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Faithful Reproduction – One Man’s Tribute to the Great Divide Expedition

More than two decades after leaving the American market, Land Rover jumped back into it in 1987. The depth of the range consisted of exactly one model that year, ironically the one originally developed specifically for the American market: the Range Rover.

In contrast to Land Rover’s reputation for rugged back-country vehicles, the Range Rover that arrived was the most lavishly equipped model ever to leave Solihul at the time. The company needed proof that the Range Rover, which had once crossed the notorious Darien Gap, had not lost its mojo on the trails.

Two years of planning resulted in the Great Divide Expedition, an ambitious off-highway excursion along the length of North America’s western continental divide. Undertaken late in the summer of 1989 to launch the updated 1990 model year, eight otherwise-stock Range Rovers were upfitted with electric winches, auxiliary lights and roof racks to make the journey. Each one was also painted with special expeditionary livery.

The journey itself, starting near the Canadian border in Wyoming and ending 1128 miles later at the southern border in New Mexico, had never been attempted entirely off-pavement. The Great Divide Expedition took 13 days to complete, testing the stamina of not just the machinery, but also the drivers. Behind the wheel were some of America’s most notable magazine journalists, who were documenting the trip to retell this unprecedented story.

A year later, still celebrating the remarkable accomplishment, Land Rover built a run of 400 Great Divide Edition (GDE) Range Rovers. Each was painted white, like the actual expedition vehicles, but without the colorful graphics. An off-road front bumper with brush bar was fitted, however, along with taillight guards. A solid brass badge in the driver’s door indicated the edition number of each vehicle, while a decorative badge was fitted to the tailgate.

In short, the Great Divide Edition helped to establish Range Rover’s identity in the US, and is one of the truly rare special editions to come along from the British maker. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the expedition, Land Rover re-ran the trip this past summer with new Range Rovers, and even recreated an original Range Rover to match the eight that made the inaugural run, right down to the last detail. The reproduction Rover was auctioned off on eBay to benefit the US Forest Service’s TreadLightly! program.

That is not the vehicle you see here.

Long before Land Rover made public its plans to relive an important part of its own past, Range Rover enthusiast Doug Lawyer was hell-bent on recreating the experience for himself. Already steeped in the knowledge of the original expedition, he came across a white ’91 Range Rover for sale in Phoenix in 2011. It happened to be a Great Divide Edition, #179 of 400.

He picked it up with plans of turning it over to his son, who was turning 16 at the time. Relatively clean and totally rust-free, it needed a bit of mechanical attention. Just the usual stuff; a little cosmetic freshening, a new radiator. But as he started fixing some of its issues, the idea of doing a Great Divide tribute consumed him.

In order to faithfully reconstruct this iconic Rover, Lawyer went right to the source. He contacted Tom Collins, who led the expedition and is still a Land Rover instructor today. Collins supplied a list of the original drivers and press participants, and over the course of six months Lawyer contacted at least a dozen of them. They shared experiences, but perhaps more importantly they also shared their pictures, providing the visual references needed to recreate the livery.

Lawyer was also able to connect with the owner of the last surviving expedition truck. From his home in Ohio, he relayed measurements to Lawyer for such things as the original roof rack, long since unavailable in the market. He also helped with graphics, providing measurements for placement, as well identifying things like certain sponsor graphics, some of which were illegible in the photography. Lawyer recounts the British Aerospace (Land Rover’s parent company at the time) logo being one that couldn’t be read in the pictures.

With his research done, he set to work assembling his Great Divide Range Rover. The original livery was painted onto the Alpine White paint, a time-consuming and expensive undertaking, then and now. Lawyer took full advantage of modern graphics technology and skipped the One Shot enamel in favor of printed graphics on vinyl film.

The front bumper of the 1991 GDE model was the same type used on the actual expedition trucks. The original Warn winch, however, is no longer available, so for now the bumper sits empty. Warn has graciously agreed to rebuild one of the period-correct winches for him, should he come across the right piece.

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The run of 400 GDE models, like all 1991 Range Rovers, were equipped with new five-spoke alloys. Lawyer swapped these out for the correct three-spoke wheels of the same size, just as was fitted for the trek. Michelin supplied a fresh set of tires to the project; slightly taller 255/75-16s like the originals, the new LTX A/T2s are as close what was fitted in 1989.

Lawyer had to fabricate the roof rack to get a faithful reproduction. For most guys this would be a challenge, but when you’re in the business of ornamental metalwork like Lawyer, it’s much less of an ordeal. With the roof rack complete, the crew from Hella helped him sort out the auxiliary lighting, which includes four forward-facing driving lights, a spot light on each side and a rear-facing spot.

All said and done, Lawyer has what he suspects may be the only privately-built Great Divide Expedition replica. He reckons it’s roughly 98 percent true to the original, with only the most minor of discrepancies. Better still, it started out as one of the limited-edition GDE vehicles, and he has the badges to prove it.

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Ironically, Land Rover turned to Lawyer when setting out to build its own replica, the eBay auction vehicle. Having heard the extent of his research, they sent a team to photograph and take measurements off his faithful tribute. Sure, they’d eventually do a frame-off restoration and get around to painting the graphics on, but theirs probably could not have come out as well as it did with Lawyer’s exhaustive efforts first.

When word got out that Land Rover planned to re-run the Great Divide to commemorate its silver anniversary, Lawyer hoped he might get a chance to ride along, at least for a leg or two. No dice, said Land Rover, seats were already filled. He was also shot down when asked about tagging along in his own vehicle. Understandably, Land Rover didn’t need the confusion of having a second replica along for the ride, and kindly asked him to sit it out while they did their promotional tour.

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For Lawyer, there are no hard feelings. He’s happy with the results of his unique project. He still plans to run the journey on his own someday as a family trip, with his other Range Rover Classic along in a support role. Among the research materials he obtained was a set of route maps from the 1989 trip, complete with turn-by-turn directions.

Of course, there’s still a bit of work to do before he feels comfortable taking on a 1000-mile-plus wilderness excursion – it’s an old Range Rover, after all – but we have no doubt the old rig is up for the challenge.

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