Chasing Trucks – in a Series 1 to the Alps

Note – this is a trip report from 2015, before the UK suicidally jumped from the EU. So border crossings are a lot simpler here!

My friend Ben Stowe who runs overland and restoration specialists Black Paw 4×4 in York had taken a year to rebuild and restore his 1949 Land Rover 80” soft top, and when she was ready – period-spec refitted with a Rover 2 litre engine and 3.5 diffs to raise her cruising speed – he was itching to take her on an adventure.

Ben’s son helps pack

                Morocco was the first thought – but he’d not driven the old girl further than York MoT centre ‘til now, so was that a wise move? Maybe closer to home for the first run out – the Alps then. He knows the Italian Alps well, and the Rochemolles glacier is a good day out….. so an Italian Job it was.

Signing me up as co driver, we set off from York in less than pleasant weather, with the door tops off in the rain – who cares! Then it was to the motorway and bimble down to Peterborough to meet up with Theo, and his 1967 2a 109, subject of an ongoing rolling rebuild (!). After some last minute packing and faffery, we hit the road once again in sunshine and headed down to Kent, finding a nice pub and a campsite 15 minutes from Dover, ready for our early ferry to Dunkirk.

We didn’t plan stop-offs in advance, we used the Tomtom’s POI campsite setting to find the sites. It was clean, and the camping field was separate from the caravans, so we were on our own.  A good night’s kip, and we broke camp and headed off to the port for just as the heavens opened … we were in for a choppy crossing. As we disembarked, fork lighting was striking all round us and the single wiper on the 80” was doing it best, but it slowed progress and as we hit Belgian roads we were rolling with the trucks, which was a pain as visibility was lousy. Reaching Brussels the weather broke as we pressed on towards Luxembourg.

Waiting in the queue for the Dover ferry

We headed for Bettembourg in the south, and found a great campsite thanks to the ACSI camping book. ACSI offers discount on campsites throughout Europe, with a great phone App to make finding a site easier. A gourmet meal of sausages and Army ration-pack brown lumps and a shower, and we got over our 250-mile first day, trying to look intrepid whilst chatting with three Australian girls, like you do.

With all the benefits of passing thought a tax-free country we brimmed the tanks and jerrycans, then stocked up on plonk and headed for Switzerland. Crossing into France, and then Germany, we hit the EU border where we bought Swiss road tax – cheaper than French toll roads as it’s a one-off payment lasting a year – to cover the return leg as well. We reached Berne and found a campsite…. and, yes – the Alps on the skyline at sunset. The wagons were purring along happily – all good!

Filling up

Topping up the oil in the 80” we carried on, but took the back roads through the villages. The road started climbing, and the views just got better. For long stretches we hugged the sides of cliffs with Alpine valleys falling away below us, though as we climbed Ben noticed the brake pedal getting long on the Series 1 with a slight pull to the right. We stopped to investigate and found a loose O/S front wheel bearing which he adjusted. We were soon on our way again, looking forward to the climb over the Bourg-Saint-Pierre pass.

Finding campsites on the ACSI map

We continued climbing, though as we got to the midway point Theo’s 1967 Series 2a 109 was starting to overheat, so we pulled in to let her cool off. After the break, the 109 wouldn’t start, though after a bit of fiddling with the choke she growled into life. One corner later she gave up again. We were ahead in the 80”, so we turn round to see what the problem was. As she was blocking the road, we hitched the 2a up to the 80” and towed her up a while to a layby. We discovered the Chinese-made lift pump had failed, but we were carrying a genuine rebuild kit. (note to self – avoid cheapo Chinese parts) Ben removed the pump and stripped it down, though all seemed fine. He wanted to change the diaphragm, but the one in the kit had a different keyway on the shaft. We put it back together and tried it, it worked at idle, but not under any load. Ben stripped it back down again and replaced the one-way valve on the inlet side. Refitted, it fired straight away.

Stripping the dodgy Chinese fuel pump

By this time it was getting late and an Alpine storm was brewing. We hopped in the trucks and got to the top of the pass. A choice – tunnel, or single-track road over the top? We took the tunnel as we were still unsure of the pump, plus it saved time so we could get into Italy and camp up. Winding our way down into Italy the rain was now bouncing off the windscreen. In Etroubles we found a great hillside campsite in town. Pizza for tea – it’s Italy!

                After a weird outdoor shower and some strange baked objects (not pizza, possibly baked vole), we headed south for Susa, taking the motorway round Turin. The 80” grumbled purposefully along, but the 109” was overheating as the amient temperature rose into the high 30s, so we pulled over at a services and after letting it cool we checked the radiator. Brown rusty water poured out, so we flushed it and then refilled coolant. It made little difference. The climb now was continuous as we headed for Rochemolles valley.

Finally – offroad! We found the track up the mountains. However we had barely got off the blacktop when the 109 spluttered to a stop. Fuel starvation again, plus overheating. Another strip down of the pump…. blowing and sucking on the valves must have done something as it fired first time! We got another 3 miles up the track and it failed again. By this point Ben was getting tired of not having the right bits to fix the non-standard pump, and running out of idea to help with the cooling, so we took the bonnet off in a last-ditch attempt to lower the temperature. Another fiddle with the pump and we were off again.

The 109” ran cooler, even though we still climbing. Passing through an Alpine meadow, the track to the head of the glacier at 10,000 feet grew narrow and hairy. As it was getting late we couldn’t afford the 109” breaking down, so we left it in the meadow for a bit. We all piled in the 80”, stacking all the kit to one side so Theo could sit in the back, and we started to scramble up the mountain. The gravel turned into washouts and loose rocks.  Hitting the snow line, we pressed on as the sun was starting to set. 

Fording a stream on a plateau before climbing another set of hairpins, the brave little 1949 Land Rover  reached 10,000 feet and the headwaters of the Rochemolles glacier. We wanted to explore, but hit a snowfield which was frozen over washed-out gravel. The 80” lost traction, so we reluctantly turned back as it was now getting dark, and we had the winding track to retrace.  Descending the mountain we watched the sunset and we negotiated the last hairpins with the candle-like headlights. Collecting the 109”, we set up camp in the Alpine meadow, cooking by starlight and headtorches. A great day!

Glacial snows

Waking to the sound of birds and elk, we were now at the halfway point of the trip so we needed to head back. So…. down the mountains and sadly back to the tarmac. We travelled though the Susa tunnel into France then up towards Geneva, heading for Luxembourg to squeeze in a Beer Resupply Stop on the way back to the boat.

Camping near Mulhouse, we cracked on to Luxembourg, ending up back in Bettembourg, on a hillside campsite under some trees. On the way the 80” had some idling problems, so Ben changed the plugs and all was well. Next stop needed to be Belgium, so we again used the ACSI App to find a campsite on the coast for the next day, just down from Zeebrugge and our ferry home.

After a visit to the supermarket for duty free we pointed the trucks north, and hit the road. Lorries are a pain when you overland in Series trucks. They want to run at the same speed as you. We had a couple of issues with idiots who refused to be overtaken by old Land Rovers, then we got to the coast and stopped at a campsite that we’d all used before near Dunkirk. Then – closure, as walked to the beach and watched the sun set over Britain. 1800 miles in ten days in a Series One!

  Theo set off early the next day to get to the Dunkirk ferry, and Ben and I headed to Zeebrugge for our boat to the north. At the dock we found a Series 3 Tdi 109 and a 1927 Rolls Royce in the queue – good company. We had a fantastic trip – the memories of driving Ben’s 80” offroad through the Alps won’t be forgotten for a while. If you ever wonder how far your Series Land Rover will take you, the answer is simple – as far as you let her (as long as you don’t use cheap parts!).


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