The Land Rover Writer

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Discovery Sport Global Launch - Iceland (Day 2)

The first full day in Iceland blended into the drive and flight day preceding because of the 5 hour time change. I'm not enough of a world traveler to adjust to time zone changes that easily; I remembered enough of past trip to rest up a bit and then push through the first day of GMT. 

The room at the Hotel Ion seemed so perfectly Scandinavian: compact, stark, laden with hidden amenities. The WiFi worked, each room came with an iPad filled with Land Rover information, coffee and hot chocolate were available in your room, truffles showed up in the afternoon. The view was that of a parking lot and mounds of frozen lava.

The Ion started life as a dormitory for workers constructing the nearby geothermal plant. As it's over an hour from the Reykjavik area it had little use until purchased and converted to a "luxury hotel." It had the iron railings, narrow hallways and utilitarian windows of a dorm. What really signaled its "luxury" was its service: the staff beamed without being obsequious, the floors and room fixtures gleamed, the small bars and restaurants supplied perfect food and drinks. The night desk clerk offered to wake me should the Northern Lights break through the overcast. 

I fiddled around the room, showered, and took a short nap. Around 11:00 I took a light breakfast prior to an orientation meeting.

First off, we received our Icelandic-designed, Land Rover logo coats from, a Land Rover hat and a pair of North Face gloves. This was just some of swag: we also received a Land Rover cell phone battery pack, a duffell bag and a Petzl headlamp. Given the limited amount of daylight, it made some sense.

The plan that day called for us to go four-up in a Discovery so as to experience on road and off road driving. While many of the journalists present had traveled to events like this together and knew each other, I just jumped in wherever I saw an empty seat. I wound up with a writer from, one from Indianapolis freelancing for a lifestyle magazine, and one from 

We began our drive to Pingvellir National Park in ice-covered roads, the majestic landscape of rural Iceland surrounding us. 

The park offered hot springs and geysers, as well as a coffee stop. The big geyser and the "little" geyser did just what they were supposed to do and we left refreshed, if surprised by the dusk at only 3:30 pm.

Our guides were team members from the Land Rover Experience in the UK, including Will Cox and Joel Rang from Land Rover Experience Scotland. 

The return drive took us by another route of narrow gravel lanes, and then onto a plowed track between hillocks around the geothermal plant near the Hotel Ion. 

That ascent and descent was completed in the complete darkness. It was my turn to drive, which was great by me as it meant I could test the off road capabilities for the first time. Off roading you want to avoid using the brakes at all costs; engine braking is the key. With manual transmissions you just shift into a lower gear and let the engine revolutions slow you down. With old school automatics you shift into a lower gear to get some of the same effect.

The Discovery Sport came only with a rotary dial for selecting gears and buttons to choose the best mode for conditions; in our case, "snow, grass, gravel." If you wanted to select a higher of lower gear within the 9-speed transmission, you had to use either the paddle on the steering wheel, or engage the hill descent system [pioneered by Land Rover], the speed of which could be controlled by using the + or - control on the cruise control system. I tested it out so thoroughly that one of journalists asked, "Is that you or the car? What's wrong with the car?" I don;t think he really believed me when I said I was testing out the engine braking (perhaps he wasn't an off roader?), but it really did work well.

To the dismay of most of the journalists the Discovery Sports came shod with Pirelli studded winter tires; somehow that was seen as Bill Bellichick-like bending of the rules. I questioned whether any of them had really done much off roading - without proper tires no vehicle would go anywhere. And given the added noise of studded tires it provided an added challenge to the noise and vibration categories that seemed to galvanize their collective attention. 

When we returned to the Hotel Ion, Land Rover made a formal presentation, led by Paul Cleaver, the Development Engineer for the Discovery Sport, and Stuart Schorr, LRNA's Communications Director [below].

Dinner and drinks followed and flowed, but with a 7:00 am departure time the following morning, I hit the sack early. As I returned to the room, I noticed the absence of visible radiators and/or heating sources. The floors sure felt warm, which signaled radiant heat. The plant in the distance reminded me that some 90% of the buildings in the country are heated geothermally - efficient, non-polluting and effective. I slept well - no EMS pager on this trip!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Discovery Sport Global Launch - Iceland ( Day 1)

Back in December I received an unusual request from Land Rover North Amerca; could they have a copy the Rovers Magazine Media Kit, and quickly? Since it hadn't been updated in a few years, and since everyone at Rovers North was quite busy, I jumped in with some recommended revisions and we quickly sent it off to Land Rover.

It might have been the best Christmas present ever; in mid-December I received this e-vite to attend the Global Launch of the Discovery Sport in Iceland the following month. 

You can tell I don't get these often. My first response to Land Rover was that I needed to let Rovers North, the publisher, know the cost of the event as we had already set our budget for 2015. "No, no," said their representative, "everything will be covered by Land Rover." I accepted before I even notified Rovers North! Clearly someone had dropped out and they had extra spaces.. but I didn't care whether I was first or last - I was heading out to Iceland.

The requirements poured in from their travel agency in California. What were my preferred flights and airports? What was my passport number? Did I have the required international driver's license? What were my coat size and glove size? 

Vinalhaven has a dirt airstrip served by Penobscot Island Air, an air taxi service. While they're quite a wonderful service, the costs are above my price range and generally I fly them only when I'm accompanying a patient on an EMS evacuation. But they fly into Knox County Regional Airport in Owls Head, ME, which has daily service to Boston via Cape Air [to whom I have a sentimental attachment]. Iceland Air flies direct from Boston to Reykjavik. Imagine, no ferry, no driving or bus - no to be. The agency tried but found that the return trip would not work as Cape Air does not have a late flight back to Owls Head. So instead, I had to "suffer" with a long ferry ride, a drive in the Corvair to Portland, Jet Blue to New York's JFK, and then Iceland Air to Reykjavik.

The passport would be tight in terms of turnaround time but an extra $100 to the Department of State and a trip to Rockland's Post Office for photos did the trick [fortunately I still had my expired passport]. The international driver's license was simple to get; I stopped at the AAA office during a trip to Portland; 15 minutes and $20 later, I had one. 

The itinerary from LRNA promised a tight schedule.To make the flights I had to leave the island on the 7:00 am ferry Tuesday, January 20 [of course I had an EMS call the night before so I only go a few hours sleep). I started driving towards Portland around 8:30 with a stop at L.L. Bean for winter weather socks and got to the Portland Jetport [yes, that's its real name] with plenty of time to spare before my 3:00 pm flight to New York. 

Arriving a JFK I found out that the "Saga Class" ticket I had was the same as First Class and that it entitled me to wait in the British Airways Lounge that Iceland Air shared with them. This was ridiculously comfortable; any drinks you wanted, fine hors d'ouevres, plenty of comfortable couches and seats, lots of International Men and Women of Mystery, even cell phone charger kiosks. Decadence becomes me, I think.

I overheard some men discussing automobiles and took a guess that we might be on the same flight for the same purpose; indeed, that was the case. Land Rover put us all in Saga Class. That, combined with the utterly charming flight attendants, astonishingly good food and a pleasant seatmate, made the 6 hour trip go by reasonably well - considering all the time i had spent sitting aboard the ferry, in my Corvair, at airports and lounges and airplanes.

When we landed in Reykjavik charming people held placards that read 'Land Rover." I got my bag through customs quickly enough and then boarded a bus with about 40 other journalists from around the US. We had a 90 minute ride in the January darkness [you get only 6 hours of daylight this time of year in Iceland]. The bus had the European style of great height and narrow width. My seatmate was a good-natured but large guy from the West Coast and he was not comfortable with the required seatbelt. 

We drove around the narrow ring road around Reykjavik's rush hour traffic and finally headed east to our destination, the Hotel Ion. It truly sat seemingly in the middle of nowhere, looking for all the world like a space station hovering above a moonscape. 

Once deposited we had a few hours to get our rooms and rest up before the driver orientation and first day of life with the Discovery Sport.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Fiat 124 to Return?

In the late 1970's I enjoyed a Fiat 124 Spider as my year-round transportation in Vermont. Coming on the heels of a ragged but loved MGB this car proved quite an upgrade. I found it at the Jeep dealer in S. Burlington, VT. It had sat on their lot for months and by midwinter it had received few looks from potential owners. My MGB had been boshed by an errant Oldsmobile that either ran through or skidded through a stoplight; while I was unhurt the MGB suffered a more onerous fate - thus, my search for a replacement sports car.

SE12-Fiat BG-f78 379
Photo courtesy of Hemmings Motor News
My criteria were simple; given the insurance settlement I had very little money to spend on the car and its registration. A classified ad in the Burlington Free Press had not yielded many affordable results so I happened to be trolling dealer's lots when I came across a forlorn 1972 Fiat Spider. Like the one in this photo, it was orange, only several different shades of orange. And the wheels were the stamped steel that said "stock" instead of "continental." The Fiat came with a handsome factory hardtop and a ratty canvas top folded out of view. It also had a cracked windshield which the dealer said he would have replaced by a local glass shop. The car started, stopped and ran, and I certainly enjoyed the wood-enhanced dash, the wood steering wheel and the 5-speed transmission. Oh, and the tires would not need replacing except for new snow tires. After a brief interlude of "I'll have to talk to the manager," the car was mine for $1,200. They were so happy to get it off the lot that they gave me an Opel to use while waiting for the windshield. 

That replacement turned out the become a saga. After a week or so of waiting I called the glass shop to ask about the windshield replacement. "It's hard to find a windshield for a Fiat 124 Coupe [discontinued in the US market]," the shop manager complained. "It's not a Coupe, it's a Spider," I replied. "Really? I have one of those in stock," the shop guy replied. 

Back to the dealer - I called him about the error. "Since you know so much about the car, why don't you just handle this for us and we"ll cover the cost," he said. I had the car back in two days.

The Fiat caused me pause when the brakes failed on the Bolton Valley Mountain Road, but that was my fault for not replacing the disk pads. The fuel line would separate from the carb every so often, spewing gas over the hot engine. A cracked rotor caused the car to run poorly until it was replaced, and that was it until I sold it due to extensive rust in 1980. 

So the news that a "new" 124 might show up in the Fiat lineup appeals to me. I've had a soft spot for these cars and even pondered purchasing a basket case in 2013 [the Spitfire won that battle]. Good luck to Fiat and please, remember how well that classic styling worked from the late 1960's - 1980's!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Water Pumpers

In the air-cooled Corvair world water-cooled cars are known as "water pumpers".

 It's rarely been an issue with my '66 Land Rover but cooling systems issues continue to plague me with the '80 Spitfire.On the last 110 mile trip home from leading a library program in Ocean Park, ME, the temperature gauge pegged itself within 45 miles of highway driving.  It's been a challenge to diagnose the reason[s].

The tools to aid in the diagnosis include an infrared thermometer, a compression tester and an exhaust gasses analyzer. 

I carried the infrared thermometer with me during the last trip. As the temperature gauge rose to "H" I had to wait until I got off the highway in Brunswick before I could check it out and fill up the gas tank. The temperature readings at the top and bottom of the radiator were about 190 degrees at the top and 160 degrees at the bottom - so the radiator had reduced the coolant temperature effectively. The thermostat housing temperature was about 210 degrees; it should be hot there as the water exits the block at that point. I did notice some boiling over at the overflow bottle, but then, it was completely full, so the bottle's contents had no place to go except out the vent hole. Still, the "H" marking on the gauge would be uncomfortable to watch for the rest of the trip.

The following weekend it was time for the compression test. I found I had 130-133-130-130 on cylinders 1-4. Since the numbers were so close it did not appear that I had a head gasket problem. And this past weekend, I ran the exhaust gas analyzer test. That test uses a fluid that turns color in the presence of CO2 or similar exhaust gasses in the coolant - which would occur if you have a head gasket leak. I also removed the coolant temperature sensor from the head; it had a thin covering of sludge on it so I cleaned it off and reinstalled it. The sensor does seem to work as the gauge moves up and down as the engine warms up.

So if the problems are unlikely to be head gasket-related, I will turn my attention again to the radiator and coolant. I want to drain the coolant one more time to check its color and to force more water through the system to see if I can force more sludge and silt out of the system. Tim Hutchisen of Penn Ridge Motors recommended this as it's possible the issue is in the amount of flow through the radiator. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Hot Running

So the Spitfire has taken its place as the "mainland car,"  which means it must make five 200 mile round trips this summer for work assignments. On the first two trips the temperature gauge rose to uncomfortable levels; midway through the second trip I had to stop after 40 miles to raise the bonnet and release radiator pressure to reduce the temperature. In between trips it sits at the ferry terminal on the mainland, which reduces the opportunity for me to work on a fix. 

Yesterday was hot for coastal Maine [80 + F] when I drove to Spitfire to a shop on the mainland for a radiator flush and parts replacement. 

The mechanic removed the lower hose to drain the coolant [he didn't unscrew the drain on the block] and it looked quite awful, as you can see in the photo. He then used a garden hose with strong water pressure to flush out the cooling system, including opening the heater valve, and ran the hose for quite some time. He also cleaned out the overflow bottle. All parts of the system included a lot of brown silt. 

He removed the thermostat and I decided to have him install a new 180 F one, as well as a new, 13 psi cap. He put in a fresh coolant mix, as per the owner's manual, and started up the car, running it for quite some time to get it warm and to circulate out as much of the air as possible. 

When he was done I left and drove the car about 10 miles at 40 - 60 mph, with a lot of stop and go traffic. The gauge indicated running up to 3/4, which activated the fan, and then reducing it to a point between 1/2 and 3/4. At no time did it get above 3/4, and it always dropped whenever I started moving at speed. This was an improvement from what I noticed on my last long trip - and I never had to open the heater valve to reduce the temperature level. 

An unrelated bonus was that no matter what the temperature, the car again returned 30 mpg in mixed driving. 

The real test will come this weekend when I head to give a presentation in Vermont at a Land Rover rally. I'm taking the Spitfire because of the impossibility of getting the Land Rover on and off the ferry during this busy summer season. That's about a 4 hour drive each way and the mechanic did mention his concerns about a head gasket problem causing the higher running temperatures. The good news is that I'll be in a convoy with two Land Rovers so I can always get towed in a pinch! 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Return of the Spitfire

It took a bit for the Spitfire to make it home on the ferry.

A friend had driven me to Canton, ME, where I bought the car from a small repair shop. It started up, the brakes seemed to work and a missing wheel stud didn't bother me too much. I started on the 80 mile trip home, followed by a very patient friend in his pickup truck. 

After a few miles the car seemed to hesitate and stumble a bit on acceleration, so I pulled over on the side of the road and poured some Marvel Mystery Oil into the gas tank. I started up again and enjoyed the hilly, winding Rte. 17 drive back towards Rockland.

The drive reassured me that I might have found a pretty good example of the marque. The engine smoothed out and felt as though it had some punch - well, as much as the detuned, emissions-emasculated package might offer. As we approached Augusta and its downtown traffic, the temperature gauge rose to a 3/4 mark and then I heard the electric fan kick in - now that was another reassuring moment. 

The 40 mile drive to Rockland continued without incident. About 5 miles from the ferry terminal my friend called to say he would head north towards his home and leave me to my own devices. "No problem," I said, "I'm almost at the ferry terminal." 

The ferry line requires a U-turn to get a car in line, and as I made that turn, I went to push in the clutch. Nothing happened - it was as if the clutch pedal had frozen in its top position. Nothing would move it. So I had to admit defeat and roll back into a parking spot. Raising the hood showed me nothing at the master cylinder. Since I was against a curb and on a hill I could not jack up the car and look underneath.

Next came a tow to Copeland's Garage and a ferry ride home without the car. When I called Copeland's the next morning they told me the problem was a broken slave cylinder bracket, and that new ones were NLA. 

I lucked out when I called Tim Hutchisen at Penn Ridge Motors in Norway, ME. He had a Spitfire transmission on a bench with a slave cylinder bracket intact; he would mail it directly to Copeland's. Sure enough, a couple of days later the car was ready for the second try at returning it home.

Once home I began to assess the car by using it for errands around the island. The gas gauge would not go beyond 1/4, but Michael Crawford of British Motorworks in MA suggested more Marvel Mystery Oil - "lots of it" - to loosen up the float arm. Slowly but surely, after a few fill ups and MMO, the gauge will now go to 3/4. Resetting the trip odometer helps me be certain I won't run out of gas.

While checking the electrical connections for the gauge I removed the trunk panel and was reminded that Spitfires housed their fuel filters beside the gas tank. Changing out the very old one for new one helped the car run better under acceleration, too.

Next came a simple adjustment of the idle speed after warmup, reducing it to 800 rpm. I also replaced the alternator belt as it had a visible cut on it. 

Although the car had been "tuned up" with new spark plug wires the plugs themselves looked rather old so I bought a new set. Removing the old ones proved difficult; they were wrenched in hard and without much evidence of recent removal or Never Seize. 

The tires that came with the car showed a lot of tread but also some sidewall cracks. Rather than risk a problem I bought 4 new tires, sadly, more snow tire than road tire. It's tough to find narrow 13" tires anymore. 

The car came with a hardtop and a soft top, although the latter was in bad shape. The top was original [the diamond pattern on the fabric provided the evidence] and while the canvas had only one tiny rip, the windows were stiff, broken in spots and even with Gorilla Tape, incapable of keep rain out of the car. A Land Rover friend once owned a Spitfire and had an extra top sitting around; I traded Land Rover parts for it and had Erick Van Sickle of Leyland British in Kennebunkport, ME, install it for me (The car has sat at the Rockland ferry terminal this past week, and with lots of rain, I should find out tomorrow whether the new top is more waterproof than the old one).

While the car came with a soft top boot, it did not have a tonneau. Erick found a used one for me with a rusted zipper. I had a new one installed at Gemini Canvas in Rockland and it works quite well.   

The Spitfire tackled its second long drive for a work assignment and the installation of the new top. The 240 mile round trip demonstrated the following:

1. The Spitfire of that era needs 4000 rpm to run at 60-65 mph. Although the redline is at 5500, that's still a lot of revs for a small engine on highway drives. No wonder the electric overdrive is so treasured.

2. Spitfire seats offer less padding and less comfort than TR-7 seats.

3. Top down driving in a Spitfire is hugely entertaining.

4. Spitfires of this era came with electric fans that don't operate on until about 180 degrees, or 3/4 on the temperature gauge. That's disconcerting to see and while the gauge never pegged itself, nor did the car overheat, it made me nervous for a while (I've purchased Water Wetter for the next trip).

5. Combined highway and two lane fast roads, with some in town toodling, produced 29 mpg.

There's another trip tomorrow and later this month, a long drive to Vermont and back. Here's hoping I don't have to use the tool bag in the trunk.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Third Time's A Charm

It's my third Spitfire and I couldn't be happier.

The build plate on the car says it was built in February, 1980, and the warranty card indicates it was purchased in March, 1981, by a Mark Kelly at Tom Connelly Pontiac in Norwood, MA. A family member, Norman Kelly, brought it to his seasonal home in Canton, ME, where it spent a lot of time in his barn before selling it to Russell Tracy in the same town. 

Russell owns a small repair garage and he bought it as a possible fun car for himself and wife Pamela. But he found he rarely drove it and, as a matter of fact, never registered it for the road. Russ put it up for sale a short while later and that's how Tim Hutchisen, the expert behind Penn Ridge Motors in Norway, ME, found the car. He liked what he saw but had no time to work on the car and declined to buy it. 

When I went on the search for a sports car to replace my TR-7 Spider, I knew that finances would limit my options. Spitfires never fetch a high initial price and a rubber-bumper one, from mid - 1979 through 1980 [the last year of production] should cost even less. I had answered a number of Craigslist, online, even newspaper ads, in my search. I called Tim because I knew he was a Triumph specialist and because he might know of customer's cars for sale.

Tim recommended I look at this car because it was "unmolested." Indeed it's very original, including the disco-era "Pageant Blue" paint and black an white check interior seats. Combined with the rubber bumpers, it looked truly appalling compared to other sports cars under consideration: a '78 Spitfire, a '74 MG Midget or a '74 MGB.

Only one of these cars, the Midget, actually had any professional provenance; the others were owned by casual enthusiasts who knew little of the history of their cars. And they were all higher priced than the Spitfire.

I should note that I have a soft spot for Spitfires. Yes, a '63 Spitfire was my first sports car and it cemented my adoration for the marque. I kept it for only two years because I knew so little about their care and feeding. My next one, a '78 purchased in 1989, served as a daily driver and commuter car until the Land Rover joined it in late 1991, but I drove it all over New England until 1998 - and I sold it running at 140,000 miles. I've enjoyed "the sports car life" with an MG Midget, a Fiat Spider, two MGB's and the TR-7 Spider, too, but my heart has remained with Spitfires all those years. 

The Triumph Spitfire provided the company, then Standard Triumph and later British Leyland, the entry level car needed to lure penurious buyers into British sports cars. It featured a simple engine, a massive flip-up bonnet for easy servicing and Italianate styling to entice low budget enthusiasts. The earlier models (1962 - 1971) had a simple swing axle rear suspension that could get exciting at the edge of cornering, but the second generation body style [1971 - 1980] also featured a wider stance and refined double halfshaft suspension to clamp down the rear end. Although the styling managed to hold up well in the rush to make "safer" cars in the 70's the engine's horsepower ratings succumbed to emission controls that relied on lower compression, air pumps and catalytic converters to make them breathe cleaner. Still, it remained entertaining to drive right up until the end.

Inside you had to worm your way into a very narrow seat and footwell, with no place but the pedals to fit your feet. You right knee lies bent against the transmission tunnel, your left knee against the left door opening. I'm very chuffed that I can actually enter and exit the car - it's a way to keep in good shape! You sit very low to the ground and every mph feels like 10; in this car you sit on disco-era seats, too.

The engine makes all the right noises, the 4-speed transmission shifts smartly and the instrumentation lacks only an oil pressure gauge. Yes, that's a real wooden dashboard, too.

I bought the car in March, 2014 with snow still piled high in central Maine and frost heaves emerging from the roads. Russell agreed to replace leaking wheel cylinder, a dry rotted rear tire with its spare, and to see if he could get the lights working. I picked the car up in late April with working brakes, old tires but no tail lights, parking lights or directionals. Packing a tow strap, a tool kit and fluids, I hitched a ride with a Corvair buddy back to Canton to drive it home to Vinalhaven. 

I'll cover the rest of the story in the next post...