The cars originally belonged to the local dealers of the British Rover Company. It is a Calcutta-based company called Dewars Garage and Engineering Works.
The company imported approximately 1,000 Land Rovers at the time and sold them to several British companies. These British companies established tea gardens in West Bengal, Assam and other northeastern states in India. In the years after India’s independence, these British companies left the country and put most of their cars at auction. The auction site is the ancient city of Siliguri, about 3 hours away by car.
In 1958, the first Land Rover sold to Manipanjang set foot on this land. Until then, life here has been difficult, especially for the ponies in charge of transport. People can only use them to deliver supplies to remote settlements high in the Himalayas.
In the following 36 years, this four-wheel-drive Land Rover has proved its trustworthy reliability and wind-like speed to the local people with practical actions. According to statistics, people in Manipanjang bought more than 300 Land Rover cars one after another. The main road of Manipanjan is very narrow, and there are rows of shops selling various commodities, snacks and trinkets on both sides.
As I was walking on the street, my eyes were immediately attracted by the row of Land Rover Series 1 and Series 2 parked on the side of the road. They look well-worn, most have the paint worn down to the metal underneath, and the tires are past their age.
But other than that, they were all well-maintained, and they even proudly showed me their stickers. Some posted “Great Britain”, some posted “England Rover”, some posted “Manchester Rules”, as well as the puzzling “Chocolate Boy” and the intriguing “Lifeline”. I think the three words “lifeline” spell out the meaning of Land Rover here.
Passan, one of Manipanjan’s longest-serving Land Rover drivers, is convinced no other car is up to the daunting task
Manipanjan is a tourist town with a population of 2,500. There are three hotels and countless homestays in the town for hiking enthusiasts. Fascinated by the beauty of Sandakup, they usually arrive here breathlessly after a 20-mile trek. For decades, Land Rover vehicles have carried countless passengers and supplies, shuttling back and forth between towns and cities, providing a steady stream of power support for local economic development.
small town legend
Passang Ramba is the driver of one of the Land Rover vehicles and has been doing the job for many years. He said: “Everything in my life is given by Land Rover.” Since the 1970s, he has driven back and forth between Manipanjan and Sundakpur twice a day, bringing daily necessities to Sundak Kepu, take the potatoes back to the market in Manipanjan.
It’s no easy feat—the 40-mile round trip used to take seven hours and anyone would be exhausted. Today, two-thirds of the road has been converted to asphalt and concrete. However, although the driving experience has improved, the time required for the whole journey is still about the same as in the past. Limited by the width and slope of the road, the average vehicle speed cannot be increased.
“The Land Rover Series 1 is as tough as a hammer,” Passan continued, explaining that its longevity stems from its durable aluminum body and simple transmission. “The body doesn’t rust, so you don’t have to park it in the garage at all.
“Akbar is a god in this area because of Land Rover, and he’s very proud of that.”
In a small town like this, a garage is a luxury. So those modern four-wheel drive vehicles made of steel are not suitable for us, they need more time to maintain. “He’s adamant that today’s cars can’t handle constant jolts like a Land Rover Series 1 can.
I wanted to argue with this man who was passionate about Land Rover Series 1, but found that the facts over the years were enough to explain everything—this man sent his daughter to Oxford University through his hard and diligent driving work, Obtained a doctorate; sent his son to Australia to study for a master’s degree. In addition, he has a child who attends a nearby school.
So, I began to understand how the Land Rover Series 1 has completely changed the lives of these small town residents. Later, I met Akbar in a garage. I sat in a small, blackened wooden chair as he gleefully showed me gears, clutch assemblies, gaskets, fan belts, and three complete engines.
Already more than 50 years old, he suddenly became radiant when talking about these things, and looked much younger. He has been driving Land Rover Series 1 for more than 30 years, and it is he who has driven the development and expansion of the Land Rover transporter business in Manipanjan. He has the expertise to fit an Indian-made diesel engine into a Land Rover Series 1 and use it with its transmission. The reason for this, he told me, was simple—it was more economical. Diesel is much cheaper than petrol in India.
More importantly, there are mostly road conditions that require off-road driving. During a large number of high-speed operations and slow uphills, the fuel consumption of diesel engines is relatively lower. Every time these Land Rover vehicles go on a mission, fuel costs alone account for one-third of the entire expenditure cost. So if you choose a diesel engine, you can save a lot of money. Up to now, there are only three Land Rovers left here that still use the original gasoline engine.
“Only Land Rovers can go up this mountain because they’re so easy to fix,” Akbar said, showing me a gear shaft with almost worn out teeth. “It was taken off a Land Rover. When it got up high in the mountain road, the little thing was destroyed in what you see now. But the driver did his best to bring it back and send it in. My garage.”
I stare in disbelief at the nearly bare gear shaft — it doesn’t have enough teeth to crack a boiled potato, let alone help a fully loaded Range Rover Series 1 return home safely. Akbar added: “Nowadays cars use electronic systems, and we can’t fix them in a small remote place like ours.” Akbar did not go to school, and he didn’t know the names of the parts he repaired. Instead, you can find out what the problem is and find a solution simply by experience and intuition alone.
Later, I heard that there are other mechanics in the area who can also repair these old Land Rovers, but when they encounter difficulties, they always turn to Ackbar for help. In this area, Akbar is a God of Land Rover, and he is very proud of it. “Life is not easy,” he confesses, “but when people come from far away to talk to me about my work, I get a deep sense of satisfaction.”
To be continued…
Text: OUSEPH CHACKO
Image: SAM BARKER