Last of the Series Is


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Note the unusual length of the 107in : credit: © Nick Dimbleby
This tidy 1958 Land Rover 107in Station Wagon doesn’t shout about its extraordinary life. Nick Dimbleby delves into its past and finds some remarkable stories

Like many Land Rover enthusiasts, I have a bit of a soft spot for Series One 107in Station Wagons. If you like no-nonsense functionality, quirky design and utilitarian charm, then it’s hard to resist the Station Wagon’s homespun appearance. The extraordinary number of exposed rivets on the body shows that it was made in an era when metal reinforcements and galvanised cappings were added where needed, rather than hidden away or placed where they might look nice. This ‘on show’ arrangement makes the vehicle look a little bit like the motoring equivalent of the Forth Rail Bridge, but if you love things that are a bit different, then the 107 Station Wagon is undoubtedly the Land Rover for you.

The 107 Station Wagon was in production from early 1956 to late 1958, but from 1957 onwards Solihull’s people carrier was a bit of an outlier. The new 2.0-litre diesel engine announced by Land Rover the same year had necessitated a two-inch extension of the front chassis just before the bulkhead, and this meant that the LWB Land Rover had a 109-inch wheelbase from 1957 onwards. However, as there were no plans to put the agricultural diesel engine in the Station Wagon, the ten-seater vehicle remained resolutely at 107 inches. After all, why bother to change things when the Station Wagon was only available with the 1997cc four-cylinder petrol engine?

As you might imagine, the 107 Station Wagon was the pinnacle of the Land Rover range in 1958, and as such it was the most expensive model. Whereas the more utility-orientated versions sold well to farmers, the military and anyone else with a need to haul stuff around off-road, the LWB Station Wagon was designed for a more specialist market: people that needed what was effectively an off-road minibus. These included construction companies, institutions like the Forestry Commission and the owners of country estates, who found them useful for shooting excursions.

The 107in, with it's natural patina, looks at home in an Oregon Autumn scene

With a limited market and a relatively high price, the vehicle wasn’t a huge seller, so it remained unchanged throughout the late 1950s, until it was replaced by the Series II LWB Station Wagon – this time with styling input from David Bache and Tony Poole.

At this point, things become interesting, because the first Series IIs to be on sale were the SWB and utility LWB models in 1958 – the Station Wagon variant wasn’t available until six months later in August 1958. This meant that the trusty Series I 107 Station Wagon carried on for a few months after the rest of Series I production had stopped. Can you see where this is going..? Yup, the late model 1958 107 Station Wagon you see on these pages is nothing less than the last Series I Land Rover produced at Solihull. Pretty cool, eh?

By that time in the Land Rover factory, Series II production was in full swing, so the last Series I would have been assembled from the last remaining production Series I components. I’m sure it would have been a big moment at the factory – especially considering the sheer amount of labour required simply to put all those rivets in. A build date on the vehicle’s (original) radiator reads ‘10M 58’, so we can surmise that the vehicle was built in October 1958. I’m sure that the rivet men would have breathed a sigh of relief!

Spartan by today's standards but the height of Land Rover luxury at the time

Once it was finished, the last Series I was despatched to a rather special customer: His Grace, John Spencer-Churchill, 10th Duke of Marlborough and owner of Blenheim Palace. Here, after being registered by supplying dealer E.H. Organ and Son on December 1, 1958 (complete with Oxfordshire registration number 539 EWL), it joined the small fleet of vehicles used at Blenheim. It’s fairly safe to assume that the Duke himself was a regular driver of the Land Rover. Whereas he would have been driven in a Rolls-Royce or Daimler in London, back at Blenheim, he would have been quite happy behind the wheel of the Land Rover.

There are some great archive photographs taken by Albert McCabe of the Daily Express, showing the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, sitting in the front of the vehicle in the courtyard at Blenheim, with Henry Herbert, 6th Earl of Carnarvon smoking a pipe in the rear. Another great photo shows them outside the vehicle, both wearing tweed, smoking pipes and wearing flat caps. The date is recorded as 11 November 1960.

As befits a vehicle used by the highest echelons of British society, the Series I Station Wagon was a relatively comfortable place to be – at least when compared with the standard Series I. The three individual front seats up front are well padded and trimmed in grey ‘elephant hide’ trim, rubber mats were placed on the floor (rather than just bare paintwork), while the front and rear doors were also trimmed in ‘elephant hide’, complete with map pockets up front and padding on the top of the rear door. It’s amazing that most of this original trim remains intact in the vehicle today.

Exposed rivets and screws lend it a Meccano-like appearance

But before we take a closer look at the vehicle in 2021, there’s another chapter in its history that we need to look at – that of photographic calendar star and former member of the famous Dunsfold Collection throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.

According to the original ‘Registration Book for a Mechanically Propelled Vehicle’, Brian Bashall, founder of Dunsfold Land Rovers and the Dunsfold Land Rover Collection, purchased 539 EWL from a Mr Bruce Alfred Booty in the early 1980s. Mr Booty had bought the vehicle in July 1979 from Mr Peter Dolley, who had, in turn, bought the vehicle from Blenheim Palace in September 1968. So, from new, the vehicle had a series of owners, all of whom kept the vehicle for around ten years or so.

Brian’s son Philip recalls that Brian used the vehicle as an everyday car for most of the early 1980s. Philip says that Brian probably bought the vehicle because it was reasonably priced - it was only later that its illustrious place in Land Rover history was discovered. For Brian, the 25-year-old Land Rover was a relatively low-mileage vehicle in pretty good condition. The team at Dunsfold looked after it well, sorting things out as and when they needed attention, but it was kept original and certainly never painted.

During its time at DLR, 539 EWL acquired the nickname ‘The Duke’ for obvious reasons. It was a familiar sight at Dunsfold throughout the 1980s, and Phil remembers heading up to Solihull in the vehicle many times. “There was a works outing up to Land Rover, where six of us travelled up to Solihull in the vehicle,” recalls Phil. “This was before the M40 and M25 had been completed, so we drove up on ‘A’ roads pretty much all the way. I remember stopping at the Little Chef at Kidlington, so we must have gone past the door of its former home in Blenheim on the way up!”

The Duke was also part of a Land Rover heritage display in the factory at Solihull for a ‘family day’ for the engineering and production team of what was then the ‘new’ Discovery in late 1989. It was also displayed at several Land Rover events that took place at the Land Rover Experience Centre in Solihull when the British Motorshow was held at the nearby NEC.

The last 107 featured in 40th anniversary publicity material

During its time at Dunsfold, The Duke featured in a set of images that were produced to celebrate Land Rover’s 40th Anniversary in 1988. Company photographer Paul O’Connor travelled down to Dunsfold to photograph a number of vehicles in the collection, which naturally included the quirky Series I Station Wagon. The resulting photographs were used extensively in brochures and promotions for the 40th Anniversary, not least a large format calendar that was sent out by Land Rover Genuine Parts to their main stockists. The Duke was featured at the bottom of February’s page in the calendar, and it also appeared in the Genuine Parts address book for 1988.

Content continues after advertisements

However, by the mid-1990s, the Duke was starting to show his age. The bulkhead was in poor condition, and the vehicle needed some general TLC. While on a visit to the UK, American Land Rover collector John Woodhead (now deceased), saw the Duke in the yard at Dunsfold and asked if it was for sale. As the Collection had just been gifted another 107 Station Wagon (TBT 444), and they didn’t need two, a deal was done and The Duke was sold.

“People would go mad for the patina nowadays,” says Phil, “But at the time, it was just a scruffy old Land Rover that needed a lot of work! We were happy that it was going to a friend of Dunsfold and a great new home.”

Current owner, Ike Goss of Pangolin 4x4 takes The Duke out for an early morning drive

So now we enter the last chapter of 539 EWL’s interesting life to date: its time in the USA. After nearly two decades with John Woodhead, current owner Ike Goss of Pangolin 4x4 purchased the vehicle in 2012. The vehicle had spent its time with John as part of a collection that was kept in a barn in Washington state. Ike recalls that the barn was full of rats, and at night, the snakes would come out to eat the rats. “While we were clearing out the barn, we must have seen at least 20 snakes!” he remembers.

Ike and his partner Jenna have a particular fondness for Series Is, not least the 107-inch Station Wagon, so it didn’t take much for them to purchase the vehicle. “It’s a great Land Rover,” Ike says. “The fact it’s the last Solihull-built Series I is a nice bonus!”

Rear step would have been useful for shooting parties

Amusingly enough, Ike didn’t know much about its history at first. It was only while he was talking to Phil Bashall one evening during the 70th Anniversary Series I run to Cooma, Australia, that Ike realised he was talking to the son of the vehicle’s second owner. Phil and Ike only made the connection one evening while comparing notes on Series I ownership. After that evening’s conversation, Ike was even more pleased to be the vehicle’s current custodian.

It’s The Duke’s originality that really stands out, and since acquiring him, Ike has carried out a lot of sympathetic restoration work to get the vehicle into tip-top condition. “The bulkhead was pretty bad when we got it - if you look closely in some of the 45th anniversary photos you can see duct tape covering some rust holes!” he chuckles. The bulkhead was repaired to the highest standard possible, and a new wiring harness was installed at the same time. The brakes, tyres, axles, steering, radiator and other components were also renewed, retaining as much of the original parts as possible.

Another engine has been put in place while the original is rebuilt

With that in mind, the original engine has been out for the past year being rebuilt, but rather than leaving The Duke dormant, Ike has been driving him in the meantime with another 2.0 litre in place. “It’s time for the original to be reinstalled now that it’s been rebuilt, so that’s a job to do,” said Ike. Being the last Series I produced makes it a very special vehicle in Ike and Jenna’s wonderful collection, and it was while visiting them in Oregon that I was able to get behind the wheel and have my own experience of this piece of Land Rover history.

Cavernous rear loadspace complete with Land Rover optional rubber floor mat

The first thing I noticed was just how comfortable the seats were. The seat bases have been replaced in the past couple of years (the originals were past the point of no return), and the bouncy springs in them feel good. Because the Station Wagon body adds quite a bit of weight to the vehicle, the vehicle’s springs also feel softer and more comfortable than an (unladen) 109in Series I pick-up that I drove a few years ago. It’s not a rapid machine of course, but it does make progress in a stately manner – the sort of progress that would befit a Duke, appropriately enough.

The last Series One really is a fantastic vehicle: smart, unmolested and the living embodiment of an interesting and varied life.

“We feel incredibly lucky to be part of its ongoing history,” said Ike.  “Sixty-three years on and it’s still going strong.”


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