17 November 2022
Nick Dimbleby joins Series Land Rover expert Ike Goss and friends in the Black Rock desert, Nevada, driving a trio of distinctive Highway Yellow Series Is (and a rogue Discovery). You’re never too old to have an adventure
At face value, you’d have thought that a trio of bright yellow Series I Land Rovers would stand out wherever they are – after all, yellow is a colour that undoubtedly attracts the eye. But although these original survivors from the 1950s are eye-catching, looking at our convoy of NADA (North American Dollar Area) Series Is as they make their way down a track in the Black Rock desert, Nevada, they couldn’t look more at home.
If you happen to have a copy of LRM March 2021 to hand, turn to page 56 and you’ll see an article that I wrote about the US market’s penchant for brightly coloured Land Rovers. In that piece I considered how different the striking yellow or red Land Rovers were from the green and grey vehicles that were being sold in the UK in the late 1950s. In the home market, red and yellow were for emergency vehicles only, whereas in the States more colourful hues were quite normal. It all makes perfect sense – they look much more at home under a bright West Coast sun or among warm desert colours than they do on a damp green hillside in the UK.
With this in mind, my good friend Ike Goss (from the Oregon-based Series Land Rover specialist, Pangolin 4x4) put together an exquisite trio of yellow Series Is for a long weekend’s trip to the desert. Our convoy consisted of a 1956 88-inch soft top, a 1957 109 pick-up and a 1957 88 station wagon, all of which are original US-market vehicles with wonderful back stories. Also joining the trip was a lovely 1995 NAS Discovery that we used as a support car, allowing us to get ahead and photograph the three Series Is together.
The 109 pick-up had a Warn 8274 winch fitted for recovery purposes
But as with any adventure in the wilderness, before it can begin, everyone needs to get there. As this was to be a relatively short trip of just three days, it was decided that the vehicles would be trailered to Nevada. Ike and his partner Jenna, along with fellow vintage vehicle enthusiast Linus Tremaine (not forgetting their dogs Velma and Joline), travelled down from Springfield, Oregon (a mere 375 miles away), while Steve Francis and Sarah Pipes came from San Francisco via Reno (just 325 miles) and Brett Gottdener (who owns the Discovery) made the 380-mile journey up from Felton, CA.
As evidenced by many previous trips to Death Valley, all the above have no problem (and, indeed, take great pride and enjoyment in) driving their Series Is for hundreds of miles to get to a location for a week or so’s backcountry travel. But as this trip was to be a short one, it was decided that it would be quicker for our hero vehicles to hitch a ride this time. I also caught a lift, travelling with Steve and Sarah and their dogs Max and Moo, although when I met them at a hotel in Reno, Nevada, I was a little surprised to see that the only bit of Steve’s Series I present was its 2.0-litre engine, strapped in the back of an enormous Ford F350 crew cab pick-up.
It turned out that Steve’s Land Rover was poorly, and Ike had agreed to take the engine back to the workshop for a rebuild. So, even though Steve had originally planned on bringing his yellow SI pick-up on the trip, with the engine out of it and no way of moving, that was going to be tricky. Instead, Ike promised to bring something special for them to drive.
Meeting at Bruno’s Country Club. Inset pic shows the framed photo on the Club's wall – we weren’t the first Land Rover owners to stop there
Our rendezvous point was Bruno’s Country Club in Gerlach, Nevada. I was amazed to hear that a small town in the desert had a private membership club and golf course, but when it was explained to me that Bruno’s place was more Country and Western than blazer and tie things, became clear. A good omen for our trip was a photo on the wall from the early 1980s, showing a nice Series II 88-inch parked outside the building, alongside the ubiquitous Chevy pick-up and other American metal from the time.
And then came the surprise. Standing in front of the Country Club alongside the two SWB Series Is was a yellow SI 109 pick-up that was pretty much identical to the one that Steve had left at home. Some months ago, Ike had purchased said vehicle from an enthusiast in Colorado who had partially disassembled it for a rebuild, before deciding that it wasn’t a project that he felt he was able to complete. Being absolutely rust-free and original, it didn’t take long for Ike to purchase the vehicle and put everything back together again.
Ike and Linus make light work of a flooded section of track. The Series I's proved more than capable
The Land Rover is a 1957 pick-up that was originally bought by the owner of a ranch in Texas. After the ranch was sold, it fell into disuse and made its way through a couple of other owners before ending up in Ike’s hands. The pick-up came with a lot of original literature and correspondence between the original owner and the factory, and – after its extensive rebuild – it drives beautifully. In fact, it was so good that Steve remarked that he’s now going to have to rebuild its identical twin that he left back home.
After leaving Gerlach, it didn’t take long for us to hit the dirt road that runs alongside the huge dry lake that is the venue for the Burning Man festival each September. The lake also hosted the British Thrust 2 land speed record success in 1983, but in the winter the immense playa is damp and extremely soft in places. It’s not somewhere where you want to be driving if you don’t want to get stuck, so we gave this area a wide berth and headed north towards the hills.
The desert setting provided some spectacular light conditions
For the rest of the afternoon, as we made our way further and further north, we were treated to spectacular lighting conditions caused by the low sun and stratocumulus clouds that created huge shadows on the immense landscape. The clouds plunged us in and out of shadow, while the strong winter sun really brought out the bright colours of the vehicles. It was a beautiful reminder of why I love being in the desert.
All too soon the sun fell below the horizon, the colours became muted and as darkness began to fall, we headed up out of the valley on a rocky track that looked like it might lead to a promising campsite. After a couple of miles’ driving on the track, we discovered what looked like an abandoned farm with a grassy clearing where animals would have grazed a few decades ago. It was a perfect place to set up camp.
A full moon and some original 1950s Coleman gas lanterns provided the light once the sun went down. The campfire was a welcome source of heat
As the light faded the temperature plummeted. The altitude we were at was around 5500ft (1676 metres), and with no clouds in the sky, once the sun went down it got chilly. A campfire was lit and Jenna and Ike prepared a warming supper of chicken under a savoury biscuit top that was cooked in a cast iron Dutch Oven heated over the fire – it was delicious. After a few drinks and a bit of chat, it was time to head to bed and warm up in the sleeping bag.
As it was late November, the sun had a lie-in, which meant that we did too. After a busy couple of weeks before the trip, it was great not to be in a rush, allowing for a leisurely breakfast of bacon and eggs, before packing up the tents and getting back on the trail for mid-morning.
Jenna prepares coffee and breakfast – tailgate cooking is always the best
Today’s itinerary would take us along the High Rock Canyon Trail, a centuries-old track that follows the creek through to Bernard’s Corrals at the foot of the Yellow Hills. I hopped into Brett’s Discovery, which despite having covered nearly 300,000 miles over the past 25 years, is in spectacular condition. Brett had bought it a few weeks before the trip, having seen it advertised on the popular internet auction site Bring a Trailer.
The Discovery was a one-owner car and came complete with a notebook listing every dollar spent on the vehicle, along with its service schedule and a list of every part fitted. Incredibly, the fastidious previous owner had changed the oil every 6000 miles, which meant that despite the high mileage, the original 3.9 V8 purred beautifully. Because it has spent every one of its 26 years in the dry climate of California, the chassis and body are also completely rust-free. It really was an eye-opener for someone like me who is used to seeing corroded Discoverys just about clinging on to an MoT.
The 109in pick-up leads the support Discovery along a long-established wagon trail.
38 years separate the two vehicles and the Discovery is 28 years old. The location is timeless
Brett and Linus, the owner of the 88-inch station wagon, compared notes about what would have been the Discovery’s equivalent back in the 1950s. Linus’s vehicle was also originally sold in California, to a wealthy family who passed it around various family members until the 1990s when an auction was held to divide the assets between the remaining descendants. The beautifully original Land Rover was sold and found its way into the hands of a VW collector in Sacramento who took it to a few events before parking it up after a few months’ use. Ike found out who the owner was and asked him every year for 15 years if he could buy it, until he finally agreed. “I immediately drove the eight hours needed to fetch it, and subsequently put the time into getting it back on the road,” he said. Ike’s good friend Linus had wanted a SWB station wagon for a long time, so it didn’t take long for the vehicle to change hands once again.
Heading down into the canyon at the start of the trail, we came across fellow adventurer Tyler Mattson and family in his LR3 (Discovery 3). Tyler is a regular visitor to the area and was heading out for a camping weekend with some friends. It was interesting to put the two white Discoverys side-by-side to see what ten years of development had spawned, but then we thought it prudent to let them go on ahead for fear that we might delay them on the trail.
Dropping down to enter the narrowest part of the Black Rock Canyon trail
The High Rock Canyon trail is an ancient route through the hills, and if you look carefully as you drive along the track, you can see the occasional bit of old graffiti where previous travellers have left their mark on the rocks. It’s not a technically challenging track, but there are sections where the adjacent creek floods onto the trail, creating a ford or a muddy section that needs care. On one such section, Ike was concerned that the water level would be too deep for the Series Is, and as the route was the only way through, it was slightly worrying that there was no alternative. In the end though it was fine, with each vehicle making its way through, but care needed to be taken with some thick broken ice that had been left from the previous night’s cold temperatures.
At the end of the trail we made our way to our second camp, which Ike, Jenna and Linus had visited before. This remarkable area was littered with obsidian chippings created by Native American Indians fashioning arrow and spear heads several hundred years ago. Before it got dark, everyone walked around the area, heads down in search of these amazing objects that bear witness to a time long past. By the end of the evening, there was an amazing collection of broken arrow heads, chippings and rock that we enjoyed looking at before returning them more or less where we found them.
After an amazing sunset, that night it was really cold. Fortunately everyone had brought along down-filled sleeping bags, blankets and insulated ground mats – the right kind of kit in which to spend the night. Put simply, if you don’t keep warm out here, you’re going to die…
Freezing temperatures at night meant that the vehicles picked up chunks of ice during morning river crossings
Even though I’d kept warm overnight, I woke up to a tent that was frozen both inside and out, but once the lazy sun had made its way over the nearby hills, things started to warm up. A thin coating of frost lay over the vehicles, particularly Ike and Jenna’s 88-inch soft top, which once the roof had defrosted, was perfect to lay the tents on to dry them in the sun. This vehicle was first sold in California in 1956, where it was used on a ranch until 2011. At this time, it was purchased by a young off-road enthusiast who found that the transfer gearbox wouldn’t stay in gear after taking it off-road.
To rectify the problem he planned to fit a Toyota chassis and drivetrain, which would have been sacrilegious considering the vehicle’s amazing original condition. Fortunately, Ike heard about the plan, and was able to convince the guy to sell the vehicle to him and find a more suitable donor that could be cut up. Once the vehicle arrived at his workshop, Ike replaced the brakes, tyres and canvas tilt, as well installing a period capstan winch. While repairing the transfer gearbox, he found that the transfer lever’s boot had come away and a loose bolt had fallen down into the linkage. Of course, once the bolt had been removed and the boot repaired, the transfer ’box has been faultless ever since.
As lunchtime came and went, thoughts started to head towards the journey home, as everyone had a reasonable return trip after getting out of the desert. A plan was made to split the convoy in two with Brett, Steve and Sarah heading south back to Gerlach in the Discovery to pick up Steve’s F350, with the rest of us driving to Cedarville to load the vehicles back on to their trailers for the final part of the journey home. For Steve, Sarah and me, that involved a flat battery, a three-car tow (with two of the vehicles on trailers), running out of fuel and an all-night dash back to Reno and the hotel where we started. But as that’s a story that doesn’t involve Land Rovers, we’ll leave that one there…
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