28 December 2022
Gary Pusey talks to Martin Port about the fascinating story of the Trans-Africa Series II, its original owner, and the book it inspired Martin to write
What was your first interaction with the Land Rover?
It was summer 2015 and my morning routine was pretty much the same each day: spend a couple of hours commuting to London in my Series IIA, then enjoy five minutes checking a few Land Rover forums with a coffee in hand before everyone else arrived in the office. The first new post I saw on the Series 2 Club forum was one asking for advice on what to do with a vehicle that hadn’t been on the road for a number of years and that turned out to be this particular example.
Nothing particularly unusual about that though, so what grabbed your attention?
There was a brief description of the vehicle and half a dozen pictures. I’m a sucker for any classic that wears its age with pride and even more so when there’s some old signwriting involved and so my heart rate was up from the start. With my journalist head on and reading that it had done an overland journey in period, my first thought was that it would potentially make an excellent article, but that was quickly accompanied by the very real fear that the ‘wrong’ person might convince the family that it needed restoring and the signwriting and patina would be lost forever.
With the original owner having passed away just a few months before at that point, it was important that I stressed to his family that safeguarding its future was the key motivation – I could possibly use my links within the classic car world to introduce them to the right people as, let’s face it, there are plenty of unscrupulous people out there who are more than happy to take advantage and make a quick buck.
Extensively signwritten and modified, it’s strange to think that this was a standard 88in when Kohler began his trip
When did you first see the Series II in the metal?
After a few email exchanges and phone calls, the family invited me up to London to see the Land Rover and to chat with a view to writing an article as a tribute to the owner, Philip Kohler. At that point, the vehicle had been stood outside their Shepherd’s Bush home for nearly 20 years and was certainly looking a little worse for wear, but I was instantly captivated – it just had so much atmosphere about it and, sitting in the driver’s seat, there was no denying that it had a story to tell.
The interior now, almost exactly as Kohler left it; note shortened gear lever and bottle opener
I took some photographs, made notes over a cup of tea with the family and when asked for my thoughts on what should be done with it, outlined an honest and simple approach: put the vehicle back on the road, retain as much of its originality as possible, resist any temptation to repaint any of the signwriting and then use it – celebrating the life it had and adding new experiences to the story.
As far as I was concerned, this was the only appropriate route ahead and any potential new owner needed to agree, hence why I offered to help find that right person when the family eventually decided to sell – although at that point the Land Rover was nothing to do with me, I just couldn’t bear the thought of someone stripping and repainting it before putting it up for sale with a huge markup.
Kohler's Land Rover being ferried across the Luangwa River by rope pontoon
Is it fair to say that when you next heard from them, their communication came as a bit of a shock?
Most definitely. A year had passed since I met the family and wrote the initial article about Philip. Although I knew they were happy with what I had produced and I’d made it clear I was happy to help, I hadn’t heard anything for a while and presumed that the Series II had been sold – after all, there was never a shortage of people leaving notes on the windscreen or posting letters through their door offering to ‘take it off their hands’.
Then one evening, an email came through – 8.12pm to be exact. The first line read: “We have finally decided that the time is right to part with the vehicle. We hope you might still be interested in it?”
Of course, I was – they expressed that preserving its heritage was far more important to them than any other aspect of finding it a new owner and by the following evening we had agreed a price. A week later and I was winching it onto a trailer behind my IIA.
You mentioned before that over the years, many people had walked past and presumed it to be in pretty bad condition – were there any surprises when you started work on it?
Most definitely, although only pleasant ones. It’s easy for people to make assumptions based on aesthetics, but having resurrected several classics over the years, that part didn’t worry me. My initial inspection of the Series II in 2015 confirmed to me that both chassis and bulkhead weren’t just solid, they were in excellent condition thanks to another family member having had the foresight to galvanise them 20 years or so earlier before parking it up again. I also knew that the engine turned by hand and so the entire resurrection was weighted in my favour.
It took several hours to extricate the Series II, but a happy Martin then headed home with his IIA towing its unplanned replacement
I had originally planned to remove the engine, freshen it up, have the radiator pressure-tested and re-cored if necessary and fit a new wiring loom. However, my enthusiasm and impatience got the better of me and after checking that there was oil and water where there should be, I changed the points, fitted new spark plugs, leads and distributor cap and hooked up a battery. The engine turned over, fired up and ran smoother than any Land Rover I had ever owned!
The clutch and braking hydraulics needed replacing of course, but once we had done that it drove and stopped – all achieved in my spare time over just a few weeks.
From there on in, it’s just been a case of fettling as necessary, but in the first few years it was still a case of discovery; it felt as if every time I worked on the vehicle, I discovered another original component. Chassis, bulkhead, engine, gearbox, transfer ’box, starter motor, distributor, steering box, carburettor, radiator – all dated 1959. Even some of the wheel rims are the originals and when coupled with the bodywork, it makes for a pretty unique example.
That must add to the pressures of ownership?
A little, yes. I like things to look right – that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be exactly how it left the factory, but I’ve never been worried about making sensitive modifications to help keep something on the road and running as needed. Suddenly I realised that with the trans-Africa Land Rover, it would be ‘wrong’ to compromise its originality, but above everything else, it still needs to work and be used – it just means that original parts need to be overhauled instead of replaced by off-the-shelf bits and that includes the modifications that Philip Kohler made to it whilst on his journey.
Hundreds of 35mm slides and negatives battled for a place in the book
You’ve just published a book all about the vehicle and its first owner. How did that come about?
As I began to gather more historical information about the Series II, it made sense to think about assembling it all in one place. When I wrote that first article, I had nothing more than the pictures I took of it, but by the time the family got in contact to see if I was interested in taking it on, they had found three large boxes of 35mm transparencies of images that Philip had shot during his journey. Fortunately for me, they put them in my care and a closer look revealed that there were over 1000 photographs that documented not just his African adventure, but also his early travelling days from leaving his native Australia in 1955 to travelling around Europe and the UK.
That would have been enough for me to consider producing a book, but then some months later I took the Land Rover back to visit Philip’s family. His partner of 52 years handed me a large box and she suggested I throw away whatever wasn’t of interest; it turned out to be every single piece of documentation and communication relating to his time in Africa – from writing to the Rover Company requesting information on their new Series II model, to hand-written petrol accounts and receipts for any parts and work done on the vehicle.
That was enough to convince me that the story was deserving of a proper publication and fortunately the family gave me their blessing – even letting me borrow Philip’s 1959 Leica that he used through Africa, so that I could take some new shots for the book.
Philip Kohler using his Leica to photograph the Maasai people
What was the biggest challenge when it came to writing the book?
There were two obvious ones I suppose. Deciding what images to include was a challenge; I’d initially gone through and just selected those that featured the Land Rover, but the more times I went through the rest, the more I realised that they were crucial to telling the whole story, including, of course, the fact that his career in the film industry began with his experiences on Hatari! and The Lion whilst on his African adventure. In the end, I scanned every single transparency and negative just so I could properly appreciate their significance and place in the story.
Kohler's first film work was on the set of Hatari! where he photographed its stars, including
Actually writing the book was the second challenge. Philip didn’t keep a diary or journal and unfortunately I never got to meet him and so his story needed to be told through the anecdotes handed down to his family. They were instrumental in enabling me to inject ‘him’ into the story, but the rest was down to old fashioned research.
First owner celebrated his Australian heritage with a familiar outline on the doors
Fortunately, the signwritten locations and dates on the Land Rover’s hard top, coupled with all those documents, receipts and photographs, meant that I could piece together a very accurate timeline which would form the backbone of the tale.
It was a similar process to researching and writing the book on JUE 477 – you need to turn detective and really examine the finer points; sometimes poring over an image that you previously thought relatively insignificant suddenly threw up the smallest of details and resulted in a eureka moment as it confirmed another fact, date or location.
Martin Port – proud owner of the Series II with his book, and right, the car now, as photographed by Martin using Kohler’s original 1959 Leica film camera.
And now it’s published, are you pleased with it?
I am immensely proud. When you take ownership of a vehicle such as this, by default you adopt some responsibility for its history and I think I’ve produced something which pays respect to, and acknowledges what Philip and his Series II did. For me, it’s about aspiration and inspiration and I’ve already had readers get in touch telling me that it’s prompted them to think about planning some adventures with their own Land Rovers.
A spread from Martin's book provides a snapshot of Kohler’s adventure
It was also very important to me that I produced this for Philip’s family. He had a remarkable life – from an agricultural student in South Australia, to a career working on movies such as The Empire Strikes Back and Full Metal Jacket – a career that was kick-started as a result of his overland journey in the very Land Rover that they had entrusted me with.
I promised to tell his story and keep something of him ‘alive’ and hopefully this book helps do that.
Martin won Best Publication Award at the 2022 Legends Show. To Martin's left is the restorer Julian Shoolheifer, with his Brian Bashall Memorial Award for his restoration of JUE 477, about which Martin has also written a book.
Talking of inspiring new adventures, what does the future hold for the Series II?
Ever since I first saw the trans-Africa Land Rover, I had thoughts of retracing some of Philip’s original journey. He never parted with it in case he wanted to do a return leg and I think it would just be so fantastic to at least make a start on a return visit to Africa.
We began to plan a Moroccan/northern Sahara trip a while ago – ferry to Santander and then drive south, but then the pandemic hit. Hopefully it’s something we can pick up again in the next few years, but it would be marvellous to add some new dates and locations to the list on the hard top.
In the meantime, it gets used almost every day and still has to earn its space on the driveway. It’s been to Le Mans and may return this year, but it needs to go back to Africa one day – who knows, maybe that will yield a second volume.
Trans Africa Land Rover is available to buy from porterpress.co.uk, priced at £30 plus shipping. ISBN 978 1 913089 29 0
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