Teenager Dan Cleveland’s Series III is nearly as old as his dad. But it’s a mere youngster compared to the Victorian engineering he loves best
There was a time when the sun never set on the British Empire. During the reign of Queen Victoria, little old Britain punched way above its weight, and that was because we invented the industrial revolution. We mined coal and iron ore and built stuff like ships and steam engines that helped us conquer the world. In those days, no American would have dared tell us what to do. After all, it hadn’t been that long since America itself had been a British colony. Yet this year President Obama threatened that we’d be at the back of the queue for trade deals with the USA if we didn’t vote as he suggested in the European referendum. The cheek of it!
Now if there’s one thing history has proved it is that American intervention in the affairs of other countries usually ends in disaster. Anyway, I don’t appreciate President Obama – or anyone else for that matter – telling us how to run our own country. It was so different in the 19th century when Britain ruled the waves. Those were the days when boys wanted to be engine drivers when they grew up. These days, of course, they’d rather stay indoors and play computer games – or
I can tell you that the spirit of Victorian Britain lives on in a quiet corner of the Northamptonshire countryside where, if you’re lucky, you may just bump into young Dan Cleveland and his 88in Series III.
Dan’s birth certificate will tell you that he is 17 years old. But under his flat cap is the mindset of a young man forged in the era of Brunel and the Stephensons. His hero is the late Fred Dibnah and, like Fred, he loves steam engines. In fact, Dan helped his dad, Andy, restore one. “I would have loved a steam engine of my own, but I couldn’t afford one,” he admits. “These days, steam engines can cost a million pounds or more to buy and run. So I did the next best thing and bought a Series Land Rover, just like Fred’s.” Anyone who actually encountered Fred’s Land Rover back in the day will diplomatically point out that Dan’s much-loved 2.25-litre diesel Series III is actually a darned sight better than the neglected workhorse Fred used to drive, but we know what he means. It’s clear that Dan loves his 41-year-old Land Rover, even though it’s a bit sluggish. But then, Dan isn’t the sort of lad to yearn for daft hot hatches and the like. “My Land Rover’s top speed is about 44 mph and that seems slow to some people, but when you’re used to driving a traction engine with a top speed of 12 mph, it seems very fast!” he laughs.
Dan’s whole pace of life is slow. He lives with his dad on a narrow boat moored on the River Nene near Oundle, Northamptonshire. “I’ve lived on the boat since my mum and dad split up a few years ago,” he recalls. “I had the choice of staying with Mum or going to live on the boat with Dad. I chose the boat and I’ve never regretted my decision.” Although the law these days requires youngsters to stay in education until the age of 18, Dan admits he often plays truant from college, where he is taking a woodworking course. “I never liked school or lessons. I was always practical and prefer to do things with my hands. I’m not very academic, but I can strip down an engine and put it back together. “That’s why I love my Land Rover so much – it is simple and I can do all the work on it myself. If something goes wrong, I can put it right with spanners and screwdrivers. You can’t do that with modern cars.” Dan works part-time for a boat hire company based at the moorings where he lives, doing general maintenance. Sometimes he helps out on a boat that travels the length of the river delivering coal, gas and essential supplies to fellow boat dwellers.
He also looks after a flock of sheep on the rough pastures adjoining the moorings, driving his Land Rover on the bumpy tracks and across the grassy fields as he goes about his business. It is good driving practice, for he hasn’t passed his test yet. “I’m taking driving lessons at the moment. The examiner’s car is a Renault – I don’t know which model it is, because I’m not interested in modern cars. It’s very complicated compared to my Land Rover and the steering wheel is very small – every time I turn it I end up accidentally turning the stereo on and off. I suppose it’s all right to learn to drive in, but I’d never want one. I’ll stick to my Land Rover.”
Dan bought his 1975 Series III in February, from Nantwich, in Cheshire. It had six previous owners, all in the same family. There are 66,300 miles on the clock, but nobody knows how many times it has been round that clock. The vehicle is totally original and in overall good condition. Dan has welded some minor repairs to the chassis, but over the coming months he will be getting underneath with a wire brush and rubbing off all the old mud, rust and paint to tackle any corrosion he finds which, after more welding, he will Waxoyl. “I want my Land Rover to last,” he says. “They will go on forever if you look after them. The first car I ever drove was a friend’s Defender, on a field. I was about 10 years old and could only just reach the pedals. I knew then that was the only sort of car I’d ever want. “I know I seem old-fashioned, but I like the old stuff. I probably get it from my father and he gets it from his father. My grandad, who was known to everyone by his nickname Curly, worked on the railways with steam engines. After the second world war, he got a job in the engine sheds and worked his way up to fireman and then engine driver. He even worked as a fireman on the Flying Scotsman non-stop train service from London to Edinburgh. It was a really hard job keeping a big, 100mph locomotive stoked up with enough coal. Not many men could do that.” Dan loves steam as much as he loves his Land Rover. He accompanies his dad to steam fairs all over the country, where Andy’s 22-ton Pride of the Fens showman’s engine, which he restored with Dan’s help, is always a prime attraction.
At one steam fair, in Dorset, Dan got to meet the sons of his hero, Fred Dibnah, and even got to drive Fred’s old steam roller. Dan has also driven a steam-powered boat, owned by friends. In fact, he has a lot of friends on the waterways of Britain, which father and son explore during their holidays in their own boat. Two years ago, they headed up the Nene to Northampton, then cruised south on the Grand Union Canal to London, where they explored the River Thames – and even chugged under Tower Bridge – before returning to Northamptonshire. Last year they explored the canal system of the East Midlands and this year they are planning an adventure along the Grand Union Canal, which will include a visit to a professional sign writer who will be giving their boat, named Hassle, a new paint job. Hassle is 62 feet long and was built in 1999, although it is powered by a 1948 Lister three-cylinder diesel engine that runs as sweetly as any sewing machine. Whenever they set off on a waterborne journey, Dan and his dad expect to make new friends along the way. “The people who live on boats on the river are one big community. We all help each other out,” says Dan. “And funnily enough a lot of them drive Land Rovers. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t matter if they get muddy or you have to wade through water. If it gets in under the doors you just let it drain back out again! You couldn’t do that with any other car.” Other fans of Dan’s Series III include his dog, Ella, an 11-year-old springer spaniel/Labrador cross that loves nothing better than curling up and sleeping in the back of the Land Rover. But Ella is a working dog, helping Dan in his part-time role as a shepherd, just as the Series III is a working Land Rover. It has proved particularly useful in times of flood, when getting to the boat he calls home involves driving across flooded fields.
Living in a narrow boat, heated by a cast iron stove and with electricity supplied by a generator, isn’t for everybody. But for a teenager who secretly wishes he was born in a bygone era, it fits the bill nicely. With the cries of the river’s wild ducks and geese as his alarm call and his Series III parked outside, Dan wishes for nothing more. And who can blame him?