Feature: Land Rover Defender's Oxford and Cambridge Eastern Expedition in 1955

Bob Rupani Updated: March 11, 2016, 03:57 PM IST

On September 1, 1955, six Oxford and Cambridge University students embarked on the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition from London to Singapore. Many felt this was an impossible overland journey, but the students successfully completed this expedition in two Land Rover Series 1 station wagons. The pair of Land Rovers was first airlifted from London to Paris, and to generate media interest the team brewed English tea below the Eiffel Tower! Interestingly, all six students did not know each other before starting the expedition. They had some 83 sponsors ranging from Land Rover to some whiskey makers. From Paris, they drove through Europe and reached Turkey (crossing the Bosphorus by boat). After Turkey, the roads deteriorated and distances between cities also increased.

Land Rover Defender (3)

The Land Rovers used by the students were standard production models with some modifications like additional spotlights, front mounted winches and an extra fuel tank and also spare jerry cans for fuel. The team usually slept in a tent that was put up between the two Land Rovers and porridge was their 'survival food' as they had packed a lot of dry oats in metal tins.

Land Rover Defender (8)

The expedition covered 18,000 miles (28,968km) and to ease their passage through the international borders, they distributed English cigarettes. The students did not just stick to the direct route; they also made diversions to see sights. From Turkey they proceeded to Syria, Iraq, Iran., Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Now an impossible journey due to all the political turmoil and violent conflicts. While in Iran, Land Rover asked them to give a demo of the Land Rover's off-road capability to the Persian (Iranian) Army who were so impressed that they immediately placed an order for 500 vehicles.

Land Rover Defender (7)

The expedition was also greeted warmly in India and they visited Delhi and Agra and then went across into Nepal to see Kathmandu after which they returned to Patna. Brooke Bond Tea was one of their sponsors and back then, they had a manager in every district in India. And it was the Brooke Bond manager in Patna who helped arrange country boats to ferry the Land Rovers across the holy Ganges. From Calcutta they went to Darjeeling where they stayed with a tea planter. Little did they know then that the Land Rover would go on to become very popular as taxis in this very same hill town. And I don't think in their wildest dreams could they have ever imagined, that one day an Indian company would own Land Rover. By this stage of the expedition, the team was familiar with Indian 'kutcha' and 'pukka' roads but the biggest challenge lay in wait for them once they reached Assam. They had covered some 15,000 miles (24,140km) and now had to take on the treacherous Ledo Road, later known as Stilwell Road, in honour of General Joseph Stilwell of the US Army. This road was built during World War II so that the Western Allies could supply the Chinese as an alternative to the Burma Road which had been cut by the Japanese in 1942. US Army engineers began construction of the highway in December 1942 to link the railheads of Ledo in Assam and Mogaung (Burma), and Chinese troops later aided the project. The road crossed into Burma through the difficult Pangsau Pass of the Patkai Range and was officially abandoned by the United States in October 1945.

Land Rover Defender (6)

Ten years later, the Far Eastern Expedition drove on this little used road and it was one of the most difficult sections of their journey. In fact, a team member later said, "Over the last 3,000 miles, it seemed there were just too many rivers and too few roads." While crossing the many rivers, they disconnected the fan belt to prevent splashing of water in the engine compartment, which could affect the electrics.

Land Rover Defender (5)

From Burma where they got a police escort to take them through the bandit infested areas, they drove to Thailand, Malaya (now Malaysia) and finally Singapore. After a very gruelling, difficult and challenging journey, the Land Rovers were escorted to the finish by police outriders. The expedition crossed the finish line 30 minutes later than the expected time of arrival and was greeted with freely flowing champagne and thousands of flashes from camera bulbs. This epic expedition took the teams six months to complete and it was filmed and broadcast on BBC. The students became household names and Land Rover won acclaim as the go anywhere machine. It had established its off-road capability and reliability in the severest of conditions and from here on, the Land Rover became the vehicle of choice for tough and unpaved terrain. Obviously it was also the preferred machine for global expeditions and missions. Coincidentally, the expedition that established Land Rover's reputation also went through a large part of India. And now so many years later, it's an Indian company that owns Land Rover.

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