The Land of Rovers

Drive just a few miles in any direction from the downtown bustle of Burlington, Vermont, and you’ll be in the figurative middle of nowhere. The landscape opens up to rolling pasture, lazy two-lanes unfurl along cornfields, farms come into view, and silos sprout up like spring dandelions. One farm in particular appears, at first glance, to be no different from the rest. It sports the requisite rambling red barn, a comfortably settled farmhouse, crooked fencing, and crushed gravel roads crisscrossing the property. But zoom in a little closer and you’ll notice faces of a strange sort peering out from among the various weathered outbuildings and run-in sheds. Connoisseurs of a particular automotive marque will recognize the distinctive countenance of the classic Land Rover Series I and II. Distinguished by their close-set headlights, flat-front fenders, and straight aluminum bodies, these legends of off-road sit patiently as they wait their turn to be transformed by the seemingly magical hands of one man, Lanny Clark.

Unassuming and soft-spoken, Clark—a visual cross between singer James Taylor and the character Doc Brown from Back to the Future—is a walking encyclopedia of mechanical knowledge. And it’s easy to see why. Growing up on a farm taught him how to fix things. Being a mechanic in the Army taught him how to fix things better. And working for North America’s sole Land Rover parts supplier for 15 years, in addition to co-creating the first Land Rover driving school in America, has taught him everything he ever needed (or wanted) to know about Land Rovers. But Lanny isn’t here to sell to you or to convince you that you need to own, or even drive, a vintage Rover. If you’ve found Lanny Clark, it’s because you went looking for him. For the last fifteen years, Clark has made it his life’s work to rescue, restore, and rebuild the British legends that have firmly set and consistently raised the bar for adventure with their uncanny ability to get into and out of places no normal vehicle should ever be.

Despite the fact that Land Rovers have historically come equipped with high price tags, the early (pre-1980s models) are surprisingly simple vehicles. They had to be. Primarily relied upon as basic transportation in challenging regions by doctors, farmers, and the military, they have, over the decades, been altered into ambulances, transformed into tow vehicles and search-and-rescue trucks, and were even used in lieu of tractors; early models included a PTO shaft to power farm implements. Entrusted with transporting everything from troops to tourists through countries where often the closest town was hundreds of miles away, these trusty trucks were developed and constructed so that they could easily be stripped down and repaired in the field using nothing more than basic hand tools and common sense.

The US has historically not been privy to the barebones Land Rovers in their myriad configurations still sold the world over. Available domestically in the 1950s through the early 1970s, the Land Rover Series II and III were replaced in the US by the more upscale Range Rover series in the 1980s, a marque which continues to be popular today. The current Land Rover Defender, a modern interpretation of the Series III, enjoyed just a brief stint of successful American sales in the mid 1990s before being discontinued here. As a result of the diminishing number of the “true” Land Rovers in North America, older models are being snapped up by collectors and are thus becoming increasingly difficult to find. A quick glance around Clark’s farm reveals no fewer than 40 vintage vehicles in various stages of repair and disrepair. Some are tucked into sheds; others are lined up in neat rows. A few sit up to their windshields in tall grass; another has slowly sunk into the ground, the earth reaching up to its rims. About half of them are Lanny’s, while the others belong to customers. Some are in for routine maintenance, some are in need of minor repairs, and still others are awaiting complete restorations. But most of them, as Lanny attests, are merely a fresh tank of fuel, a new battery, and an ignition-key-twist away from firing up.

Lanny Clark will tackle just about any project vehicle as long as it’s eligible to become a project. The Rovers that are too far-gone, too rusted, or just too worn out, are scavenged for parts. For Clark, the end goal isn’t simply to make his Land Rovers look pretty but rather to bring the vehicle back to factory-spec condition. Land Rovers for daily use; it’s long been Clark’s motto and it’s a tall order—and one that begins with a complete and total disassembly of the vehicle, right down to the frame.

It’s called a frame-off restoration because everything comes off, leaving nothing but the frame. First, the interior is gutted and the body is unbolted and removed. Then, every last nut, bolt, screw, clip, bracket, and housing is systematically removed, labeled, cataloged, and either discarded or set aside for cleaning and restoration. Starting with a perfectly clean (and straight) frame is the first step to returning any Land Rover to its former glory. But glory may be too strong a word for a truck that can easily spend its days buried in mud up to its wheel wells. Then again, glory may be exactly the term that’s required.

After the vehicle’s been stripped down, parts that are no longer serviceable are recycled and new replacements are ordered, or in many cases, sourced from Lanny’s seemingly infinite collection of parts. Every other bit is stripped, cleaned, and repainted if necessary. The engine and running gear are removed and rebuilt if required. The wiring harness is replaced, the upholstery redone. While Lanny primarily works alone in his small yet well-appointed one-bay shop, he does employ some help and outsources certain jobs, such as complete engine rebuilds, to specialists.

Lanny uses only genuine Land Rover parts in his restorations wherever he can. The reason? Safety and quality. The end game here is to create a vehicle that’s as capable as it was the day it rolled off the assembly line in Solihull, UK. Not surprisingly, almost every part can still be acquired new, including the frame. The Land Rover Series I, introduced in 1948, has trudged on relatively unchanged for more than half a century. While modern technology has upgraded the essentials, if you were to place a 1948 Series I next to a 2015 Defender, there’d be no doubt you were staring at siblings.

You might think that a restoration process as meticulous as Clark’s would provide the perfect opportunity for upgrades. You’d be mistaken. As Lanny sees it, these vehicles rolled out of the factory with everything they needed. And aside from installing the occasional winch, a set of jerry cans, or in a rare case, modern air conditioning, these vehicles simply don’t require technical suspensions or sophisticated engine upgrades. They weren’t designed or built for speed but rather for rugged utility, ease of use, and most importantly, longevity. Simply put, if it isn’t needed, it isn’t there. As testament, even today, vintage Land Rovers have been known to handily tackle terrain that has left modern, heavily modified vehicles struggling.

Rebuilding an entire vehicle, even one as basic as a vintage Land Rover, is by no means a speedy process. An average restoration can take anywhere from 6 months to a year. Once completed, every vehicle is thoroughly shaken down right on the farm, as well as taken out on long drives, often being utilized as Lanny’s errand vehicle—there’s no better way to work out the bugs than employing real-life driving scenarios. While many customers will trailer their Land Rovers in to Lanny’s shop, when they arrive to pick them up, they simply turn the key and drive off. And that’s exactly the way Clark wants it. He doesn’t build his Rovers to be babied or trailered to car shows. In fact, he has had customers drive their completed vehicles from his shop in Vermont straight to western New York, Washington DC, and even Atlanta, Georgia. A recent job was headed to Africa. No doubt the owner would have driven it there if she could have.

Driving a vintage Land Rover is not, to put it bluntly, for everyone. It isn’t luxurious. It’s by no means plush, and it’s the farthest thing from fast. But, as Lanny and his customers can undeniably attest, it’s an acquired taste, and one that gets increasingly better with every mile you put behind you. Clark recollected a cross-country journey in a Land Rover taken years ago, “You get out West and you start heading toward the Rockies and you see the mountains off in the distance—and the next day you see the same mountains and it looks like the same distance.”

So if getting there is half the fun, getting there in a vintage Land Rover is all the fun, takes twice as long, and doesn’t necessarily require roads. If that isn’t true adventure, we don’t know what is.

At The Orvis Company, we’ve something of a soft spot for the iconic Land Rover models of the 1950s and ‘60s. As such, we’ve developed a partnership with Lanny Clark, who not only shares our passion for these vehicles, but he’s made it his life’s mission to meticulously restore as many of them as he possibly can to factory-like condition. One of his latest projects is easily the finest example of a fully restored, single-owner 1962 Series IIA Model 109 we’ve ever laid eyes on. And as luck would have it, it’s now available for purchase, eagerly awaiting its next adventure. Click here to see this gorgeous vehicle and watch the video below.

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