a close both Land Rovers were returned to Rover. The company’s records show that in July 1957, SNX 761 Cambridge was sold to Terence Bendixson, who set off in it with two friends on an expedition to the Middle East. Eventually, Bendixson decided to return to the UK on his own in Cambridge, travelling largely at night to avoid the heat. Whether he fell asleep or missed a sharp bend neither he nor anyone else knows, but the result was that Cambridge tumbled down a steep ravine somewhere between Tabriz in Iran and Dogubayzit in Turkey, throwing its driver clear and causing him a serious leg injury. Luckily, the headlamps remained on and he was rescued, but exactly where the accident occurred, and whether anything of the vehicle remains there today, are unknown. 

Oxford, meanwhile, was loaned to a British Ornithologists’ Union expedition to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic.  When the expedition was completed it wasn’t worth repatriating the car, so it was passed to Mervyn Marsh, the water bowser driver who had supplied the ornithologists’ camp. He drove the vehicle for a number of years on Ascension, replacing it with an 88-inch in due course, and cannibalising Oxford for spares. When he retired and returned to his native St Helena, he took both the 88 and the remains of Oxford with him, because spares are hard to come by on this remote South Atlantic outpost. 

Oxford was stored under a tarpaulin, and when the road up the hill where Mervyn lived was being improved, the crumbling pile of Land Rover parts was literally bulldozed into the undergrowth. By then its whereabouts were known to a small group of researchers and enthusiasts, but its daunting location meant that nobody actually visited to seek it out and confirm that the scrap was indeed Oxford. Land Rover historian and writer Peter Galilee, who had originally discovered that the vehicle was on St Helena, had even notified Land Rover of the vehicle’s existence and suggested they might take the necessary steps to acquire the vehicle. The company declined, which might seem an odd decision given the vehicle’s historical importance, but in fact this was neither the first nor the last time that it would pass up the opportunity to acquire an historically-significant Land Rover.

Enter from stage right Adam Bennett, a very determined Land Rover enthusiast, collector and restorer from Yorkshire, who decided that anything is possible if you try hard enough! Adam and Peter Galilee, together with St Helena-based Land Rover enthusiast Bruce Salt, persuaded Mervyn’s niece Gloria Leo and her husband Eric to part with the remains, in exchange for a Defender 300Tdi from the UK. Eric did not want a more modern Defender because anything later than a 300Tdi requires relatively sophisticated diagnostics to maintain, and such things are simply not available on St Helena. Adam was happy to oblige, and a deal was done.

On May 9, 2017, the shipping container was opened in Yorkshire and a very emotional Tim Slessor was reunited with the mortal remains of Oxford. Adam then spent time deciding how to approach the restoration before entrusting the work to specialists Black Paw 4x4 in East Yorkshire. To his credit, Adam decided to embrace best practice from the classic car world, where preserving originality is now highly admired. Parts that were missing or had to be renewed were painted in a fresh coat of Oxford Blue, while original components were left untouched, carrying the patina of a half a century of exposure to the worst of the South Atlantic weather. The renovated Oxford passed its MoT at the first attempt and amazingly the DVLA agreed to reinstate the original registration number, SNX 891. Tim Slessor was reunited with the newly-rebuilt Oxford and drove it for the first time since 1956, when it was returned to Rover at the end of the expedition.

Alex Bescoby and Tim Slessor with Oxford in 2020

Oxford has since become widely known in the UK and on the continent, having attended numerous Land Rover and classic car shows as well as a number of JLR press events. Tim’s idea for Last Overland was enthusiastically embraced by Adam Bennett and picked up by Yangon-based explorer and documentary maker Alex Bescoby, a Cambridge graduate and lifelong Land Rover enthusiast who had always been inspired by First Overland. And a plan was hatched that would eventually lead to the announcement that there would indeed be a Last Overland starring Oxford, and that Tim would join the expedition from Singapore to London.

Tim flew out to Singapore in May 2019 when the Last Overland expedition was formally announced and he was interviewed by the slightly incredulous local TV presenters, and the story was also covered by the press in the UK. A formal expedition launch took place in London in early August that brought together Tim and the other two surviving members of the First Overland expedition, Nigel Newbery and Pat Murphy, and it was announced that Tim’s 21-year-old grandson, Nathan George, would also be joining Last Overland. 

The Last Overland team departed from Singapore at the end of August amid great fanfare and was escorted to the border by a large contingent of Land Rover enthusiasts and their vehicles, but sadly Tim could not join the crew due to ill health and had to return to the UK. Nevertheless, the family connection was maintained with his grandson, Nathan, on board for the drive back to the UK. Grandfather Tim was aged just a year older when he was part of the First Overland team.

Changing geopolitical realities and concerns regarding security meant that Last Overland had to take a different route home to the one followed by First Overland. From Myanmar the Last Overland team headed north through China and then through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan before cutting through Iran to Turkey. Oxford was supported by two Defenders and the expedition team comprising Marcus Allender, Thérèse-Marie Becker, Léopold Belanger, Nathan George, David Israeli, Larry Leong and Dr. Silverius Purba was led by Alex Bescoby.

Their journey attracted huge interest among the global Land Rover fraternity, as well as from Land Rover enthusiasts along the way who turned out in large numbers to wish the expedition well and, of course, to see Oxford. Nowadays, the progress of the team could be relayed instantaneously around the world, with sound bites and snapshots on social media providing the expedition’s supporters with regular reports whenever an internet connection could be found. It makes an interesting comparison with First Overland, where occasional telegrams back to the Home Team were augmented by laboriously written or typed letters, both of which could only be sent infrequently when the expedition found itself in a location with a telegraph station or a post office. 

Oxford suffers a mishap in Turkmenistan

Oxford acquitted itself remarkably well throughout the Last Overland expedition, with only relatively minor issues to contend with like a dynamo failure near the Afghan border, resolved by fitting a battery from one of the support Defenders to allow the expedition to reach the nearest town where a replacement dynamo awaited them courtesy of Adam Bennett and a courier company. The only major mishap was when the nearside rear hub bearing failed in Turkmenistan. Luckily it happened on smooth and straight tarmac. As Léo Belanger said: “had it happened on a mountain road in Nepal, it could have been a very different story.” Recovery was organised, repairs were made, and Oxford was able to continue on its way.

‘Last Overland’ arrived back in the UK at Folkestone on 14 December to be met by Tim Slessor and a large welcoming committee of Land Rover enthusiasts, many of whom joined the convoy to escort ‘Oxford’ and the other expedition vehicles to London. It was a fitting end to a remarkable expedition.