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December 10th, 1999 - Maidstone to Solihull : Day 57

 

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Nick stops for a moment to take a picture of the team. Having reached England, another milestone is complete. Unbeknownst to the group, major challenges await them in the days to come.    
 

December 10, 1999

This is Nick Baggarly. Today we traveled from Maidstone, England to Solihull, England.

We awoke in Maidstone. It was nice to sleep in a good hotel again. I still can't believe we drove through half of Europe yesterday. Five countries in ten hours! How American of us.

Originally, the journal entry for day 57 was quite short and I promised I'd get around to telling the complete story so without further dealy, here it is…

Another mission accomplished! We arrived in England using the Calais to Dover ferry and drove straight to Solihull and the Land Rover factory where these vehicles were born approximately 38 and 31 years ago. There we received an unbelievable tour of the Land Rover factory. Unbelievable because we arrived unannounced on a Friday at the end of their workweek. How were we to know the factory wraps things up at 12:30 on Friday!? They turned us away so we had to employ our contingency plan--get to the nearest pub and get pissed! While there Todd found some bigwigs who work for the Special Operations division at Land Rover. The same group I suspect that originally developed the Dormobile and my amphibious APGP! They were a "Product Proud" group of folks and when they heard about our tour they immediately escorted us back to the factory for a comprehensive VIP tour. It was unforgettable and fantastic! We'll describe these events, including details from the tour, in our next set of journals.

And now, here's a blow-by-blow recap of this wonderful day as told by Todd…

There was excitement this morning as we awoke after yesterdays long drive. Today we are all looking forward to the fulfillment of our captain's dream. From the beginning Nick had a dream of driving his Land Rovers, the long way, to their birthplace, Solihull, England. Some of the English folks we've met give a quizzical look as we say with smiles, we are driving to Solihull, England, however, all true Land Rover enthusiasts know exactly what we are talking about, and the reason for going.

The overcast damp December skies embraced me down to the bone, as I was the first one out of hotel this morning. We easily started this day early and there was noticeable adrenaline stirring with each of us as we hoped Nick would win the prize. I was so motivated I went solo on all the oil and gear checks. I also knew that we were very close to a castle, and if we got off early enough perhaps we could make quick stop to see it.

The team showered up, loaded up the vehicles, and wiped dew from windshield before we left in good time. Inspired by my initiative and research everyone was willing to do a castle drive by. So we took the first roundabout and were off in pursuit of medieval England. We drove through the quaint English countryside for about 20 minutes, before realizing we had gone the wrong way. By the time we turned around and back tracked the teams patience were worn thin, so we opted for the coffee/motorway option. As it turns out the castle was just outside our hotel, the opposite direction we had turned. Oh well, such is the fate of many travelers. Still, the countryside was beautiful, so even though we made a wrong turn we were rewarded none-the-less.

The Motorway (M4) circumnavigated London, which was good for us. We had to make tracks so the last thing we needed was to get stuck in traffic. The dull skies burned off into a bright December day. It was fun riding in the car with Nick. Although, we were all tired it is just so exciting being with your best friend in anticipation of a great experience. This is something he has talked about since we began planning the trip. I knew his dream and how it had grown to mythical proportions throughout the trip. Nick is a visionary, and he always has a very clear idea of how he would like things to work. This day was no different. In fact, it was crystal clear.

Driving in a vehicle for so long together, Nick occasionally went over the events of this day. He once shared a hilarious daydream with me that I just have to repeat.

His dream begins with the team driving the Dormobiles into the city limits of Solihull. People stand in front of their houses with bright smiles and wave as we pass by like they're expecting us or something. We exchange more waves with motorists and cyclists and they all point the way to the factory where Land Rovers are built. What's strange is that these events so far actually happened! Anyway, here's where it gets weird. We drive the Dormobiles onto the factory premises and stop at a gate that is manned by a very old guard who is, for some reason, a Buckingham palace guard, Nick wasn't sure why. His stern face immediately lights up to a smile when he sees us. He steps forward running his hand along the bonnet and says, “I remember the day these vehicles left this place! Congratulations folks. Now c'mon in, we've all been expecting you." Hercules and Alaska roll through factory through gates that they last crossed over 30 years ago. We pull to the side, park, and exit the vehicles. A whistle blows and moments later, a few factory workers wearing white lab coats and mechanic jumpsuits, exit from little buildings scattered throughout the campus. They are clapping as they approach and they're followed by more workers some clapping, others pointing or mumbling to each other the significance of our accomplishment. Soon, even more workers emerge until the entire factory staff of the Land Rover headquarters is standing in a large circle around our Dormobiles. It's a standing “rovation." A man in a lab coat steps forward and says, “Right this way to begin your VIP tour. Hurry up folks we've a lot to see so follow me!" And we follow him on an amazing factory tour that reveals the secrets of everything Land Rover.

According to Nick, this Willy Wonka, daydream has somewhat of a Star Wars ending. After several hours spent seeing where Land Rovers come from the team, exhausted from driving Rovers of all makes and models on the test track and full from a healthy meal consisting of kidney pie and Yorkshire pudding, is escorted through the final door of the factory where, under a twilight sky, several lab coat wearing, clipboard toting scientists are putting finishing touches on the Dormobiles. Apparently while we conducted this three hour tour, our vehicles had undergone a complete restoration! We can hardly believe our eyes as we gaze upon both Dormobiles, painted a fresh limestone colour with an anti-radar matte finish that glows in the evening light. Underneath are new galvanized coil sprung frames, disc brakes, and high ground clearance suspensions. Under the bonnet, turbo diesel TD5 motors fill they engine bay, and inside the upholstery was re-done stem to stern in original heavy duty rhino vinyl, complete with door panels, headliner and other smart appointments. The air suspension fitted to provide soft level ride also doubles to pneumatically elevate the Dormobile roof at the touch of a button. When I asked Nick if that was it he said, Oh, and there's a thumpin stereo to boot, you know, the kind with read-ahead CD buffer so we can actually use them on those roads in Tibet. But there was more. Moments later, from every direction four other vehicles approached. One of the drivers steps out and hands Doug the keys to his brand new work truck; a Defender 130 high capacity pickup! Another bestows upon Jeff a new Range Rover 4.6 liter Vogue! Chanda receives a Wimbledon Green Range Rover 30th Anniversary Edition! And for Todd a brand new, royal blue Defender 90 County Station Wagon to get him wherever his next Peace Corps assignment may be.

What's funny is that parts of Nick's crazy dream came true but I suppose there's a place where dreams begin and reality ends. So I just had to share that with you. What really happened was almost as good.

We drove into the Land Rover Factory with smiles on our faces, eager with anticipation of what was to come. We parked the Rovers in the lot and furtively looked around for everyone who should be staring at us. After all we had just completed an epic journey, a living tribute of Land Rover durability and reliability. We had considered asking Land Rover for their support in the beginning, but Nick says, “this is a company that hears day in and day out requests from people who want something from them." “Why ask them for anything when we pretty much have everything we need already in these two Dormobiles." All we wanted to do now was share with them what their vehicles could still do and maybe get a factory tour. But, since BMW bought the Rover Motor Corporation in the 90's, the factory stopped giving tours. Nick had made a few attempts to arrange a tour before we set off on this crazy adventure but each one met with skepticism and a default reply of; “sorry, we don't give tours anymore." What with all the preparation, the priority we gave to making tour arrangements only allowed a few attempts. We figured we'd just drop in.

We entered the reception area. Doug and Jeff immediately took a comfortable seat and began perusing Land Rover literature while Nick, Chanda, and I walked up to the front desk. We exchanged hellos with the receptionist and briefly informed her that we'd just driven our Land Rovers from Beijing. Knowing the answer already we respectfully asked if we could arrange a tour. The receptionist, who apparently had seen a lot of yahoos in her day, looked unimpressed, and reminded us all that the factory doesn't give tours anymore and besides, they would be closing very soon. Nick's daydream may have had the entire factory walking out as we arrived, but closing time was not what he had envisioned. We tried to gain momentum with the receptionist however closing time on a Friday is a hard thing to compete with anywhere. Seeing the realization that things were not going to turn out has had been anticipated, I stepped up to the pressure.

The receptionist left for the day and another one arrived and began packing up for her weekend departure as well. Her name was Mary Williams and she was a wonderful Irish woman who wanted to hear our plea. She immediately understood our plight, as well as our current disappointment and spent twenty minutes trying to reach people throughout the factory who would be interested in our story or could show us around. She rang people's offices, gave us cell phone numbers, and genuinely did everything should could to get us a proper interview. However, after a half an hour of scrambling, we realized we needed to regroup, and look more seriously at plan B, getting pissed drunk.

We told Mary of our contingency plan and seeing no alternative, she gave us directions to the nearest pub. Perhaps on an early Friday, there would be some Land Rover people taking a drink or two that we could talk to. Nick was sullen and all to somber at this time. We drove to the pub and placed the old Rovers in a prominent parking place in front of the old tavern. Then we all walked inside, agreeing that Nick wouldn't buy anything.

I went to the bar to buy the first round and scope the place out. The bar maid pegged us as out of town folks and asked where we were from. I told her what we were all about and mentioned our plight, with the enthusiasm that would make Nick proud. She acknowledged our disappointment. "That's a shame", she said as she poured Nick a room temperature Guinness. She mentioned that some Land Rover people meet at the pub occasionally.

Back at the table, I knew what Nick was feeling. Who wouldn't the way he looked. I gave him his beer and went back to casing the pub for possible prospects. A little while later the bar maid came over and pointed out a few factory workers. I knew something had to be done, and I also realized that I was the one who needed to take action. After a very nice introduction, I soon found myself talking with a few workers from the factory. One had worked on the lines as a frame welder and another was from the accounting department. They asked questions about the trip and I began telling them of some of Nick's rare Land Rovers. It impressed them so much that they joined our quest as well. Understanding that a tour of the factory would send us through the roof, they began talking to other Land Rover people in the bar. It just so happened that some of the higher ups, having a small Christmas party in the other room, soon heard about Nick and our trip. Seeing me talking with a couple factory workers, a fellow, by the name of Robert Meyers, originally from New York, came over to make my acquaintance. He asked about our trip and asked a few questions about the Dormobiles, their age and how many miles were on them. I did my best to answer. The fellow knew what I was talking about, but we were both sketchy on our Dormobile history. Then Nick walked up, unknowing who I was talking to or that he was making a presentation, I asked him to tell Robert about the Dormobiles and he started reeling off Land Rover facts like an encyclopedia. He was very candidly showing off his passion for these vehicles, and this passion was infectious. The amount Nick knew and the excitement that filled his eyes as he talked about his second greatest love, impressed those around us and I think it genuinely made these people proud to work for Rover.

Moments later Robert was joined by two of his coworkers and together they lamented the fact that we hadn't called ahead of time to set up an appointment. I told him about the various efforts we had made and how busy the trips schedule had been but it wasn't looking good. I remember there was this long uncomfortable pause but a moment later something wonderful happened. That's when Nick asked them what they did for Rover. Robert Meyers said he was the Marketing Operations Manager of Special Vehicles (SAS) and then asked, “Do you know what Special Vehicles does?" As though fate was shining its glorious light down on Nick's face he looked up, and with a great smile he said, “You guys are the ones who built my 1963 APGP!"

Now I'm not sure what happened next but Robert and gang looked at each other in disbelief. They all knew what an APGP was and how rare they are. The group immediately made a breakthrough with Nick.

APGP stands for Air Portable General Purpose- a rare prototype Land Rover of which twenty three or twenty eight were built (depending on who you talk to) in 1963 only. These vehicles were cool! They were designed to ship in British military aircraft, two-up. That's right, one on top of the other. It was the first all purpose Land Rover—a transformer if you will, that included over a dozen kits to turn it into an ambulance, gunner, artillery or troop transport, and of course, the most famous kit of them all, the flotation kit that has huge air bags for flotation and a small propeller in the rear drive shaft to propel through the water. Limited steering is achieved with the front wheels that act as a rudder.

Nick spoke of the APGP and told Robert that his vehicle has a serial number of LRAP3, the third prototype of four. Under the bonnet, the word S-P-E-C-I-A-L is written is large yellow letters, indicating perhaps that it was produced by the Special Vehicles division of Rover. Soon after this magical conversation Robert looked over at his a co-worker named Robert Poston and asked him if he had time to take us on a tour. Robert agreed, and we were beaming. We quickly prepared for our departure. Nick and I jumped in Alaska and followed Robert to the Plant.

The tour was amazing. As we drove around the campus we saw entire lots filled with military vehicles, some of which had a flat limestone finish that looked exactly like the paint Nick used on Alaska. Robert told us that these military 110s were flattened with an anti-radar coating. In Turkey we had seen military 110s painted a flat camouflage but the flat limestone was a really nice look for these trucks. They're obviously desert vehicles. We saw dozens of Discovery, Ranger Rover, and Freelander vehicles that looked like they were waiting for adventurous new owners. There was even a line of Series III vehicles, arranged alongside a building, painted pastel green; that's a brilliant vintage color! It suits these vehicles perfectly. Then we passed by the infamous Rover Test Track on our way to the building where Defender is built. On our way Robert took us down the hallway where the top brass sat during the early years and through a door that opened up to a humongous warehouse. This was the original assembly line that our Rovers rolled along many years ago and it is still rolling today building Defender 90, 110, and even 130 high capacity pickups. It was amazing to see this line that, fortunately for us, had stopped for the weekend. Robert told us we were lucky because usually you can't hear a thing, what with all the noise while the line is moving. We spent about thirty minutes walking around, and I must admit it was fascinating to see a Land Rover go from a set of axles, through dozens of stages, to a completely assembled truck. We passed paint booths where thousands of color swatches hung on the wall. There were some workers staying late at some of the rework stations, touching up trucks that required additional care; obviously a testament to their quality standards. Walking beside the line we passed bin after bin of parts. Many of them were full of parts that even I was familiar with. It was strange to see so many turn signals piled up together. Anyway, I guess that's when it hit me that we were really here. We started our drive 57 days ago in Beijing China and here we were inside the Land Rover factory. It was amazing!

Robert then took us into the Special Vehicles warehouse. Inside there were over a dozen bays where various special projects undergo any kind of custom work you can imagine. There was a pitch black Defender 110 that was being custom built for an upcoming tour sponsored by the Red Bull Energy Drink company. Robert said it would be a Land Rover stereo on wheels. Everything from the front seat to the back door was filled with huge speakers and amplifiers. We also saw upholstery stations with rolls and rolls of every kind of Land Rover material in every colour from every brochure I'd ever seen. And then, parked in one of the bays at the back of the room, we passed a majestic maroon Range Rover that is used by none other than the Queen of England herself. The back of the Rover was completely custom with a cutout roof so the entire rear end of the vehicle resembled a pickup bed. The tailgate rotates as it drops to the ground, doubling as the royal staircase. But what really got me was where the Queen sits. Although it is lavishly upholstered in a very expensive maroon material the Queen sits on, are you ready for this… a jump seat! Yup, the same kind of jump seat you'd find in a D90 or 110. I just had to give the cushion a quick pat as I walked by.

After the tour we said goodbye to Robert Poston and thanked him for a fascinating and much appreciated afternoon. This guy has a wonderful job and we very much enjoyed his company.

We returned to the pub and ate dinner then we were off to find a hotel for the night. We must have looked at half a dozen hotels but they were all full or too expensive. Eventually we came across the Tri-Star Hotel which has a Birmingham address but is located walking distance to the Rover factory. A wonderful woman named Tracy was there to check us in and serve drinks in the bar. The Christmas spirit was well with her and her family as we spent time in their sitting room, drinking, talking, and watching them decorate their Christmas tree. Thanks to her I now have a thing for pink sweaters.

I have gotten to the point where I actually prefer to sleep in the Dormobiles so that's what I did this night. Nick put Chanda to bed and came outside to check on me. It was raining outside but he found me snug in the bunk, listening to John Denver and reading a book. The Espar heater outputting a warm 78 degrees. The setup must have looked good because he decided to spend his last night in Solihull, sleeping in the Dormobile too. It seemed a fitting end to a most excellent day.

This has been Todd Borgie reporting from Solihull. Goodnight!