A little piece of Heaven

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By Nick Dimbleby

21 July 2020

: credit: © Nick Dimbleby

Nick Dimbleby travels to a secret location in Australia, where husband and wife team David and Janelle D’Arcy have amassed what is probably the largest collection of Australian-market Series Land Rovers in the world

Any Land Rover enthusiast with an Instagram account is sure to have heard of Land Rover Heaven, and if you don’t follow them already you definitely need to take a look. When I first came across their page a couple of years ago I was captivated by the photos and stories of Series Land Rovers being found in the wilds of Australia. Every week there was a new image of a seemingly unloved Land Rover being rescued from a date with the metal crusher, and the photos of their yard out in the wilds of Australia had me desperate to go and visit. 

Finally, after having the privilege of photographing the Invictus Games out in Sydney, I had the chance to go and take a look for myself. For someone who loves taking pictures of Land Rovers it was a dream come true. But what’s the story behind this labour of love and where did all these amazing Land Rovers come from?  

Land Rovers in Australia
During the 1950s and 1960s Australia was a country on the up. The economy was buoyant, the population was growing rapidly thanks to an active immigration policy, major infrastructure projects were underway and new roads were being made across the country. Australia was building on a grand scale.

The best example of this is the Snowy Mountain Scheme, a massive hydro electric and irrigation complex constructed in New South Wales over a period of 25 years between 1949 and 1974. Consisting of 16 major dams, seven power stations and 225 kilometres of pipeline, tunnels and aquaducts, it remains the largest civil engineering scheme ever undertaken in Australia and Land Rovers were integral to its construction.

No-one knows for sure how many were purchased during the life of the project, but records suggest that there were at least 800 in use on the various sites in the 1950s alone. What is sure is that Land Rover’s part in the Snowy Mountain Scheme helped introduce the vehicle and its capabilities to the farmers, workers and military of Australia. 

The Queen’s visit to Australia in 1954 and the first use of the ceremonial State Review Land Rover also promoted awareness of the Land Rover and its usefulness in all situations.

For the post-war Rover Company, ravaged by the austerity years of the Second World War, exports were the focus and the New World offered the perfect market for the newly-announced vehicle. Australia needed all-terrain transport to open up vast tracts of its land, and as the Land Rover didn’t need roads, it was perfect for the people that were in the process of building them. 

In the 1950s and ’60s, the Land-Rover was the best way to get about in Australia, so it’s no surprise that during that time the country was Land Rover’s biggest non-military export market.

Many thousands of Land Rovers were imported into Australia during the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, and there were even a couple of CKD (Completely Knocked Down) assembly plants building Series vehicles for a time. The Land Rover was very much a part of Australian life in the latter half of the 20th Century, and several decades on, a good proportion of these retired vehicles are still in existence.

As you might expect, these working Land Rovers led fairly hard lives, but Australian adaptations for the unique local conditions and a myriad of farm fixes meant that the plucky vehicles kept going and became very much part of outback life. Over time, however, the Land Rovers broke or were replaced by newer models, but as space wasn’t really at a premium, the old vehicles were parked up under a tree or pushed into a barn somewhere and largely forgotten about. 

Fast forward 70 years, and the husband and wife team of David and Janelle D’Arcy have made it their lives’ work to seek out and awaken some of these sleeping beauties. Scouring Australia in search of old and forgotten Land Rovers was something that they both fell into, although when you talk to them, it’s easy to see that this was something that they were destined to do. They were both committed Land Rover fanatics before setting up Land Rover Heaven in 2015, when their passion for Land Rovers became a business. 

David and Janelle met in 2002 whilst travelling around Australia. Janelle came from a Land Rover family in Queensland, whilst David is a Brit originally from Southampton who got the Land Rover bug touring Europe in a Series II in the ’90s. Their shared love of life, travel and Land Rovers led to many an excursion out into Outback Australia, and that’s where Land Rover Heaven started. 

On one trip out exploring, the couple spotted an interesting 86-inch parked in a field, and liking the look of it they decided to pop up to the farmhouse to ask if it was for sale. “I’d very much like to buy your Land Rover,” Janelle told the farmer, who promptly took them out to one of his barns to show them a tidier Series II 88-inch. He was slightly puzzled when they said that they preferred to buy the older, tattier one sat in the field, but the deal was done and the couple were hooked.

Slowly, David and Janelle started to build up a collection of vehicles, and the excitement of finding something rare or unusual became a bit of a buzz. At first there were no plans to sell any of the vehicles they were finding, but once the collection started to grow, it became inevitable that they had to give some of the Land Rovers they’d collected a chance to be used and loved again by fellow enthusiasts.

Adventure and exploration
One of the things that David and Janelle enjoy about finding old Land Rovers is that it’s normally an adventure just getting to the vehicles. The old farming families who live miles (and we mean miles) from anywhere tend to be real characters, and frequently the pair would have to drive for hours up tracks that would test the most skilful of off-road drivers. Often there would be no address given, rather the couple would hear on the grapevine about an old Land Rover that hadn’t moved for years, and upon further enquiry would be given vague directions to get there.

What is remarkable about these old farm Land Rovers is how much character they have. The dry climate of Australia and the vehicles’ aluminium body panels have ensured that rust is rarely an issue; instead, interior trim, window rubbers and canvas tilts are the first things to go. Paintwork exposed to years of harsh Australian sunlight fades or disappears, leaving a lovely patina that can only be created with time. 

In the dry climate interiors are more prone to ageing than any exterior aluminium parts

Every dent or modification tells a story, with many vehicles being converted for farm life Australian-style. Large ’roo bars, water bag holders and the classic Aussie trayback are particular favourites, whilst around a quarter of the vehicles that David and Janelle have found have been fitted with more powerful six-cylinder Holden engines liberated from contemporary saloons. 

These old farm Land Rovers often still bear the name of the farm and the vehicle’s fiscal weight, normally hand painted on the front driver’s side wing.  This was a legal requirement back in the 1950s and ’60s, and a good way to trace the early history of vehicles that might have had multiple owners since. 

The various stories of these owners and their vehicles are amazing, as are the incredible ways that David and Janelle have come to hear about some of their rescued Land Rovers. Frequently the owners of the vehicles can’t believe that anyone would want to buy what they consider to be a pile of old junk. 

There was a 1951 Series I that was left under an old pine tree, whilst a 1949 80-inch had to be rescued from an old creek bed where it had sat for over 35 years. Some owners are keen to sell, whereas others are quite emotional when David and Janelle come to pick up a vehicle. All are happy to know that the vehicles are going to a good home though, and David and Janelle pride themselves on their reputation as enthusiasts where the Land Rovers come first.

One previous Land Rover owner in his nineties, Sonny, contacted Land Rover Heaven about his 1951 SWB, offering it for sale. When his son heard that this was happening, he rang David and Janelle to apologise, saying that he was embarrassed about it and that they really shouldn’t feel obliged to buy it. 

“What’s funny, is that it’ was a really lovely, genuine vehicle,” says David. “And we were honoured to buy it from Sonny, who had clearly looked after it throughout his life.”

The name Land Rover Heaven sums things up for a lot of former owners, as the idea that the vehicles that they have owned and lived full lives with should see something more than the crusher is appealing. David suggests that the era of stumbling across Series Is just lying in the paddock waiting to be discovered has passed, although there may be more early Land Rovers in the more remote parts of Australia.  

Nowadays, it’s more likely to be Series IIs, IIIs and 1990s Defenders that David and Janelle are finding; something borne out by the trayback Defender 110 that David has bought recently. A one-lady-owner vehicle, it was used to go from the farm to the nearest town once a week, and has done just under 85,000 kilometres (around 52,000 miles). Early Ninetys and One Tens are extremely rare, though, as the 1980s were a period where Land Rover Ltd didn’t concentrate on the Australian market, and consequently sales were low. 

From Series vehicles to 1990s Defenders, you want it, they’ve probably got it 

Rare finds
“Part of the excitement with this job is that you never know what’s coming up next,” says Janelle. Arguably the couple’s best barn find was the 1957 107 Station Wagon nicknamed Mzuri, that was originally owned by Magnum founder George Rodger and his wife Jinx. They drove the length of the Sahara for an article in National Geographic, and the vehicle somehow ended up in Australia where it acquired a new engine and an extended 113-inch wheelbase to accommodate it. 

David and Janelle love the adventure that often comes with finding an old Land Rover 

When David and Janelle discovered it after an eight and a half hour drive, it was buried behind four tonnes of timber which they had to move piece by piece to get it out. 

“As not much of the vehicle was visible and we had no idea about its history, it was quite a leap of faith,” chuckles David. “Fortunately our instinct was right and we ended up buying an incredible vehicle.” 

Other vehicles that are part of the LR Heaven collection and aren’t for sale include: several early lights-behind-the-grille ’80s, a long wheelbase with a timber pick-up bed 
based on an 80-inch with a homemade chassis extension, Janelle’s 1958 ex-Australian Army Series II LWB, Rusty the 1955 86-inch Australian trayback, and a beautifully-patinated 1951 80-inch that saw service with the NRMA (National Roads and Motorists’ Association) in Bendemeer, NSW, for over 20 years. 

Apart from that, most of the vehicles you see on these pages are for sale. Each comes with its own history and a whole heap of personality. 

Not all of Land Rover Heaven’s  collection is for sale, but most of the vehicles on these pages are

“When we get a vehicle back to the yard, the first thing we do is try and get it started. Most of the time, with a bit of perseverance, persuasion and patience, we manage to get them going,” says David. “From there on it’s a case of finding a new owner and giving the vehicle a chance to live again.” 

It seems that after Land Rover Heaven comes the opportunity for a new lease of life.

 

Contact the owners
David and Janelle D’Arcy can be contacted via their website landrover heaven.com.au. They have also started a website to showcase their own vehicles at landrovercollection.com.