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by Alisdair Cusick, 29th August 2016

John Hill bought his Series IIB Forward Control back in 1971. Both are still going strong...

L ooking at the current crop of products from Solihull you'd be forgiven for forgetting the origins of the company. Today, the word lifestyle drives the marketing of Land Rovers,  but that wasn't always the case. The original Land Rovers were working vehicles  and the model range offered transport solutions for all sorts of business users.

One such buyer was John Hill, from Henley-on-Thames. In 1971, with a busy welding and fabricating business, he needed something larger than his Series IIA 88-inch  diesel, so he looked at what else might fit the bill. The solution was a Series IIB Forward Control. Incredibly, he still has it today and both man and machine are still hard at work – 43 years later. Our story starts in the 1960s when John owned a 1955 Series I. With a growing family, and an equally growing business, the vehicle carried welding equipment during the week as a mobile welding plant and at weekends it was emptied, cleaned out, and transported his wife and children. That was later replaced with a new Series IIA SWB diesel.

“The Series I went to a company in Banbury,” recalls John. “They stripped it down, put everything into boxes, then exported it – in kit form!” Later, John could afford separate family transport, but still stuck with Land Rovers – starting with a two-door Range Rover, followed later by a four-door Classic, then the P38A Range Rover he drives today. The business Series IIA lasted until 1971, when he decided he needed to carry more equipment. Being a Land Rover fan, he was keen to stay with the marque. A brochure offered what seemed the perfect solution – the Series IIB Forward Control. This model was a progression from the earlier SIIA Forward Control, which used the standard 109-inch chassis, but with a subframe mounted on top of it to raise the bodywork. The cab was situated in front of the axles, and the engine mounted lower down, between the two front seats. The SIIA Forward Controls used the 2.25-litre petrol engine, but from 1966 the later SIIB added  an inch to the wheelbase, used wider, heavy-duty axles, a modified front end design and, crucially, two improved engines: the 2.6 straight-six petrol and the 2.25 diesel. It was quite an exotic piece of kit, and because of that, John's local dealer was unable to help him. In the end, he had to go to London, and place a special order at the dealer there. Even then, he recalls, they had trouble getting the ENV axles to go on it. Originally grey, he had it sprayed dark green before he collected it. “When I finally got it, it felt great. I was high up and could carry all the gear I needed – it was perfect,” says John. For his work, John carries a huge Lincoln 300DLX welder, which – as he puts it – “can do anything.” That means TIG, flux core and manual arc welding. As standard the Forward Control came with hood and sticks, but these were removed, the load bay lined with wood and a custom canvas load cover made locally. As you'd expect, the vehicle hasn't been without its problems over the years. 

The original 2.6 straight-six engine lived up to its reputation for burning valves. “If I could keep oil in it, it was fine,” John remembers. “It was thirsty – I guess low teens – but in the end because of the regular valve trouble, I ended up replacing the original engine with another six-cylinder, but that was no better. I realised I was going to have to keep putting new engines in, or look for an alternative.” That changed one day in 1990, when he visited a show at Newbury, and bumped into Nick Tipper, from Gretton Motors. John happened to mention he'd got a Forward Control, and that he'd had some engine problems. Nick was adamant he had a solution: he suggested fitting an Isuzu diesel, and a five-speed Santana LT85 gearbox from a V8 Land Rover 110. “I told him I'd only want it if it could be done without altering anything,” says John. “I stripped the body off, then trailered it to Nick behind my two-door Range Rover. All Nick altered was the gearbox and engine mounts. Inside, everything was exactly as it was with the cab, body and bulkhead.” John was happy with the new engine – the 2771cc four-pot diesel and strong,  five speed gearbox was a great solution. Listening to the work John has done with the vehicle is almost worth a book in itself. The fabulous period signwriting on the cab doors lists “J R Hill and Sons” (two of his sons now work in the business) as “Contract Welding, Engineers and Fabricators”. John describes a fascinating history of clients and work. “We've done everything from welding goalposts for Wickham Wanderers, through to rolling nine tonnes of rails to produce a rideable garden railway for a millionaire; huge gas and water pipework; bridge tie-ins – you name it. “We even repaired and rebuilt the Maharajah's Well, in Stoke Row, and built a bandstand at Henley for the Queen's Jubilee.”

Clients include household names like Amey, Nuttall Group, McAlpine, Balfour Beatty and Costain. Throughout, the trusty IIB has been on the button, ready for action. John tells me how, after the great storm in 1987, he was called in by the Forestry Commission to repair some of their specialist kit, in the field. “They took me out to where they were working. We drove for miles and miles into forests, and suddenly, this huge valley opened up that had just been totally flattened. They were using a team of Forwarders – machines that cut the trees, picked them up, stripped them, then sawed them up. All their axles were cracking on the job, and we were booked to repair and weld them all, in situ.” Tale after tale comes out from this quiet, modest character, of doing hard, extremely skilled work, on location – and always with his Land Rover. One of his regular jobs is welding the huge girders that support motorway bridges. He welded bridges 6, 12 and 13 on the M25, as well as the M4/M25 junction where he welded in stiffener plates, working inside the bridge itself.

Forget working with thin sheets like car bodywork, on a bench in the dry. John's stories tell of welding material several centimetres thick, on location, in rain, ice and snow. Many people on sites often told him he'd not get the Land Rover far, especially as  heavy plant had usually made a terrible mess of the ground before he arrived. John ignored them: “I'd just put it in low box, four-wheel drive engaged, and let it pull itself through – I've never, ever, got stuck with it.” The vehicle is the perfect example of a Land Rover working as was intended. More than that, every inch of the vehicle tells the story of one man's career. “Apart from the 2.6 engine's problem with valves, as soon as I changed the engine and gearbox, it was transformed,” says John. “Nick Tipper was dead right, and I'm glad I took his advice. That's the only reason I ended up keeping it so long.”

You may expect to hear of galactic mileage, but John changed the speedometer when the Isuzu engine and Santana gearbox were fitted, and today that shows just 10,533 miles on that set-up. The only bodywork repair it has had was two front outriggers on the subframe under the floorpan, testament to his regular and thorough application of Waxoyl. John is now 76 years young, and has reached the age when he is thinking of retiring, so the Land Rover is for sale. “I want it to go to someone who appreciates it as a historic working vehicle,” he tells me. I wholeheartedly agree. With its period signwriting and genuine patina, it is the ideal thing to turn heads at a show or steam rally and deserves an owner to appreciate its history and uniqueness. Purists may complain about the non-original engine, but it was an honest solution to a genuine problem. It's why it's still working today. John's still in love with his current P38A Range Rover, which, thanks to Stan Tooth's handiwork, now runs a 2.8 TGV diesel engine in place of the original 4.6 V8 petrol. “I've regularly done a 460-mile trip to France in it, and get 33.5 mpg. It's a very good engine, with so much torque.” I love vehicles like this Forward Control.

Every inch of it tells a tale. It is a story of one man's work with his Land Rover, and how one of the less common utility variants was so right for the job, he kept it for his whole career. If you're someone who will appreciate John's Forward Control and in the position to offer it the right sort of retirement, please call him on 01491 628084 or 07703 472483.

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