Vintage Video: The First Overland, London to Singapore, 1955-56


Long time readers of CC may remember a history of the Land Rover series 1 I posted back in 2015. In it, I mentioned a trip made in 1955 from London to Singapore by a group from Oxford and Cambridge Universities, as an a example of the adventures early Land Rovers were put to, and enabled. This follows that up, and with an up to date twist.

Back in 1955, a group of recent graduates with some spare time, a certain air of confidence and a fair amount of gung-ho spirit decided to try to drive from London to Singapore. This was a drive that had never been previously completed, and certain elements, notably through Burma (now Myanmar) from India were not supported by roads, paved or otherwise. And the politics of it were as complex as you’d expect.

But still, Britain was confident back then and with some planning, the expedition, named the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition was off, taking the aircraft ferry from Lympe in south east England to France.

The vehicle choice was obvious in 1955 Britain – Land Rover series 1 station wagons, essentially standard specification cars with the 1997cc four cylinder petrol engine, selectable four wheel drive and twin ratio transfer box. Only larger fuel tanks and winches differentiated them from many others, along with the expedition specific camping and equipment. And the inevitable light and dark blue paint schemes.

Getting it off the ground was a challenge but once Land Rover (or Rovers as the team referred to the company) had come on board with the cars and a young TV producer had offered some cameras and film to record their journey for a travel series he was producing for the BBC’s travel unit, sponsors came forward and the trip became viable. Like the Land Rover, the young TV producer has gone on to a long career, for he was (now Sir) David Attenborough.

The route, shown in blue on the map above, went through France, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Persia (now Iran), Pakistan, India, Burma (now Myanmar), Siam (now Thailand) and Malaya (now Malaysia), of which Singapore was then a part.

This shot shows the Oxford Land Rover crossing the River Ganges, one of many instances where it seems that the Land Rovers were among the first vehicles many people had got close to. The accounts of driving through Syria, Iraq and Persia are very revealing too – the team demonstrated the Land Rover to the Shah of Persia’s army, which promptly ordered 500 from Rovers.

After 18,000 miles, the Land Rovers arrived in Singapore on March 1956, and the team were excited to be able to read letters from home.

The Land Rovers made their way back to Solihull, after being shipped to India and supporting some geographic research in northern India and Pakistan before being shipped  onto Turkey and driven back through Europe. The Cambridge car was later lost in an accident in Turkey on another adventure, in 1957. The Oxford car meanwhile was loaned by Rovers to an ornithological expedition to Ascension Island and them found its way to St Helena in the South Atlantic, about as remote as remote can be.

Remarkably, Oxford was recovered in 2017 and shipped to the UK, to be restored to a road worthy and legal condition consistent with its original expedition configuration, but retaining as much patina as possible. And then some more inspiration, as it became a feature on the Land Rover enthusiasts’ circuit. How about, suggested TV film maker Alex Bescoby, taking this to Singapore and driving it back to London? Tim Slessor, seen above with Alex Bescoby, a travel writer and former BBC producer, was up to help, and qualified to do so. After all, he had driven it to Singapore in 1956.

In the event, Tim Slessor was unable to join the trip – at 87, his age was creeping up on him – but his grandson Nat George did join the trip in the same car his grandfather had used over 60 years before. Politics dictated a different route – the red route on the map above. The expedition, known as the Last Overland, left Singapore in late August 2019 and made it back to London for Christmas, despite this happening in Turkmenistan. The car has since been worldwide tours, meeting some of the many Land Rover fans worldwide.

But before you search further on that remarkable story (Slessor and Bescoby have both written excellent accounts of their Overlands), how about a longer look at the 1955 trip, as shown by the BBC in 2005? You might want to make a cup of proper tea as you settle back for this.