Land Rovers on Virginia’s Backroads

This rain and mud is the kind you want to play in, not shelter from. I’m riding shotgun with today’s trail leader, Ralf Sarek. His job is to run point and radio the back with terrain intel from his 2022 Land Rover Defender 90. 

Tough enough to cleave red clay, Sarek’s Rover is also red-carpet sexy. With enough horsepower to haul a trailer with two thoroughbreds, it can reach an Autobahn-worthy top speed of 119 mph. But this morning’s route calls for granny gear. We’ll trot along the curves at six mph and max out on some flats at eight. Speed demons won’t dig it, but what’s the hurry? 

Slow is fun in the Buckingham County backcountry for the Mid-Atlantic Rally of the Rover Owners Association of Virginia (ROAV). Club president David Short says it’s “a great way for new Rover owners to learn what their vehicles—and themselves—are capable of.” He adds that all of ROAV’s events have trail guides with years of experience across multiple vehicle platforms. “We can safely teach you all of the intricacies of a three-stick manual gearbox from a 1960s Series Rover to the advanced Terrain Response II traction control system of a modern Defender,” Short explains. 

Waze won’t help you here, out of signal range somewhere between Scottsville and Arvonia. Our trail wends past Pearl’s Pond, home of the Little George Rod and Gun club. A “Share the Road” sign shows a horse and buggy. We’re directed to the rally rendezvous point using GPS coordinates: 37º43’56.5”N, 78º23’52.7”W.

Photo credit: Adam Ewing

And They’re Off!

Sarek’s walkie-talkie crackles as he trades intel with the tail gunner, who’s bookending the line from the back. Behind us, I count 160 vehicles lined up, single-file, umpteen of them bearing vanity plates: FORGE ON, OVRLNDY, XPDT1ON. They’re awaiting Sarek’s signal to giddyup. Once he radios the all-clear, the whole caravan shifts into gear. Like a mile-long freight train, it’ll take a minute before the caboose moves, but the adventure is officially underway. 

Branches whip across the brand-new Defender’s bow, but Sarek is unfazed. His pristine Rover is white, less likely to show scratches when it’s pinstriped by brambles. Sarek’s more gearhead than trailer-queen—the term for Roverfolk who haul their precious vehicles to the rally on trailers, babying them like prized show ponies. He’s also installed limb risers. Like a running back’s stiff-arm, the steel cables stretch from front-end to roof-line to deflect brush and bush from his windshield. 

Founded in 1975 as the Rover Owners Association of Richmond, the club later went statewide, broadening its membership. Half-a-century on, it’s the oldest of its kind in North America with annual dues a mere $20 for its 200 odd members. “The main perk of being a member,” says Short, “is attendance at our member events.” A weekend event, the rally is an annual highlight. 

Up ahead, a fallen tree blocks the path. Sarek leaps out, fires up a chainsaw to clear it. This is so common that many vehicles have a scabbard fastened to their bumper to hold such a thing. “Mind that quagmire intersection,” Sarek crackles into the two-way radio. 

Stay on trail. Don’t follow too close. Uphill vehicles get right-of-way. These are the mantras that ROAV members learn for rally weekends. While Sarek mans the chainsaw, I duck out to check on the antique Rover behind us. The 1955 Series 1 Defender could’ve been an extra on M*A*S*H. Its driver, Jim Corrigan, an old salt at this, invites me inside for a look, and I hop into the left-hand passenger seat.

Photo credit: Adam Ewing

Who Needs a Refrigerator?

Unlike Sarek’s opulent digital-age whip, this right-hand driver is an exceedingly spare and analog mule. In lieu of a luxurious “cooling compartment,” a cubby in the center console that warms too, Corrigan’s holds a fire extinguisher. In back, there’s a shoulder-high lift jack, wheel blocks, spare tire, and tons of extra engine parts.  

“Done all the work myself,” says Corrigan, a Northern Virginia IT guy. He points to a box he built to secure backup fuel and cites the extreme focus and meditative machinations it takes to handle this old-school model. It’s not unlike operating a vintage Leica camera; you fiddle with all of the switches and dials because it’s yours and you can. 

“People buy hundred-thousand-dollar Range Rovers and drive them to the mall. Do you really need a built-in refrigerator?” he asks. “I take satisfaction in passing the folks in their modern, air-conditioned trucks with computer-controlled traction and self-leveling suspension while I’m wrestling with three pedals, five shifters, and a steering wheel the size of a manhole cover.”

In front of us, Sarek gives the all-clear, and we cross a wildflower meadow into rolling pastures of broomsedge—a native southeastern grass used in handmade straw brooms. While many a Rover driver catches footage of the Rally with GoPros fixed to side mirrors, Corrigan’s fanciest gadget is a simple jig he made to power the manual windshield wipers. He’s here for the rough ride, putting his vintage gem through the paces “without destroying it in the process.” 

“I see Jeeps and Broncos on city streets with winches and 35-inch tires being cleaned with a feather duster every Saturday. What’s the point of that?” Corrigan muses. He’s spent thousands of hours tinkering with his Rover—more time and money than he cares to admit—“but when I make it to the top of the mountain or across that wide creek, I am proud of the vehicle and proud of myself,” he says. “And when it breaks, I mostly know how to fix it.” 

Photo credit: Adam Ewing

A Family-Friendly Social 

Ten-year-old Charlie Green skipped school for the wholesome rally. He’s here with his dad. Bring the Airstream, bring the kids. Bring that bottle and the good glasses. And, as club guidelines advise, “bring plenty of leveling blocks. Flat ground is at a premium.” 

On Saturday night there’s a catered dinner with cocktails, along with fun and games for children. Longtime member Bob Steele says the social side of rallies is “incredibly special.” Steele has watched owners’ children grow up over the years. Many learned to drive in Land Rovers at club events. Now, as adults, they’re members themselves. “We have driving competitions and presentations by notable luminaries, too,” Steele says. “We are not just about trails.” 

The driving competitions can be hair-raising: In one, the driver is blindfolded, navigating an obstacle course guided by a partner who is radioing directions. In another, drivers weave through flags and trees in timed races—or they perform the acrobatic trick of balancing a Rover on a truck-sized teeter-totter. “Most of us stand around talking, making fun of the other drivers,” Corrigan says. That is, “until it’s our turn.”

Out here, members dig into the dirty talk of drive shafts, steering linkages, pin rods, differentials, caster correction, and double U-joints. They swap stories of landing in ditches. “Tires and suspension allow you to get into it,” Corrigan says. “The winch gets you out.” He’s pulled the mailman out of the snow, twice. “When they get stuck, and I don’t, I feel a little bit good about that.” He also keeps a saw, fluids, recovery gear, a kit bag of tools for field repairs—all for the benefit of fellow members. 

Photo credit: Adam Ewing

Queen Elizabeth Drove One

Weeks after the festivities, I turn up at Sarek Autowerke in Glen Allen for the ROAV annual meeting. Ralph Sarek’s shop is a premiere auto facility dedicated to BMW, MINI, and Land Rover. This is no brash-and-bro dust-up for grease monkeys. Surrounded by massive fabricators, niche tools, and vintage vehicles in various states of rebuild, members—female, male, young, old—discuss club upcoming club events.

After the meeting, I get a lesson in the finer points of Rover culture over a catered barbecue lunch, as Miles Davis’“Donna” plays over the garage speaker. There’s pride and more than a little edge between these tribes of enthusiasts. “We’re less rowdy and hardcore than Jeepers,” says Sarek. “Jeeps are great for mud-boggin’—they’re American. But these are British and more civilized. Heck, Queen Elizabeth II drove a custom 2002 Land Rover Defender.” 

Jeep Wranglers start at $31K and can hit $76K for the primo Rubicon 392 trim. A tricked-out Jeep is the off-road equivalent of a personalized surfboard festooned with sponsor logos and stickers for Mr. Zog’s Original Sex Wax. By comparison, customized Land Rovers are the bespoke suits of off-roading, tailored to fit an owner’s taste, terroir, and station in life. Larger and more comfortable than Jeeps, Defender prices start at $52K and cross into $100K plus for the Carpathian Edition. 

“There is a certain dignity to Land Rovers,” says Short. “Even the busted-up old ones have a sense of elegance and class. We are not brand snobs, just brand enthusiasts.” Rovers cost more but they also out-power and out-torque their American counterparts. 

“I practically grew up in the back of a Rover,” says Sarah McCaig, a second-generation ROAV-member, from TK city, who says the Rallies are family-friendly and owners show a respect for nature. “My parents have owned them since I can remember, and my dad still owns his first, a 1968 Series IIA. I’ve decided I’m a Range Rover Classic person, beginning with the 1989 model I used to drive as a teenager.”

Says ROAV veteran Mark Wilmore, Sr., “The club is made up of people from all walks of life, it’s been a judgment-free zone for 14 years, most importantly. You never know what you will get from the time you spend wheeling, but it’s bound to be filled with stories for a lifetime.”

The 2023 Mid-Atlantic Rally takes place Oct. 5-8.

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