2 Canadians, 14 months, 4 continents, and 60,000 km in a 1957 Land Rover
Belgian Congo, 1957 — With a whine of protest, the hardy little 2.0-liter four-cylinder struggles against its burden, and a well-laden Land Rover goes bouncing down the forest track, accompanied by singing. There are more than 30 people crammed into and on top of this unusual machine, the majority of them the diminutive people of the Mbuti tribe, colloquially known as forest pygmies. They laugh at the jostling, raising their voices in traditional hunting songs. The driver and passenger up front—two lanky Canadians—grin along with them. This is Africa. This is adventure.
Sixty years later, Bristol Foster reaches out and plucks the memory from his storeroom of his mind. He speaks of the sweltering equatorial heat of the day, of the smoky tang of sweating bodies packed inside the cabin, of the joyous, musical nature of the Mbuti. It was a single standout day on the trip of a lifetime, a circumnavigation of the globe with only loosely defined parameters. Foster and his longtime friend Robert Bateman, who would come to be known as Canada’s best-loved wildlife artist, were free to roam wherever they wished.
“I don’t think you could travel like that anymore,” Foster says, speaking from Victoria, British Columbia. “The vehicle still exists, but the world has changed.”
A 1957 Land Rover from a bygone age
The vehicle in question, a unique one-off ambulance-bodied Land Rover, contains a wealth of stories. Lost for decades, it was found by accident in the interior of British Columbia and painstakingly brought back to its former glory. Perhaps its most unique feature are the murals that band around the Rover’s flat sides, each hand-painted by Bateman as the pair passed through another country on their long journey. Time had erased them, but through film and footage, they were recreated by the Bateman gallery, and once again hand-finished by Bateman himself.
Canada, Britain, Ghana, Nigeria—each mural tells a story of faraway lands traversed at slow but inexorable Land Rover speed. However, the tale of the Grizzly Torque begins with an accounting error, continues with a tame eagle, and lives on thanks to a bit of luck and an old bicycle crash.
In the fall of 1956, Bristol Foster had completed his masters in biology at the University of Toronto and was itching for the chance to leave academia behind for a while. He had known Robert Bateman, then teaching art and geography, since the days when both were boys in a nature club at the Royal Ontario Museum. A shared love of the outdoors made the two ideal travelling companions.
Foster’s father, a Toronto-based businessman with contacts in government, agreed to fund the trip with a few strings attached. First, both Bateman and Foster would have to raise $2000 each towards costs incurred; and second, the expedition would require proper documentation in film and photograph. As to the latter, the pair would end up writing and illustrating regular articles for the Toronto Telegram, where they were referred to as the Rover Boys.
Their 1957 Land Rover was properly bespoke in a time when the word actually meant something. Built by Pilcher with a Series I powertrain, the coachbuilt ambulance body was fitted with unusual features like a rooftop hatch for observing dangerous wildlife. Construction must have taken hundreds of man-hours, but when the bill arrived, Land Rover had accidentally only charged for the chassis. Happily, the company didn’t adjust the cost upwards, and the Grizzly Torque set off on its trip.
Foster arrived for special overland training in Solihull, Land Rover’s headquarters, and Bateman joined him in the early summer. After a shakedown tour in Scotland, where they refined their equipment loadout, the pair headed for Africa.
The Grizzly Torque sets off
At the tail-end of the British Empire, with many African countries just beginning to transition to independence, the path taken by the Grizzly Torque could not be travelled today without serious difficulty. Not only are many regions now fairly dangerous for tourists, but simply getting the correct permits and permissions can be a bureaucratic nightmare. For Foster and Bateman, the timing was ideal, assisted by Foster’s father and his contacts in the diplomatic services.
The trip took 14 months and covered some 60,000 kilometers (about 37,282 miles), ranging through Kenya, Nepal, and Singapore. Because the Rover Boys had a fairly loose timeframe, they were able to linger where they wanted, backtrack if they felt like it, and head in essentially any direction that suited their fancy. The unexplored places of the world were wide open.
The trip was almost entirely without unfortunate incident, apart from a rollover in India when swerving to avoid a bicycle. However, the Grizzly Torque had a bit of a grim tally to go with its happy murals: a tongue-in-cheek “kill list” painted above the passenger’s head.
“Every time we squashed a chameleon,” Foster chuckles ruefully, “we’d paint it on the ceiling. We hit more than a few chickens as they’d dart out from the side of the road.”
Eventually, the Grizzly Torque ended its trip in Australia, and then was shipped back to Vancouver. Foster used it for further expeditions to Haida Gawaii, then known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. Here, while working on his doctorate for the University of British Columbia, he developed Foster’s Rule, a tenet of evolutionary biology concerning changes in the sizes of island-dwelling creatures, depending on differing resource availability and predation.
Returning to North America
Well-suited to rough country, the Grizzly Torque was a bit agricultural for daily use. Foster sold it on to a student who took it to Texas to study peccaries, a type of swine. While there, the student raised a juvenile eagle by hand, teaching it to perch between the seats; as an adult, the massive bird happily rode along on expeditions.
Back in B.C., the student sold the Torque to a rancher, and there the trail goes cold. It had several owners, including one who carefully stripped the sand-beige paint and hand-painted murals, finishing it in a conventional pale blue. The Grizzly hibernated in B.C.’s interior for decades, becoming ever more decrepit, until it was purchased as a bulk buy with three other Land Rovers.
Stuart Longair, the new owner, neither knew what the faded, lumpy Grizzly Torque was, nor did he much care. He bought it simply because the rancher who owned it wanted all four old Land Rovers off his property, and Longair was after the Series I in the group. Longair grew up exploring Alberta with his father in a Land Rover when the latter had a part-time job with Calgary Power, and he had a fondness for the short wheelbase Series I.
In fact, Longair bought the Grizzly sight unseen. Friend and experienced Land Rover restorer Alan Simpson originally told him about the quartet of Rovers for sale; Longair was too busy with other projects, so he asked Simpson to go look at them.
The Grizzly Torque ended up outside on Simpson’s farm, outside Merritt, B.C., awaiting its fate while other Land Rovers were restored inside the workshop. It sat there for nearly a decade.
However, like any confessed Land Rover fanatic—at one point, he had more than 20 machines—Longair was active on various fan websites. It was here that he one day accidentally discovered what the odd blue long-wheelbase Landie really was, coming across a promotional picture of Foster and Bateman and the Grizzly Torque. He convinced Foster to come up and take a look at it, and despite the decay and the years the recognition was immediate. Bristol walked up to the driver’s side window, broken and replaced in that rollover in India a half-century ago. Sure enough, it was still fitted with the Plexiglas replacement piece.
Restoration to Grizzly glory
Thus began a restoration process of immense complexity and cost. Because the Grizzly Torque was bespoke, its unique aluminum body was tricky to repair. Happily, it was mostly complete, and the rusty chassis could be repaired with shot-blasting and welding. While Simpson handled restoration duties, Longair scoured the internet for hard-to-find parts. One taillight came from Australia, the other from Singapore. The roof-mounted shovel had to be made from scratch. The original Dunlop Trackgrip tires were sourced. Slowly, the work came together, and the bill for the project rose.
“I was very lucky to find it,” Longair says jokingly. “Luck—or maybe a curse.”
However, seeing himself as a more a curator than an owner, Longair underwrote the restoration at his personal expense, bringing back both a part of Land Rover history and an important piece of Canadiana. Displayed at the All-British Field Meet, the Vancouver International Auto Show, and the Robert Bateman Centre in Victoria, the reborn Grizzly Torque attracted both public acclaim and awards. It wasn’t just Land Rover fans who loved it, but art collectors, wildlife lovers, and anyone romanced by the idea of adventure in the wild places of the world. People chuckled at the “Gin” and “Tonic” fender-mounted jerry cans, marveled over the murals, and leaned in the windows to see the simple instrumentation and bare-bones living quarters.
Further, at the auto show, the restored Grizzly Torque was reunited with Bateman and Foster, all three old travelling companions together at last. The pair stretched out on the old folding bunks, thinking back to damp mornings in the Scottish Highlands, to hunting parties in the forests of Africa, to dawn on the Kalahari, to sunsets in the Australian Outback. To a wheeled home that could take you anywhere you wanted. To the roving life, and a world lost to time.