The trials of Zit...


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Zit: An authentic piece of Trialling history : credit: © Martin Port
Successful trialler, part-time recovery vehicle and happy to eat up the miles on the road; meet Zit, one of three iconic Series Is created by Land Rover legend, Stafford Dovey

Anyone with half an eye on the history of Land Rovers in the UK will be well aware that at one point, it was commonplace to see 80in models changing hands for the price of a night down the pub. There will be plenty reading this, nodding sagely in agreement as they recall these halcyon days, where the diminutive wheelbase had some new owners reaching for the disc cutter rather than chequebook. The aim? To create a competitive trialler rather than a factory-fresh restoration piece.

Jake Shoolheifer deftly demonstrates Dovey’s ‘quick release’ system for removing Zit’s front wings – just one example of the man’s ingenuity

The last 20 years has witnessed a revival of interest in the Rover Company’s first offering – specialists, owners and even the parent company going to great lengths to restore early models. But more recently, there has been a broadening appreciation for those Land Rovers that once spent their weekends competing in local and national trials events before being fixed by whatever means necessary.

Rivet-counters need not apply, of course; those mechanical participants of the trialling scene were more akin to the thousands of Series Land Rovers used and abused in the far-flung corners of the world where a main dealer and official Rover parts supplier were the stuff of dreams. Modification was key to keeping the 80in running and doing what was needed – regardless of the advice and methods offered in the workshop manual and parts catalogue.

As a result, many of the triallers constructed and evolved in the 1970s and ’80s had more than a little bit of Frankenstein DNA about them. But where some might have previously crossed to the other side of the road to avoid these creations, time spent properly examining them doesn’t only generate a newfound appreciation, but actually gets the heart racing.

Dovey at the wheel of Zit at Wicken Fen in the mid-1980s

One particular Land Rover enthusiast, specialist and skilled trialler was Stafford Dovey – known to his friends simply as Staf. In the 1970s and ’80s – and in a bid to lift the silverware – Staf created what some would regard to be the holy trinity of trialling Land Rovers: Zit, Pimple and Acne. At that time, Dovey was living in Suffolk and was extremely well-known in early Land Rover circles. Here was a man who had been working on them from the late 1950s and, as a result, knew them inside and out. If you were lucky enough to have visited him, you would have witnessed a barn stacked from floor to ceiling with vehicles and spare parts, but if you were really lucky, you might have been treated to a peek in the other buildings down the lane – all as equally well-stocked.

Rarely pictured together, Zit, Pimple and Acne were all built with trialling in mind

Acne, Pimple and our featured 80in Zit, were all created as triallers, but they were put together on a sliding scale of effectiveness. Pimple was purpose-built to compete in Welsh hill rallies; Acne was an out-and-out trialling machine with stripped-down and cutaway bodywork; Zit was built to cope with a multitude of environments – from trials and road rallies to recoveries and general usage. Put simply, it had to cope with anything. Perhaps it’s not surprising, therefore, to discover that this particular one of Dovey’s triplets was his favourite; whilst Acne and Pimple saw more limited use as a result of their specialist builds, Zit probably shared more time with Staf at the wheel and a special relationship was cultivated between this brilliant all-rounder and its creator.

Current custodian Julian Shoolheifer – arguably best known for his stunning restoration of JUE 477 – first came across Zit when he was 13-years old. With a Land Rover-owning father, their purpose for first visiting Dovey was to collect some parts. But from the off, it was the trialler that captivated the teenager and repeated visits simply nurtured this obsession. Over the years, Julian’s relationship with Dovey grew – he recognised the young lad’s enthusiasm and passion and encouraged it in his own, subdued way. Even in adulthood, Julian still viewed Zit with a huge fondness – this was his Ferrari poster on the bedroom wall – yet he had never managed to get behind the wheel.

When Dovey announced that he was moving to Rhayader in the Welsh county of Powys, Julian helped sort out his workshop and barns – no mean feat, given the accumulation of parts and vehicles, but while Staf’s newfound location wasn’t quite as convenient for the Essex-based enthusiast, it didn’t deter Julian and he still spent a lot of time there. It was during one visit that Dovey fired up Zit and the pair drove to the top of the Elan valley. Pausing to look at the commanding views, he calmly informed Julian that it was his turn to drive; was this to be a ‘never meet your heroes’ moment?

Zit offers a driving experience an enthusiast will appreciate

The answer was no. “It was the best thing to drive… Ever!” enthuses Julian. When the duo arrived back, an exalted driver pulled the keys from the ignition and handed them to Staf. “You drive this just like I do,” Dovey said. “It’s uncanny.” Offering the keys back in Julian’s direction, he announced: “I think you should look after it from now on.”

Of course, that was a great honour; Julian had a huge amount of respect for Dovey and what he had done to keep the old Land Rover world alive before ‘heritage’ was a money-making commodity, but he also knew first-hand of his talents at the wheel of not just Zit, but any of his home-built triallers. Being assigned the role of caretaker for this dream Land Rover meant simply using it and since that auspicious day Julian has used it with the same variety as Dovey: in competition, off-road, as a load-lugger and simply as transport.

Austin-Healey seats, mis-matched wiper motors and a whole host of odd modifications make driving Zit a truly unique experience

Even if the intention is for a brief walk around Zit, you are soon drawn to the minutiae of Dovey’s organic build. There are so many alterations, modifications and character-filled initiatives, that it’s almost impossible to not inhale and explore every little touch.

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In fact, it’s very much like peeling off the layers of an onion; the closer you look, the more you notice, and the more you notice, the more you can’t help but marvel at some of the oddities that were clearly born out of necessity and an impressively inventive mind. For starters, there are the removable front wings – not removable in the traditional sense that you need to break out the spanners, but thanks to some spring-loaded securing brackets that are usually spotted helping to keep a bonnet in place and some inventive bracketry, both wings can be separated from the Land Rover in seconds, as Julian’s son Jake, deftly demonstrates.

The inclusion of a Hesford winch in the rear tub may have added weight, but it also aided traction and has helped more than one stricken Land Rover

It’s impossible to not notice the weighty Hesford winch mounted in the rear tub and which exits through a hole cut in the tailgate, but this adds yet another string to the Land Rover’s bow – the added kilograms helping provide a little more traction at the back end as well as enabling Dovey to pull out stricken competitors.

Inside, the slender roll cage has provided a home to many additions including an electric fan aimed at the driver and a perilously-positioned AM radio that has since been removed on the grounds of safety (nobody needs to listen to the shipping forecast when the set is embedded in the side of your head), but the cabin is littered with thoughtfully placed items that do nothing more than serve their purpose. Although a vaguely period-correct wiper motor sits on the passenger side, a more recent Lucas version is crudely bolted in front of the driver to fulfil screen clearing duties; a round Smiths heater is bolted to the bulkhead with demister tubes crossing arms over the instrument binnacle before feeding hot air to the windscreen via centrally-mounted vents.

The crossing demister tubes may look messy, but they do their job

​​​​​​“One of Staf’s particular talents was his ability to repurpose parts,” explains Julian. “He always looked at the task something needed to do and then worked out what could possibly be reinvented to fulfil that.” One fantastic example of that ethos is the switch for the air horns, which are operated by a Series I brake light switch with a ring added to the end – pull the ring and where once the connection made would light up a bulb, it instead fires up the horn.

​The Bosch foglight on the rear of the roll cage is secured in place by the bracket from an 80in fuel sediment bowl and Dovey realised that the opening vents from an 86in vehicle would work rather nicely on an 80in, and so fitted them. Despite possibly appearing rather haphazard, all of his additions and modifications were extremely well thought through and one look at the running gear and suspension offers credence to this approach. A lightweight axle at the front is paired with an ENV axle at the rear, atop which sit modified three-tonne lorry springs to support the extra weight of the winch. Instead of sitting and riding horribly, however, Dovey then adjusted the combination of other leaves to result in a vehicle which not just feels superb on the road, but also maintains traction off it – not an easy thing to do with such modifications.

Although built with trialling in mind, Zit is also an all-rounder and so has always remained eminently usable

​​​​​​Amongst all this organised chaos are two of the nicest seats that you will ever find in a Series Land Rover – a pair of leather-trimmed thrones taken from an Austin- Healey that inject an understated touch of class into the melee. These may be more recent additions when it comes to Zit’s timeline, but somehow they don’t look at all out of place thanks to the pick-n-mix nature of this amazing vehicle.

Mechanically, Zit still relies on the late 2.0-litre Rover 60 engine with high compression pistons fitted by Dovey to get it started in the morning and, in true Land Rover fashion, it will burst into action after months or even years of inactivity once it has been fed the two main staple foods: fuel and a spark. The steering is wonderfully light thanks to a low-ratio box and the whole ensemble sits atop a rather beaten, battered, but solid chassis with just a few more subtle modifications visible through the wheelarches – extended damper tubes with an additional eye being just one example that stands out at first inspection and offers further credence to the ‘it’s not wrong if it does the job’ ethos of many historic trialling machines of the period.

If this little 80in was the subject of an historical investigation, it’s fair to say that it would probably have automotive archeologists scratching their heads; the Jaguar Drivers’ Club badge on the front wing, Australian grille badge and Goodwood Revival sticker on the door all provide irreverent stopping points in the vehicle’s past. But the big question is, will Zit ever return to the trials arena? Unlike its trophy-winning brother Acne, Zit has remained fundamentally the same since its creation. In order to remain competitive, Acne lived in a continuous compete-modify-rebuild cycle, yet to try to alter Zit to a point where it may meet current ALRC regulations would erase so much history.

A more recent outing for Julian and co-driver Alastair Booker at the 2011 ALRC National

“It’s a snapshot in time,” suggests Julian. “Competition vehicles need to evolve and as historic trialling becomes more popular again, then some of the history on these vehicles will inevitably be lost. I’d rather keep Zit as it is, repair as necessary and then use it in appropriate events such as the Patina National.”

Strip away all of the humour, necessity and innovation that has gone into creating Zit, and it could quite easily be turned back into a relatively standard-looking 80in Series I. In the hunt for authenticity and a good story, old machines like this have their own following, but you have to get it; if your first glimpse of something similar doesn’t immediately have you excitedly crawling around underneath and peering into dark corners to try to get inside the mind of its creator, then perhaps it’s not one for you.


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