29 November 2010

The Inevitable

I knew that it was likely to happen sooner or later - one of the Land Rovers broke down and needed recovery.

It was the Discovery that let me down yesterday. It had been a little poorly since using it to tow the bikes to Wales for the Cambrian Rally, when it developed a nasty vibration when under load - accelerating, going uphill etc. I thought it was a problem with the transfer box caused when I made a mess of changing from low range to high range, but it turned out to be a badly worn universal joint (UJ) on the front prop shaft. It's possible that my ham-handed gear change was the final straw for it, or it could be coincidence. That's a much easier repair than replacing the transfer box - which friends from Northants 4x4 has offered to help me with.

Setting off home with a nice smooth transmission, I didn't get far. Within a mile or so the engine stalled, the ignition lights came on briefly, and I rolled to a halt at the side of the road. Turning the key in the ignition had no effect - no ignition lights, the engine didn't turn over, nothing. The non-engine electrics worked fine: hazard lights, interior lights, clock etc. but they weren't going to get me home.

Turning again to my N44 friends, the cavalry soon arrived but they couldn't breathe life in to it either.

Time to call RAC - I've paid for their recovery service for times like this, so let's see what they can do! Not a lot is the answer. After fifteen minutes on hold I got through and was informed that it would be
four hours before they could attend. Yes, four hours... An hour and a half later I got another call saying it would be another three hours... At least I had a car to sit in, even if it was unheated, and I wasn't sat on the curb as I would have been on the bike.

Plan B: Tow the Discovery home behind another Land Rover... Which is what we did. I've towed a few times, but never been towed before and it was an interesting experience. There's something slightly eery about trundling along with no engine noise, just the roar of the Defender in front and a bit of wind noise - and by this time it was dark too.

It took a while, but we made it home. I was a bit surprised that the speedo still worked, although it's a mechanical one not electronic so perhaps not all that surprising! What didn't work so well were the brakes and steering. With no engine power there was no power steering and no brake servo to assist either. And when the windscreen mists up you don't have a blower to clear it, nor can you open the windows.

I think I preferred having a mechanical fault because at least the car was mobile whereas now it's not going anywhere. My suspicion is that the immobiliser has died so that's going to be first on the list of things to look at, and hopefully remove.

So as one fault is fixed, another one occurs - but I guess that's the charm of driving an older Land Rover...


15 November 2010

New Arrival

There's a new addition to the fleet - a 1993 Land Rover Discovery:

Previously owned by a friend, it comes with a very comprehensive history, has been converted to run on vegetable oil and has a remote control winch on the front. Despite having 144k miles on the clock it runs beautifully and I'm looking forward to learning what to do with two gear levers as well as taking it to places too risky for the Freelander.

Now to find a source of used veg. oil...

Abingdon 4x4 Festival 2010

The last weekend of September saw the annual Abingdon 4x4 Festival take place at Dalton Barracks in Oxfordshire. This is an annual event and raises money for local charities. This year, owing to the Cadwell Track Day being the Thursday and Friday immediately before, I arrived at lunchtime on Saturday direct from Cadwell.

The first challenge on arrival was finding my friends who were already there: Bobby with his Defender 90 and Robin with his Discovery. Before I'd even parked I'd found Bobby's 90, but it was parked and unattended. I was at this point I realised that I didn't have mobile phone numbers for either Bobby or Robin - memo to self: plan further ahead next time!

With the power of my iPhone, Facebook and e-mails we were soon in contact and, after pitching my tent, met up for my first lap of the course. First impressions were that it was a more technical course than in previous years - "technical" is a wonderful euphemism meaning bloody hard!

Before you're allowed on the course you have to have your vehicle scrutineered to make sure everything in it is secure and not going to fly around the cabin - this includes the battery in the engine bay. This is why tent-pitching came first!

Dalton Barrack's off road course is used by the army for driver training and has a range of features for the festival's Clerk of the Course to choose from. As in previous years there were "easy" and "hard" routes in many places, although the distinction wasn't always obvious with some of the "hard" bits being fairly easy - so much so I happily went that way in the Freelander - but the truly "hard" bits were just that, and there's no way I'd risk damaging the Freelander by attempting them.

The centre-piece of the course is the Mud Run, which is a deep, muddy water-filled channel much too deep for the Freelander, but that's not to say the Freelander didn't get the chance to have a swim. The course drops down in to a large pond, before the hard route splits off towards the Mud Run. The water level in it varied over the course of the weekend, with it being topped up periodically by water bowser.

© Abingdon 4x4 Festival

With the recent rain, parts of the course were very slippery and on some of the steeper climbs lots of people struggled to get to the top, including some seriously modified 4x4s which demonstrated it's as much about driver technique as vehicle specification. I'm pleased to report that in most cases the Freelander made it to the top - to the surprise of some of the marshals!

As Bobby was only at the show on the Saturday, I left the Freelander and climbed aboard his 90. For the first lap we went the easy route again, and the difference between the two cars was very noticeable, especially in terms of the ride with the Defender making even the smoother sections of the course feel much more dramatic. The limited turning circle of the 90 meant taking a couple of shunts at some of the tighter parts of the course, as did most people - the Clerk of the Course drives a Freelander 2: I'll say no more!

On the tallest, steepest and, that weekend, the most slippery climb we ground to a halt and rolled back. And again. And again. So we were directed around it - and we weren't the only ones by a long-shot as it continued to defeat 4x4s of all kinds.

For a second lap, Robin joined us in the forward-facing passenger seat in the back and this time Bobby decided to raise the stakes and opted for some of the harder sections. All went well until we branched off towards the Mud Run. Having got the hang of a using a heavier foot to get up the slopes, on particularly short, sharp climb over a ridge, Bobby forgot to lift-off at the top and we hurtled down the other side a bit too fast (understatement!). Fortunately no harm done, although how Robin had avoided going head first through the roof I don't know!

From there to the Mud Run, and after some advice from the marshal we took the plunge. The advice was spot on and we made it through where many had failed. Although in keeping with Land Rover tradition in such things, we did have wet feet. By now Bobby was on a roll, and even the highest, steepest mound couldn't stop us this time!

And that was the end of Saturday. Robin and I finished setting up camp and prepared some food as the temperature fell. Sitting out on a cold, clear night was not unpleasant but a warm caravan would have been nicer. It kept the beer (milk and orange juice) cold at least. Turning in for the night I checked the weather app on the iPhone for Didcot and it said 8°C: Brrr!

As the night went on it got colder and colder and I can tell you that my sleeping bag is a bit snug when you're wearing several layers, including a coat, inside a fleece liner. And I was still chilly...

After breakfast Robin and I made plans: a solo lap each in our respective Land Rovers, then we'd have a lift around in the other's Land Rover, then swap and drive each other's. That went well until half-way round the first lap when one of Robin's Discovery's rear shock absorbers broke, allowing the spring to pop-out and foul the rear wheel - it was the smell of burning rubber that gave it away. We discovered later that the mounting for the rear anti-roll bad had also sheared. Thanks to our neighbours in the camp site Robin was able to drive home that evening, very carefully.

So that left us with the Freelander, but the Freelander's time was nigh too and while following a Nissan Pathfinder around the course a lingering smell of diesel pervaded - we hoped from the Nissan, which had beached itself on a couple of humps. Sadly it wasn't, as subsequent investigations showed a burst fuel line where it runs under the suspension in the front wheel arch.

I didn't know about the fuel leak until after I got home, so we carried on lapping the course, being slightly more adventurous with the hard sections (although on one lap I was prevented from attempting the highest, steepest mound by the marshals, despite having already cleared on previous laps!). The video from this year's show on the official web site shows one of the climbs and a number of vehicles trying several times, and in some cases failing, to get over it. My Freelander features in the video, with it going straight over in one shot - very satisfying. [Link]

Right at the end of the course, Beds, Herts & Cambs Land Rover Club were manning a see-saw. In return for a £1 donation you could have a go at driving over it. Last year I'd made a right meal of it and was wary of it this year. On my first attempt I went straight over - gently up the slope to the balance point, stopping, tipping and rolling gently off. On the second attempt I didn't make as good a job of it when I stopped too soon, and in trying to start up the slope again the unmistakable smell of a burning clutch was all too apparent. After that, I decided to give the see-saw a miss to let the clutch recover.

On the Sunday I decided to try something a bit different and entered the twist-off challenge. I lined up in the area with a couple of purpose-built challenge trucks, a Series II, a SEAT Ibiza (yes, really) and a few other vehicles including a mobility scooter. When it was my turn, the commentator noted that my Freelander was modified, and sitting higher than standard - I was impressed because he hadn't been briefed. For those that don't know, a twist-off is a competition to find the vehicle with the greatest amount of suspension articulation. You drive up a single wheel-width ramp until you lose traction - diff locks etc. must not be engaged. Going forwards I didn't do all that well, but going backwards I did rather better - so much so I didn't realise that my rear wheel was dangling in mid-air. Unfortunately that's considered cheating... And probably not entirely safe either.

© Abingdon 4x4 Festival

I'm looking forward to next year's show already, but which Land Rover will I take...?

11 November 2010

Cambrian Rally 2010

After a disappointing performance in the Beacons Rally I was determined to do better at the Cambrian. It's also organised by WTRA, but the course is less technical. The start / finish was near Lyn Brianne reservoir, and the weather was just about perfect: cold but sunny.

Unfortunately neither Mark or Craig could make this one, but I wasn't alone as Gareth came to do his first rally on his 950 Adventure. I decided I deserved a bit of a break and left the 990 Adventure at home and used my 250 EXC Racing instead - the first time I've used it in over a year.

Instead of camping, we decided that a B&B was a better option this time, and we found a very comfortable room at the Castle Coaching Inn in Trecastle. After checking in on Friday evening we headed in to Llandovery to meet with our fellow forum riders, Team Bravo Two-Zero - AKA Rob, Gav & Shep in the chippy. And then in the pub - lovely beer, shame I had to drive!

Saturday morning dawned cold: there was ice on the seats of the bikes. The road up to the reservoir was narrow, twisty, and it took a lot longer than we expected - even once we'd arrived at the grid reference supplied, it was another twenty minutes to the start!

Taking advantage of the Land Rover we parked on a handy piece of verge, unloaded, and went to get scrutineered and signed-on. Our start time wasn't until almost 11.30 so we had plenty of time to drink coffee, chat and generally get organised.

Once on the start-line, the clock ticked over to our set time and off we went, Gareth leading. There were two special tests, and we were to complete two laps on Saturday, with the first one an untimed sighting lap.

The first liaison was along some sweeping forest fire-roads, through a timber yard and down on to the famous Strata Florida. The water level was fairly low, but there were still some deep puddles to ford (up to the front mud-guard on the 250), not to mention some tricky sections with loose rocks and a couple of rocky steps.

From there it was a short road-ride up a 25% gradient to Test One - where were arrived over half an hour early because they'd allowed too much time for the first liaison. While we were waiting we chatted to our fellow riders, I drained large volumes of water from my boots, and we gradually shuffled forwards to the start-line.

Rallies work to a timetable, and you are given a time for your start, stage one, stage two, refuel etc. but the time allowed to the first section was far too generous - and the pedantic marshals wouldn't let anyone start until the allotted time.

Despite it being untimed there's always the urge to keep going, and the first test was a fairly fast mix of fire tracks with a few more technical sections of bog and narrow rutted tracks. There were better ruts to pick, and I didn't get them right by any means!

From the first stage there was a longer road ride to the second test, which was not dissimilar to the first, but on generally tighter, steeper trails making it a bit slower. I did better on the second than the first, possibly due to having a smaller bike.

by Michael Davies

The two section tests were more technical than the liaisons, but not especially difficult, so I'd have been fine on the 990 after all.

On the second lap I was rattling along when I spotted a bike off the side of the track, a good twelve foot down the embankment. A black bike. A KTM 950. Gareth.

With the help of another rider, and a couple of marshals when they arrived, we got the bike back on to the track with no harm done. Gareth had over-cooked the corner and gone a bit wide, kept it on the edge, got on the straight, through he'd gotten away with it, then went over the edge...

Next day the route was reversed, with an earlier start time.

Gareth and I rode up to the start line where we switched off and awaited the nod. When it duly came, Gareth roared off down the road, and I didn't. The 250 refused to fire despite having carried me to the start. After a while the battery was flat, so I tried using the kick-start. That didn't work either, and my leg felt like it was going to fall off. Thankfully a bystander, with a fresh leg, stepped in and I was off.

This way round there was a lengthy road-ride to start with before the two timed stages, which were exactly the same as the day before albeit in reverse. And with less waiting.

Gareth and I managed to stay together most of the day - Gareth was a bit quicker on one stage, I was quicker on the other. The only real excitement was a chap who got a bit out of shape on a bend, almost caught it before veering off the track in to the hillside - and amazing managed to find a storm culvert, probably a metre cubed, which stopped him dead. We got a thumbs up, and left him to it - there were marshals close behind us.

At one point on the third and final lap I nipped past Gareth on a 'technical' section where his 950 needed more care, and thought he was behind me as I trundled along. Some time later, I looked over my shoulder and there was nobody there... So I stopped and waited. No Gareth.

I stopped at the next radio check-point and asked if he'd been seen recently. While I was there, a call went out for an ambulance, and I started to worry a bit...

It turns out he'd had a puncture shortly after I'd passed him, and he'd stopped to fix it - I knew nothing about it, and obviously couldn't go back.

By mid-afternoon we'd all finished, packed away and set off for home - I'd finished! And not last either. Shame they decided not to give finisher awards this year :-\

So next year I'll be taking the 250 to the Beacons and the 990 to the Cambrian. Who knows, I might do some of the others too.