LANDY OF HOPE & GLORY

By Graeme Hurst with photography by Philip Kohler and @transafricalandrover

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In 1959 a young Australian working in (then) Southern Rhodesia decided he’d rather like to drive solo to England after finishing up his employment. So he ordered a new Land-Rover for the job, taking delivery of it in Lusaka before heading to Cape Town to start his continental crossing. Three years on he was safely in London after working on a film set, crossing the Sahara and being interrogated by soldiers – 30 000+ miles, 1 300 gallons of petrol and one puncture later.

Abandoned cars parked up in front yards. It’s not a totally uncommon sight in the first-world confines of the UK. But, when you occasion upon it, the car in question is usually a banger that’s run out of road tax (as the Brits refer to a car licence) or failed its MoT (annual roadworthy). And it would likely be a sight in a rough or down-at-heel area. But that wasn’t the case for many years with one house in the well-to-do suburb of Shepherd’s Bush, not far from the old BBC headquarters in northwest London. The Victorian terrace house might look the same as all the others in the street but, until two years ago, it had one rather distinct feature that set it apart from the rest: a 1959 short-wheelbase Land-Rover wedged in its front yard. Literally.

This example of one of England’s all-time automotive icons had been parked up there since 1990 and was well-known to many local residents. But, whereas most old, abandoned cars display such trivia as an out-of-date parking permit or a faded dealer sticker, the patinated livery on this rather decrepit-looking Landy’s roof suggested a much more colourful past: Lusaka – Cape Town – Nairobi – Tangier – London no less. Those city names were painted by its first owner, Philip Kohler, shortly after he embarked on a 30 000+ mile trip from Cape Town to London way back in 1959, by when he had already grown tired of people asking where he was headed! The trip was an epic undertaking by Philip, who was just 26 years old at the time.

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A trained agriculturalist, he’d left his homeland in search of adventure and ended up taking a post with the Crown Agents for Overseas Governments and Administrations in Southern Rhodesia. When that came to a close, he opted to drive to London in search of further adventure, settling there and going on to enjoy a successful career in film production. The Land-Rover would continue as daily transport for many years but would ultimately be parked up with the long-term aim of driving it all the way back to Cape Town.

Sadly, Philip never got to fulfil that dream. But now a local UK journalist and marque enthusiast, Martin Port – who was fortunate to acquire the car after Philip’s passing back in 2015 – has plans to do so. An initial assessment revealed it to be in surprisingly good order despite its forlorn state, the four-wheel drive icon having been mechanically refurbished around 28 years back so that it could be used for a family wedding. That work, and the Land- Rover’s fundamentally robust underpinnings, enabled it to be returned to the road in the last year under Martin’s custodianship. One which comes with the blessing of the Kohler family, who are keen to see their four-wheeled heirloom cherished.

What was known about the short-wheelbase’s African history when Martin first heard of the car was limited to the faded livery and anecdotes told by Philip to friends and family. However, that soon changed when his family started sorting through his belongings after his death. Stashed in the attic were dozens of colour slides he took of his journey all those years ago. What’s more, the family also unearthed a stash of original correspondence between Philip and various authorities and retailers that he engaged with in order to enable the trip.

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The polite and understated tone of these communications offers fantastic insight into the character of the then-young man who was clearly quite determined and meticulous: the pile of documents includes every receipt, carnet and insurance document, and even telegrams he sent or received! One of the most insightful is a letter from the sales department of Rover in Solihull in January 1959. It’s a response to a request for pricing for a Series II that he made the month before and it directs him to the manufacturer’s distributors, Central African Motors in Lusaka, who in turn replied: a petrol 88in variant was £640 in the UK and £867 if delivered in Lusaka.

There is further detailed correspondence on the 9th of May that same year in which he confirms the order for an 88in (in green, although a grey example was delivered) and details the options and accessories he’d like included, such as a hard top (£73), Trak-grip tyres (£8.12s) and a hydraulic jack (£4.18s.6d). There is also mention of items he no longer needs, including an extra fuel tank as “it is my intention when next in Lusaka to buy a trailer to carry stores.”

The same letter confirms his banking arrangements through Standard Bank in South Africa and asks for confirmation of the total cost (including a full tank of fuel!) and also a request for a discount (if available) for cash on delivery. It ends off with a polite request for details of any Land-Rover agencies en route, as well as a list of essential spares and road maps that would come in handy.

The chaps at the famous Solihull factory clearly got going with the order as the archive of documents includes the Series II’s original guarantee document. It’s dated December 2nd that year but confirms that delivery was made two months prior, on September 23rd. And that was evidently somewhat behind schedule as the terse contents of a series of telegrams attest, with Philip at one point taking issue with the lack of notice about the delay and suggesting a courtesy vehicle should be provided in the interim or he would consider cancelling the order.

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Evidently the Landy was delivered in time for his journey to begin. It was registered P1446 in Lusaka but would later wear the number KHD 613 at some point in East Africa. It eventually acquired the letters 267 HYP after being registered in the UK following his eventual arrival in 1963. Other preparations included the provision of a toolbox full of tools and lubricants (much of which was discovered in the Land-Rover when it was recommissioned) and the installation of a wooden sleeping rack; Philip elected to sleep inside the vehicle each night to avoid the hassle of pitching a tent.

It was during April 1960 that the young adventurer was eventually able to set off for Cape Town, where he wanted to ‘start’ his Trans Africa expedition, purchasing a Supersonic radio set (made in Southern Rhodesia) along the way. The radio is still in the vehicle, along with the aerial which Philip secured with one of the door restraints which he’d removed. Around the same time, he detailed his intended journey onto the roof and an outline of Australia and a kangaroo on the doors.

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Philip was also a keen amateur photographer, taking along a Leica M3 camera to record the journey, and it’s those pics that detail the start of his route from Cape Town, with shots taken of the Land-Rover facing Hout Bay. He then set out to see much of our country by following the Garden Route via the Storms River Bridge, which had been completed just three years before. From there it was on to Durban via the South Coast and up to the Kruger National Park, into Mozambique and then on to the ‘Rhodesias’, as he referred to what is now Zambia and Zimbabwe, where highlights included the Victoria Falls and the Zimbabwe Ruins. His fuel log hints at the distances travelled: 147½ gallons were consumed in SA and double that in the Rhodesias.

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From there he headed to Dar es Salaam, Mombasa and the Seychelles before finding himself in Arusha, where his plans (both those of his trip and later life) took an abrupt turn after responding to a plea for help on the radio. Evidently a local film unit had run out of toilet paper on a film set and Philip was in a position to help out. The film unit was working for Paramount Pictures and they were busy producing Hatari!. Directed by the illustrious-sounding Howard Winchester Hawks, the film’s storyline is centred around a group of hunters who make their living from catching wild animals, with the sole aim of populating zoos around the world. Naturally the script includes a Hollywood romantic twist, while the cast featured big names including John Wayne!

Philip took one look at the setup and rather fancied being part of it all, pestering the director for a week (by arriving at 5 o’clock each morning) until he capitulated and employed him as a clapper loader, the guy responsible for loading raw film into the camera and operating the clapperboard. His persistence paid off: once back in the UK, those months on set in Arusha inspired a full-time career as a location manager, with young Philip working on films such as The Empire Strikes Back, Goldeneye and The Living Daylights, among others.

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By late July in ’61, Philip had also visited the Ngorongoro Crater and Mount Kilimanjaro and found himself settling for a short time in Nairobi, where – as a receipt from the rather illustrious-sounding Overseas Motor Transport Company attests – the Series II was subject to quite a bit of work including a full decoke, a new clutch and new rear springs. There was also quite a bit of attention paid to the hub and brake seals, as well as repairs to the radiator, and it all totted up to a hefty £685 – which included £4 for the clutch plate! By now, Philip’s 88in had covered 28 500 miles and he took the opportunity of the break in Nairobi to reflect on his journey and share his achievements with Rover back in Solihull.

In a letter (dated 3rd of April 1962) he rattles off all the places he’s visited en route and comments how the car was still wearing its original Dunlop tyres. He also remarks on the various road conditions and how he has always got through thanks to Land-Rover, Dunlop and Shell! And Philip closes by remarking that a Land-Rover is unbeatable for reliability. The letter was clearly a thinly veiled attempt at drumming up sponsorship but only resulted in a polite reply from Solihull inviting him to contact the company’s offices after his arrival in the UK and saying they would be happy to see him at their factory. A letter to Dunlop Rubber Co. Ltd remarking on the quality and longevity of their tyres, which had only experienced a single puncture in 28 500 miles (since he’d left Lusaka for Cape Town), generated a similar reply.

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From Nairobi, Philip headed to the Sudan and then west to the Central African Republic, Chad and then Cameroon. From there, he steered the Land-Rover further west into Nigeria before heading north to Niger and Mali – quite some distance, with the Series II’s 2286cc engine consuming 154 gallons for those last three countries. After that he headed into Algeria and arguably the most challenging section of his solo escapade: crossing the mighty Sahara Desert. But first he was subjected to a full search one morning after being woken by a couple of armed soldiers who insisted on unpacking the entire vehicle. They eventually opted to leave him alone after he remarked that he was carrying important papers for the Queen of England and that there would be repercussions if he didn’t deliver them safely!

After Algeria, Philip’s route took him into Morocco, where he stopped in Tangier before taking a ferry over to Gibraltar and then heading up through Spain and on to London, where he arrived in February 1963 – bang in the middle of one of the heaviest snowstorms in years, as a photo of the Land-Rover outside Buckingham Palace shows. The conditions must’ve been one hell of a shock after the heat and dust of Africa, but probably not as much as Philip’s failure to pass a UK driving test after he neglected to keep both hands on the wheel while going around Hyde Park Corner during the test. Philip Kohler’s driving skills were clearly good enough to steer a Land-Rover across Africa but not quite good enough for Her Majesty’s driving licence examiner!

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Thanks to Martin Port and Classic Land-Rover magazine. You can follow the Trans-Africa Landy on: instagram.com/transafricalandrover.

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