Classic Land Rovers: Keeping the legend alive in India
Nestled deep in the Himalayas, a whole lot of classic Land Rovers have been deployed as taxis to ferry goods and tourists where other 4x4s struggle
Tenzin looked at me, yanked at a lever on in the footwell and said, "Four-wheel" with a toothy grin. He'd just slotted the Land Rover Series I he was driving in to 4-low to get past the steep climb that lay ahead of us. Oh what a day it had been. I've been braving the elements, sitting in the cabin of this classic 4x4 taxi as it made its way from the town of Manebhanjyang to Sandakphu which lies 31km away. Wait, what? A Land Rover Series 1 taxi? You find the strangest things in the most unexpected places.
Come to think of it, the story of how this transpired makes a lot of sense. Back in the 50s, Calcutta used to have a Rover dealership and they would import these Land Rovers for the rich, British tea plantation owners in Bengal and the rest of north-east India. Over time, these plantations changed hands, as did the Land Rovers which eventually found themselves with the locals. Over 1000 Land Rovers were imported and a lot of them have gone their separate ways, but a little over 40 of them have found their way to the hamlet of Manebhanjyang, some 20km from Darjeeling. Here, they were put to work ferrying people and goods up a narrow pony trail along the border with Nepal. The first one arrived in 1958, and they’re still going strong.
The locals swear by them. You’ll find all sorts of other 4x4s going up this route, but the Land Rover — right from the Series I to the Series III in all sorts of shapes and body styles — seems to be the 4x4 of choice. You see, the route is very, very punishing. It is essentially a rocky pony trail that would wreak havoc on the suspension and chassis of any vehicle that dares attempt it. However, the robustness, the sheer durability of their chassis means they never break. That, combined with the lightweight aluminium body means the chance of rolling over on some of the sharper hairpins (the sharpest, steepest ones I’ve ever seen!) is lower. The gearing of the drivetrain helps tremendously as well – in combination with the torquey motor, it heaves the Landies and their payloads up these slopes at a steady pace.
But this isn’t just about cars. It’s also about the people. The ones that took this icon and kept its story alive and breathing in a remote corner of India. Tenzin Tashi, the chap I was riding along with, is a driver who's been taking these Land Rovers up and down this route since 2006. He takes tourists along, and even supplies for the inaccessible areas like Sandakphu and the SSB camps that speckle this route – it runs along the border with Nepal. He doesn't own this Series I, it belongs to Kunsang Lhamu who also has three more Landies doing duty for him. Another feisty young lady we met was Samantha Dong. Her grandfather got his hands on a Land Rover and would do this trail (sometimes up to six times a day) carrying people and supplies up, while bringing down up to 600kg of potatoes. She's a really skilled driver, and has also taken up the task of being an instructor on the Land Rover experience tour.
However, I wasn't here alone. We also had some modern day Land Rovers with us – the Discovery and the Discovery Sport – just for some perspective. What a stark contrast to the Series I they are! I was sitting in something bone stark basic – leaf springs in four corners, an engine mated to a low ratio transfer case, an aluminium body shell and barely any brakes to speak of. Seatbelts? No chance, you've got to be content with a handle on the dashboard to hold on to. On the other hand, the passengers in the Discos were cocooned in plush leather with the climate control on, while all sorts of electronics – hill-hold assist, ABS, the Terrain Response System with its various modes, the all-terrain progress control system that takes care of accelerating and braking so you only have to steer – were working in overdrive to keep the car going. It is mind-boggling to see how much has changed over the last 70 years. The ethos of both vehicles remain the same, and yet they couldn't be more different.
These Land Rovers have been toiling away in this part of the Himalayas for decades and will probably do so for a few more. It is getting harder for them though, ironically, because the trail up is slowly being paved making it easier for less capable 4x4s to make the climb. Two years ago, it was a rutted path for the entire 31km stretch. Today, concrete has been laid over nearly half of it and they intend to do continue. However, the owners are proud of their machines and have no plans of giving up on them just yet. They even have their own owner's club up there! It's fascinating how the story of the legendary Land Rover has been kept alive in a nondescript corner of our country for so long. Perhaps, that's precisely what makes it a legend.