The setting: a dark pub in a 200 year-old building in Warwickshire, UK. There, we run into the proprietor of the inn down the road where we’re staying the night. He knows that we’ll be visiting Land Rover’s Design & Engineering Centre in Gaydon the following morning. Over a glass of creamy, tepid ale he tells us, “There’s another American that comes here once in a while. Big fellow with blond hair and glasses. Always looking up factory records and such.”
That could really be anybody, but I knew immediately who it was. “Is his name Ben?”
I was referring to Ben Smith of New Jersey. Full disclosure; Ben is a good friend of many years. But there are many people who would say that, as his relentless energy, generosity, and enthusiasm for the Land Rover marque have contributed so much to the North American Land Rover enthusiast “scene.” I could fill pages with a list of those contributions, but instead, I want to try to share some of his philosophy. In preparation for this, I hastily wrote some leading questions and gave Ben less than 24 hours to answer them.
DB: Tell me about your first Rover. Where did you get it? Why did you get it?
My first Land Rover was a 1972 Series III 88” that I named “Dora”. In 1990, I was off in California for my freshman year of college. One of my father’s co-workers and frequent lunch partners owned the Land-Rover. He had bought it sometime in the 1980s in Florida. Under his ownership there had been an electrical fault of some type which fried the wiring harness. He had purchased a new wiring harness, removed the old harness, and attempted to install the new one. He got it about half installed and the work was about half wrong when he gave up. The Land Rover sat in his driveway for the next three years. At this point, his wife commented that she didn’t like the dead Land Rover sitting next to her new Porche 911 and to make that “thing” go away. One day at lunch the owner told my father, “I have the perfect car for your son…” Dad agreed that he’d come by and look at the Land-Rover. That night, before Dad could go over to look, the owner preemptively had it towed to our house. A discussion ensued and Dad agreed to buy the marine blue 88” for $1500.
Dad called me up and told me about the Land Rover. Since I was in California and he was in NJ it would be a few months before I could see more than photos. Other than previously seeing the movie, “The Gods Must be Crazy” I had no idea what a Land Rover was and started reading up about them. The University had a copy of the 1973 British Defense Equipment Catalogue so I read all that I could about Land-Rovers.
Our family wasn’t unfamiliar with British cars. Dad had purchased a 1954 Jaguar XK 120 in grad school. In the mid-1980s we had a 1965 MG 1100. In 1976 Dad bought a slightly used Austin Marina company car from British Leyland shortly before they abandoned the US market. I learned to drive on that Marina in the driveway. Growing up I helped Dad turn wrenches on the various cars to keep them running.
I came home from college in June 1990, took the Haynes manual that came with the car, and set out to correctly install the wiring harness. We soon had her running and registered. I drove her all summer. We attended the ABP rally in Mechanicsville and met a bunch of interesting people.
By the end of summer, I wanted to drive a car back to California, but we didn’t think that the Land-Rover was reliable enough, so I took the family 1980 Datsun 510 that, at 180,000 miles, was surplus to my parents’ needs. The following summer I was back and driving the Land Rover. I attended both the ABP and Rovers North rallies. There was a low-end knock in the engine so Dad and I bought a short block and swapped it in. I also used my summer earnings to buy a Warn winch and roof rack. That fall I set out for California with the 88”. I did the 500-mile engine-break-in oil change in a rest area in Ohio. For the next six years and countless miles, Dora was my only vehicle.
What was it about Land Rovers that got you excited about them then?
Getting into one and driving one caught my attention. After that, it was taking Dora off-roading. I spent a bunch of weekends my last years of college off-roading in the Southern California desert near the Salton Sea. In the middle of this, I joined Bill Caloccia’s LRO email list and made a bunch of friends.
How many Land Rovers do you currently own? Do your old ones still hold the same interest for you? I personally have trouble keeping more than one on the road at any given time. Tell us about your fleet, you have some interesting ones. What’s missing from it?
If you ask my wife it is too many. I currently have ten Land-Rovers. I still have that ’72 SIII 88” and we have had many adventures together. I eventually swapped the frame for an SII 88” frame that I had picked up, then totaled her in an accident towing with my 1994 Disco I 5 speed. I then bought a galvanized frame and swapped the chassis again. Currently, she has the engine out due to a rear main seal failure and is on a stand being rebuilt.
My second Land-Rover was that 1994 Disco I that was wrecked in 2005 with 197,000 on the clock and 160,000 miles driven by me over 8 years. By that time my wife had a 1995 Disco 1 5-speed as her primary driver. The 1994 was replaced by a 1996 Disco I 5-speed and my wife’s with a 1998 Disco 1 automatic. In time the 1995, 1996, and 1998 suffered engine failures. I’ve swapped the engine in the 1996 and she is still running. All in all, I had a 5-speed Disco 1 as a daily driver from 1997 until 2014. I kept the other three as parts trucks.
In the 1990s, I had liked the occasional 101FCs that I saw at events. In 1999, a pair of dead ones came onto the market near Seattle. The deal was that you had to buy both. This was about a year before the MoD sold off their fleet, so 101FCs were quite rare. I bought the pair and used the parts from the 1976 to get the 1973 pre-production running. Later on, I was able to pick up the Rubery-Owen powered trailer that had been separated from it. Life got busy in the late 2000s and the ’73 had a low oil event and was taken off the road. In the past year, I swapped in a refreshed engine, but that had a fatal flaw and seized. Another project for the back burner.
In the early 2000s, a dead 1951 80” caught my eye. I bought the 80” and got it running enough to drive around the yard. But the brake system was missing, so she sat waiting for me to have time. In the past few years, Dixon Kenner and others have assisted me with refurbishing the systems and I got her on the road for the first time since 1959. If you are on the east coast you may have seen this unpainted 80” at the Winter Romp, Guy Fawkes, OVLR Birthday Party, or Pierre Gauthier Event.
I also have a 1965 SIIA 109” station wagon and 1975 SIII 109” FFR that were picked up to be long-term projects. They continue to sit in tall-grass storage.
Asking how many Land-Rovers that I have is only part of the picture. Other wayward Rovers have come and gone over the years. Some broken for spares, some storage for friends. Currently, there are also a SIIA 88”, 1950 80”, 1952 80”, 86”, ex-Luxembourg 101FC, and an RRC on the property.
Each of the Land Rovers has their own stories, strengths, and weaknesses. I like driving them for what they are. Sometimes I drive the 80”, sometimes the 88”, sometimes the Disco 1, and sometimes the 101FC. I’d like to drive the others someday. Keeping a fleet running is possible. If it takes 2x work to keep one Land Rover running it seems that to keep two is more like 4x the work.
There are some cool rare ones that if I came across them I’d be keen to purchase. Such as one of the five original North American 1948 Series Is (all are currently missing) or a Pink Panther. But I’m not holding my breath.
From fairly early on you have been involved in keeping up various websites collecting information and making it available to others, and also with organizing and supporting clubs and events, generally fostering the community, if you will. Knowing you, I’ve witnessed that in other areas of your life. Public space, local politics, Blacker house, etc. Where does that come from? Why? What do you get out of it?
My parents have been volunteers my whole life. For the National Ski Patrol, for the Red Cross teaching first aid and CPR, and for New York State teaching EMTs. Dad joined ski patrol in high school and has served ever since. Both of them have over 50 seasons of service. I joined at 15 and, with a gap in the middle when I lived out west, have served 26 seasons. Dad’s brother and sister have been in ski patrol as well as my sister. I am also an Eagle Scout. I’d have to say that my upbringing primed me towards volunteer service to my communities.
I went to college to be a scientist like my Dad. In science, you gather information, analyze it, and then publish so that others can peer review your results or build upon it to learn something new. Hence my training predisposed me to publish my research.
From there opportunities presented themselves. In college, I was elected to chair the Interhouse Council and then was elected president of my co-ed fraternity (Blacker House). After college, my career path turned away from science and into IT. In late 1994 members of the LRO list wanted to organize a Land-Rover event in the Mendocino National Forest in April 1995. They organized two recces to plan it out. I joined for the second recce and found that they were organizing via email. Since I was an IT guy, I wrote code to create an email list which I gave the throw-away name of mendo_recce.
That one-off rally became an annual event and the list became permanent. It spawned one of the first virtual clubs with members self-organizing events and daily conversations. The mendo_recce list held their 23rd annual event last April in the Mendocino National Forest. I am still listmaster, and the list is going strong with 339 members.
Dixon Kenner had been editing the LRO list FAQ hosted on the RoverWeb. In 1995 it was announced that the RoverWeb needed a new home. Being an IT guy I had access to web servers, so I volunteered to host the RoverWeb. Dixon and I soon converted the FAQ to web pages from text files and started a website for Ottawa Valley Land Rovers (OVLR).
I’ve always been interested in research. Chassis numbers, history, whatever. When I find something out that I find interesting I publish it on one of the websites so that others can benefit. A couple of years ago Dixon, Keith Barrett and I started a project to track down all existing Series Is in North America. We call this the North American Series One Registrar or NASOR. We have found 700 so far. An amazing survival rate.
When Bill Caloccia was diagnosed with terminal cancer a few years ago he came to me and asked if I could take over his LRO, RRO, UK-LRO, ZA-LRO email lists when the time came. I agreed. If you look back I have been working to keep Land-Rover owners around the world communicating. I’ve held officer positions in various clubs; Northern California Rover Club, OVLR, Association of North American Rover Clubs (ANARC) and have been a member of a dozen more.
When I moved to New Jersey, I decided to get involved in my local community. This lead to joining (and then chairing) my Township’s Open Space and Farmland Preservation Committee. The Township’s leadership soon asked me to join the Historic Preservation Commission as an alternate and then appointed me to the Planning Board. After a few years, a job change required me to cut back to just the Planning Board. After ten years on the Planning Board, there was a political crisis in town and I was asked to run for the Township Committee. I won. I am currently serving my second year on the governing body and this year I am serving as mayor. If you want a thankless job be mayor some time. Winning an election just means that less than half of the town hates you. But there still are many haters.
What do I get out of it? Much of the research is what I’m interested in learning that I then make available for others. I like building communities of people so that they can share experiences and support each other. In turn, people have helped me from time to time. It is a way of paying it forward. I also must be more extroverted than introverted because I like interacting with people.
You have a large property with a large barn—it's full of parts upstairs and there are lots of projects squirreled away downstairs. Many projects have come and gone through those doors. Your efforts demonstrate how people can accomplish a lot through communal effort. Can you talk about that? What would you tell people who want to bring that kind of effort to their own local Land Rover scene?
My wife and I built the barn for ourselves. At the time we had no idea that it would become the center of so many gatherings. Over time my collection of Rovers and parts grew. I hate to see good parts go to the dump, so people ended up donating to the common cause and bringing them to me. Someday someone will need that part. Not everyone has space for a project.
When I needed help for the second rebuilding of Dora, this author, Dave Bobeck, drove up from DC and we spent a cold Martin Luther King weekend in an unheated garage (before the barn) doing a chassis swap. Later when Quintin needed to do the same for his 1953 80” we did it over a few weekends in the barn. Likewise, when Jeff Meyer’s WASHME caught on fire and he had to bail out, he was devastated. He had spent 16 months building that truck only to have it burn a few weeks later. We gathered a bunch of LR friends in my barn over a few years and we rebuilt it with donated parts. Last year, William Skidmore threw a rod on his Series III 109” SW (aka “the Battlewagon”) the weekend before his wedding. I opened up the barn, found an engine, sent out the call for assistance and LROs came to the call. The engine was swapped and the 109” was part of the wedding. More recently a 5-year project to rebuild Dixon’s 1951 80” completed. Next may be that ex-Lux 101FC.
All it takes is getting people together with a willingness to help each other. Having space to work and parts help. A few pizzas and beers (or other beverages) help. Over time, it becomes a gathering place. Today I help you, tomorrow you help me.
What’s the glue that holds it all together? The people, the projects, the Happy hours, etc. What would you say to someone who wants to get more involved in working on their own vehicles, but doesn’t have the confidence to dive in or doesn’t know where to start?
I take it all one day at a time. When it stops being fun it will end. The key to communities is getting people together. The successful clubs have monthly gatherings to tell tales, kick the tires and do some wrenching.; Some weeks you have a dozen and others just three. As long as it continues you have a community.
Series Land-Rovers are very simple to work on. For the most part, it is following the instructions in the Green Bible or the Haynes manual. Don’t be afraid to take something apart and put it together. A rebuild is a big project. You spend more time than you can imagine cleaning parts. Invest in lots of BrakeClean and a wire wheel on a bench mounted motor. What I have found is just concentrate on getting one thing done at a time. When I was working on getting the 101FC running for the first time, my goal was to do one thing each day. Even if it was something small like cleaning and painting one part. Six months later I had a running truck. Just keep moving forward one part at a time and you will get there.
You’ve traveled quite a bit in North America and the UK chasing your Land Rover dreams. Tell me about your top three or so highlights of those travels, and also some of the bucket-list trips that you hope to do.
I have met many, many interesting people in my travels and that is usually the best part. I also just like to get in a Land Rover and go drive somewhere: find a new trail, cross a new dessert, explore a new town, see where this unknown road takes you. I’ve driven across the US something like 18 times—mostly in a Land-Rover. I’d do it again. There is a reason that some people have called me Ben “and the road becomes my bride” Smith.
If I had to pick three trips the ones that come to mind are:
Driving with Jean-Leon Morin in a two Land-Rover convoy in 2008 from NJ out to Moab, UT and back for the US National Rally. He had his Cummins SIIA(ish) 109” and I had my Series III 88”. We stayed entirely off of highways and took the back US routes that go through every little town. We both had the same driving cadence so it was a great trip.
Taking part in comp safari competitions with Ian Stuart and Alex Scott and all the others in the Scottish Land Rover Owners Club. Great lads and lasses. A great time was had by all.
Doug Shipman’s Team Trophy Challenge in Tillamook State Forest, OR was a great event to attend in the 1990s. An all-weekend competition of two-vehicle teams with a night mission Saturday night. For us, it was a long drive from the Bay Area up to Portland, a long weekend (usually in the rain), and a long drive back. We’d drive our vehicles both ways so couldn’t break them too much.
What is still on my bucket list?
Africa: I want to drive the LRDG routes across the Sahara from Egypt across Libya and Algeria. And also see the beaches of Mozambique, the salt pans of Botswana and Skeleton Coast of Namibia via Land Rover.
Drive the Trans-America Trail and sister Trans-Canada trail and then up to Tuktoyaktuk, NWT Canada, and Prudhoe Bay, AK.
Drive the Gun Barrel Highway and other roads of Len Beadell in Australia.
You seem to have immense energy and ability to focus, and don’t seem to sleep much. What’s your secret?
Sleep? What is that? In all seriousness, I have intense focus to get things done. If I don’t focus, something will distract me and I’d find that months have gone by doing something else. So I push to get projects done.
Last but not least, what question didn’t I ask, that I should have? And what is the answer?
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
- J.R.R. Tolkien
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