The scene is taking place in Kayah State, close to the Thai border. A loud whine pierces the humid air of the Burmese jungle, scaring off a few white egrets from one edge of the swamp to the other. The whine abruptly stops, a grunt follows, and a lower-pitched note. This is not a wild elephant. No, it’s much rarer than that in these parts.
This is a big 40ish-year-old mechanical beast of burden built on a faraway island, a mythical contraption that beat the odds and survived to the present despite the demise of its parent company. This is a 109’’ Series III Land-Rover.
Most 4×4 vehicles leave me pretty cold. But then most (not all) of them are SUVs these days, full of bling, Bluetooth gadgetry and climate control nick-nacks and signifying nothing except a need to dominate the treacherous roads of Chelsea or Miami Beach. Back when the Land-Rover was designed, right after the Second World War, an all-terrain vehicle was not recreational. It was either military or civilian, but always slated for hard work in mud, sand or snow.
By the time the Series III Land-Rover came out in 1971, Rover was part of British Leyland. Built at the historic Rover plant in Solihull, this iconic vehicle was only partially shielded from the fracas and hubris of its corporate owner. Plastics were now all the rage, so the Landy got a new grille and dashboard made of the stuff. But aside from the relocation of the headlamps to the front wings (actually on the final Series IIAs in 1969) and flatter door hinges, few external changes were imposed on the old girl, courtesy of Rover designer David Bache.
This is the LWB version in its full passenger-loading glory. The middle front seat is only usable for a (literally) legless person or a small child, but three can sit on the back seat pretty comfortably. Less appealing but practical: the rear compartment offers room for four extra passengers, though the high floor would make a long journey pretty tiresome.
Series III Land-Rovers were powered by a 2.25 litre 4-cyl. petrol or Diesel engines, as well as a 2.6 litre six. This one has the 4-cyl. gasoline version, which is pretty durable but not exactly quick. Not that speed was ever part of the Landy’s remit. In 1980, a V8-powered Land-Rover was created, thanks to the BL/Rover parts bin. The V8 necessitated a complete redesign of the front end, which was a step towards the Land-Rover’s 1985 replacements, the Ninety and One Ten (renamed as the Defender in 1990).
Still, in 1979, having a split windscreen and sliding windows was perhaps a sign that the Series III was approaching retirement age. One look at Jeeps or IH Scouts and one might think the Land-Rover was a couple decades behind. But that was still not an issue until the BL blowout began to affect the Solihull plant in the late ‘70s. Quality and durability took a nosedive just as several dangerous rivals appeared.
Europeans were fielding serious competitors by 1979, especially the Steyr-Daimler-Puch G-Wagen and the Lada Niva, as did the Japanese. The Toyota Land Cruiser, Nissan Patrol and Mitsubishi Pajero really started to eat away Land-Rover’s once-dominant position in African, Australian, Asian and Middle-Eastern markets in the ‘80s. Land-Rover sales plummeted outside Europe and never really recovered, though the marque eventually managed to claw its way back to a decent market share in the old continent and in the UK.
But BL had (for once) been prescient and developed the Range Rover back in 1970. The 4WD Rovers could stand on two legs, one Land and one Range, to continue competing in a more crowded but also growing market. Nowadays owned by the Tata group, Land/Range Rover is the only part of BL that made it out of the debacle relatively unscathed, along with Jaguar.
The Defender, essentially identical to this Series III except for a few details, soldiered on until January of this year, just a couple of years shy of its 70th birthday. A venerable British institution is now laid to rest, awaiting its replacement to be announced in the coming weeks or months.
Meantime, this Landy is still hard at it, working in one of the most remote parts of a remote country. Paved roads don’t tend to stay paved for very long in Myanmar thanks to the six months of monsoon we get every year.
This Series III, with its lamp guards, Safari snorkel, Defender wheel arches and diamond-plated wings, looks perfectly at home in Southeast Asia. As long as the axles remain in one piece (breakage is a common ailment on these if they are overloaded), there is no reason why it shouldn’t keep calm and carry on well into this century.