Land Rover at 70: The Car that Conquered the Darien Gap

When Land Rover invited us to help celebrate its 70th anniversary, there was one particular car we were desperate to ride in. 

“I’ve been car mad since I was a small boy,” says Gavin Thompson (pictured below) with a glint in his eye. He is sitting behind the simple three-spoke steering wheel of an old blue Range Rover, explaining how his lifelong love of cars took him on some truly remarkable adventures.

We are parked up a farm track on the Goodwood Estate in West Sussex, listening to the roar of the world’s finest racing cars as they make their way up the 2018 Festival of Speed’s 1.16-mile hillclimb course. However, there is soon to be a change of pace as no fewer than 70 Land Rovers (one from every year of production) parade up the course to celebrate the company’s 70th anniversary. Presented with an opportunity to ride in one of the vehicles, it was Thompson’s we made a beeline for.

This, you see, is no ordinary Range Rover, at least not in terms of where it’s been and what it’s done. For despite being almost entirely unmodified from its factory specification, it was this very vehicle, along with an identical sister car, in which Thompson crossed the Darien Gap in 1972 as part of a 17,000-mile journey along the Pan-American Highway, from Alaska to Cape Horn.

The expedition, which was led by Thompson, then an army officer, and explorer John Blashford-Snell, took six months to complete. Half of that time was spent crossing the 250-mile Darien Gap, a stretch of tropical forest that spans the border between Panama and Colombia. Dense with vegetation and peppered with swampland and rivers (not to mention dangerous wildlife), it is generally regarded to be impassable by car.

Thompson and his crew of 64 had other ideas, hacking back the vegetation to allow the Range Rovers to inch forward, and using every trick in the book to keep things moving. “I used to drive past these great big trees, and all the guys would hang on the side of the car to stop it rolling over,” he recalls.

There was, however, one obstacle the cars simply couldn’t handle. “I tried to drive everywhere I could except into deep water,” explains Thompson. The solution was to build a raft by lashing together two Avon boats and putting ladders over the top for the car to drive on to. “We did actually get it wrong on one occasion and toppled off. The car disappeared under the water with me in it,” he laughs. “The great joy was I had the window open so it was dead easy to get out.”

After using winches to pull the car on to dry land, Thompson set about repairing it. “I drained all the water out of it, took the sump and the plugs out and turned the engine over until water came pouring out. I drained the gearbox and the transfer box too, and then asked for loads of oil, which was parachuted in.” In between adding this oil Thompson would run the engine for 10-second bursts in order to flush out any remaining water. The Range Rover made a full recovery.

As Thompson chats, our convoy of 70 Land Rovers gently fires into life and rolls from the farm track and on to a short stretch of road that leads to the start of the Goodwood hillclimb course. I’m perched in the Range Rover’s single rear seat, next to which is a water tank and a large chest for spare parts. These represent one of the typically modest modifications carried out for the expedition, along with the addition of winches, bull bars and a sturdy roof rack.

Our journey up the hill today is snail-like by Festival of Speed standards, but we still cover more than twice the distance in our five-minute run than Thompson’s Darien Gap expedition would typically have managed in a whole day. “The thing about the jungle is that it’s boring,” he says. “You’re there for three months driving half a mile each day, and day after day is the same.” All this in tropical heat too, with the temperature inside the cars reaching 60 degrees C.

For Land Rover, supplying vehicles for such expeditions presents not only a great marketing opportunity, but also a chance to push the cars to the limit in the most extreme conditions imaginable. Which makes it all the more remarkable that so few of the Range Rovers’ components failed.

“The only real issue we had was with the differentials,” recalls Thompson. “Before we started the expedition we thought we’d need swamp tyres to cope with the conditions and had some specially made. But when we got there it was damp but not muddy.” As a result the ill-suited swamp tyres slowly started to kill the diffs, prompting Land Rover to work on an alternative. In the end this turned out to be a set of standard Defender tyres, which put less strain on the drivetrain, and an end to the diff woes.

It was thus equipped that the two Range Rovers emerged from the Darien Gap exactly 100 days after going in, and continued onwards to complete the Pan-American Highway, the crew exhausted but victorious. They had achieved what many thought impossible, and in doing so created another little piece of history for a brand that, over the past 70 years, has done its very best to conquer the world.
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1 Comment

  1. An early recollection I have is of the skill of a driver taking a Land Rover up a mountain track changing from 2nd gear in high range to 3rd gear in low range without losing forward motion. This was in the late 1950s.

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