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08 January 2024
Owner Andrew Bullas is delighted with the stunning restoration of his Rolls-Royce engined 81-inch : credit: © Gary Pusey
This superb Rolls-Royce-engined Series I scooped the award for Best Restored Land Rover at the LRM Live show in May. The story of the rebuild alongside its twin is fascinating…

Coveted LRM Live award and the hole in the bonnet to accommodate the radiator cap

On the face of it, in the late 1940s someone came up with what seemed like a good idea. This particular cunning plan aimed to unlock huge financial and logistical benefits by standardising the engines in the British Army’s wheeled vehicle fleet. The chosen engine was the Rolls-Royce B-Series, a normally aspirated inline engine with crossflow inlet-over-exhaust cylinder heads that was launched in 1947.

The B-Series had significant commonality of parts across its B40 four-cylinder, B60 six-cylinder, and B80 eight-cylinder variants, all of which shared the same pistons, rods, valves, springs and liners, while the B80 used two sets of the oil bath, air filters, exhaust manifolds and points components of the B40, and used the same carburettor as the B60, and so on.

​​​​​​The engines were designed to be simple to maintain and could run on low-octane pool petrol. They had high power outputs for the time, with the three engine variants initially producing 80, 120 and 180bhp respectively. The B40 was fitted as standard in the army’s Austin Champ, a vehicle that did what the Series I Land Rover could do, although at twice the price.

Immaculate engine bay with all the attention to detail typical of a Houben restoration

On paper, the B40 engine appeared to offer more than the 1.6 fitted in the army’s Land Rovers, of which 1878 had been delivered between 1949 and 1950. As part of the evaluation exercise, 33 of this batch of standard 80-inch Land Rovers were delivered to the premises of Hudson Motors Ltd in Chiswick, London, where, under the supervision of Rover’s engineers, they were fitted with Rolls-Royce 2.8-litre B40 Mk2b engines.

The conversion required a significant amount of work, including the relocation of the rear axle an inch further back, giving the vehicles a wheelbase of 81 inches. The B40 engine installation was taller than the Rover unit, meaning the front bumper had to be raised in order to align the hole for the starting handle, while the bonnet was raised on rubber blocks to provide additional clearance in the engine bay. Even with this modification, it was still necessary to cut a circular hole in the bonnet for the radiator cap.

Trials were held at the FVRDE in early 1950, and these revealed that the B40 was actually not as good as Rover’s 1.6 engine, and the programme was abandoned. It is probably good that it was, because when the army finalised its order for Austin Champs, Rolls-Royce concluded that it didn’t have the capacity to build the required number of B40 engines and had no option other than to licence Austin to build them.

Everything on the restored vehicle is mint

Most of the 81s were sold by the army in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Two of them, chassis number R06104550 with service number 12BC19, and R06104553 12BC22, were acquired by Land Rover enthusiast Andrew Bullas some years ago.

“I bought 12BC19 from a guy in Penzance,” he tells me. “It was a runner but had a 2.25 diesel in it. The other one I bought in boxes from the late John Smith, owner of pre-production L11. In a bizarre twist of fate, the owner of 12BC19 had sold its original Rolls-Royce engine to John Smith, and it was included in the boxes of bits I bought from him. This meant that when the restoration eventually started, 12BC19 would be reunited with its original engine!”

Bonnet sits on rubber spacers for clearance for the taller B40 engine

Andrew spent a lot of time gathering the parts he knew would be required when the time eventually came to rebuild them, and in 2013 the Houben family, leading Land Rover restorers and collectors whose workmanship is very highly regarded, agreed to take them on. The deal would be that both vehicles would be restored in parallel and, when they were finished, 12BC22 would be returned to Andrew, and the Houbens would keep its sister vehicle to add to their own stunning Land Rover collection (see LRM September 2018).

Telling me about their initial inspection of the two 81s once they’d got them in their workshop near Maastricht, the Houbens said: “We could see that 12BC22 had been in quite good condition before it was taken apart, but 12BC19 was a different story… The chassis and bulkhead were in very bad condition and would need a huge amount of work. The chassis had already been plated and it was also twisted, and the crossmembers would need replacing. The chassis on Andrew’s vehicle was in much better shape, and only needed a replacement rear crossmember and some repairs to number three crossmember.”

Grille is mounted on spacers and sits further forward that standard

Astonishingly, the Houbens managed to straighten the twisted chassis using a beam press and, once all the welding was completed, both chassis were zinc-coated and painted Bronze Green. Naturally enough, the pace of the restoration was totally dependent on whichever of the two vehicles required the most work at any given stage, and this meant that progress on 12BC22 proceeded at exactly the same pace as 12BC19.

“Next on the list were all four axles. Andrew arranged for the differentials to be reconditioned and had to manufacture a new front diff case because one was missing. The case is not standard Land Rover because it has a cut-out to clear the sump. Andrew also supplied all new bearings, seals and swivel parts, but many of the axle bolts were missing so these had to be sourced from scrap axles. There were lengthy discussions about what colour the axles had been originally, but we found traces of black, so all four were painted in that hue.

“Andrew rebuilt the original gearboxes which had been modified when the B40 engines were fitted, with different bellhousings to take a 10-inch clutch. They also had a bigger transfer ’box with a higher ratio to cope with the power output of the Rolls-Royce engine.

Chassis plate with military contract number, and Hudson Motors Ltd conversion plate

“The bulkheads were next. They are standard parts which were modified with a larger cut-out in the centre, to accommodate the bigger bellhousing. There were also some additional holes for pedal brackets. As with the chassis, the bulkhead on 12BC19 was by far the worst, and we had to fold up a completely new top section which was spot-welded into place. The door pillars also needed replacing with new folded-up sections.

“By contrast, the bulkhead on 12BC22 looked really nice. It had already been sandblasted and painted, but closer inspection revealed that the door pillars were plated over and there was plenty of filler under the shiny Bronze Green paint. We had it blasted again and made repairs to the door pillars and under the front legs. Once both bulkheads were finished, we had them zinc-coated and repainted.

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Ministry of Supply plate lists service registration, chassis number and February 1955 overhaul date

“The next major items were the engines. Among the parts that Andrew had collected was a brand-new Rolls-Royce B40 Mk2b engine still sealed in its packing crate. It is one of the 50 Mk2b engines that were built for the Land Rover engine conversion project, but because only 33 were converted this one had remained a spare engine for all those intervening years. It turned freely and looked as good as new inside. We removed all the ancillaries, cleaned off the engine and painted it high gloss black, then cleaned all the covers and the sump and reassembled it with new gaskets. This engine was then installed in 12BC22 with a new clutch.

“As with everything else on this double restoration, the engine for 12BC19 would turn out to be a completely different kettle of fish. It had been partially dismantled and all the parts were wrapped in newspaper dating from 1986. There were a number of boxes with unmarked bolts and other bits and pieces scattered randomly. We decided the first thing to do was dismantle what was left on the engine, inspect it thoroughly and measure everything. With a bit of luck, it might just have needed a good clean, some new piston rings, and fresh gaskets…

“Our hopes were soon shattered. It was immediately obvious that the engine had suffered a very hard life indeed. There was black sludge everywhere inside and the big ends and main bearing were completely worn out.

Plenty of period details set this restoration apart

​​​​​​“The Rolls-Royce design included bore liners, and the upper two inches had an especially thin liner of hardwearing material. We wondered whether there had been problems with these, leading to one-piece liners being fitted as replacements. This engine already had these one-piece liners, but they were worn to over +20-thou, and for these engines +20 is the largest oversize you can have.

“This meant we would need to do a complete rebuild with new liners. Some new parts had already been acquired by Andrew, including a crankshaft, camshaft, and valves, and we eventually found a specialist who was able to provide everything else we needed, including liners, pistons, seals, and gasket sets.

Convoy markingsand lubricant codes stencilled on the rear axle and diff

​​​​​​“We had the head pressure-tested, machined and new valve guides and seats fitted. On these engines the camshaft timing can only be set by setting number 1 inlet valve, which meant the head had to be fitted first, before any timing gears could be fitted – these engines don’t have a timing chain, just gears, which can be positioned in eight different ways. After this was done, most of the engine assembly work was quite straightforward, apart from making lots of studs and special bolts which had gone missing through the years of storage.

“We made all new fuel pipes in stainless and used wire wool to recreate the correct matt finish. Separate unions were acquired and hard-soldered on the pipework. In the meantime, Andrew Bullas had the carburettors, water pumps, distributors, starters, dynamos and headlamps rebuilt for both cars.

Beautifully restored dashboard with superb detailing

“We had the wheel rims sandblasted and between us we managed to combine the seven very hard-to-find Dunlop Trackgrip T29A 6.50x16 tyres that Andrew had in his store, with three that we had, which meant that we could make up two complete sets of original-spec tyres.  Other typical military items were the tropicalised wiring looms. The easiest option would have been to have used Autosparks looms, but we wanted to find the correct tropicalised items. We had one genuine loom in our own stock and Andrew had some harness parts in his stock, and Richard Lines was able to help with the final missing pieces to make two complete looms. It gave us a great deal of satisfaction to be able to fit the correct looms.

“Now attention turned to the bodywork. Both seatboxes were completely rattled apart and all the spot welds had come loose, so two other seatboxes were used and modified using an original one as a pattern. We had to modify modern CKD Shop inner wings to suit.

Other than LRM Live in May 2023, the Rolls-Rover has only attended a couple of local shows

“For the rear bodies, Andrew had one NOS item which only needed minor repairs before it could be fitted to 12BC22. We repaired and reused the original from 12BC19. This was quite straight although the front bulkhead had been modified to take other seats, so we had to make a new front bulkhead and weld new parts into the wheelarches as these had been cut as well for this modification.”

Both vehicles were finally completed in 2020 during the pandemic, and the following year 12BC22 finally returned to the UK and a very excited Andrew Bullas. It was registered LWU 693 in August 2021 and the LRM Live event was its first big public outing.

The final word on the project belongs to the Houbens. “It took us four years to restore these cars, and it was seven years since we first had a look at them and agreed to do the project. During this period, we have to admit that on more than one occasion we wished we’d never started! But when we see the finished products it makes us proud that we completed them, especially when you realise that they had been a pile of bits that had been travelling through several garages since 1986.”


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