Persona – Ben Smith

Cummins Repower July18

Catching up with one of the early figures who used the Web to connect Land Rover enthusiasts

You won’t catch a glimpse of Ben Smith’s house from the roadside. Should you find the driveway that winds back from the main road to his secluded homestead, you’ll probably be thankful you’re in a Land Rover. And chances are you’ll be in a Land Rover if you’re visiting the Smith farm. They just sort of show up there.

Scattered amongst his twelve-acre property in rural New Jersey are numerous and varied vintage Land Rovers. Mostly Series trucks, but also Discoverys and Range Rovers; none of them is from the twenty-first century. Most are Ben’s personal vehicles, though friends have been known leave the odd Series or Range Rover in the woods at the perimeter, ostensibly for later collection.

And yet the property is anything but a junkyard. Hardly. In fact, it is meticulously maintained, a bucolic working farm where Ben and his wife Christina raise sheep, turkeys and chickens. Most of the projects and donor vehicles are kept in or around the “stable,” which has never actually housed horses but is instead a purpose-built shop where Ben works on his vehicles, usually several at a time.

It’s safe to say Ben is consumed by the Land Rover hobby. But he is more than just another obsessed owner; he has been a central figure in the online Land Rover community since the early 1990s, and he has become a valued resource to owners around the world, who often tap into his near encyclopedic knowledge of the older vehicles and his abundant resources to find an answer on that rare occasion when he doesn’t already know the answer.

For all his knowledge and love for old Land Rovers, Ben didn’t actually grow up with them. His dad had always had English cars around — Jaguars, MGs, an Austin Marina — but It wasn’t until Ben was a freshman at college that a Land Rover joined the family. A friend of his dad’s had decided he was done with a 1972 Series III. Nearly twenty years old and pretty worked over, it was on its second replacement frame and wasn’t even running when it was delivered to the Smith residence. Ben was in California at school and wouldn’t see the truck until he returned home for that first summer break, but he was drawn to it at once and had the old Series III running in no time. Ben drove it around all summer, taking it to the Atlantic British Summer Rally where he got his first real taste of the Land Rover community. As the season drew to a close, he packed up and headed back to school, leaving his new companion behind.

The second summer home, he replaced the worn-out engine, because this time he was taking the Series with him back to school in Pasadena, a trek of nearly 3,000 miles. Owing to his late completion of the engine overhaul, he performed the first post-procedural oil change at 500 miles at a rest area in Ohio. Needless to say, that first cross-country voyage was a learning experience, but he was coming to know this little truck and trust more with every mile. By the time he returned to school for his senior year, he’d reduced his solo drive down to 76 hours.

His time in California introduced him to off-roading in a way that was far different from that on the East Coast. Out west, he could pack the truck and head for the hills on the weekends, taking full advantage of the vast network of public lands. Within a year of graduation, he set up an early email list — Mendo_Recce — to connect with other Land Rover enthusiasts in the area. These were pre-AOL days, and these listserves were one of the first forms of social media. Ben was among the pioneers to join together electronically Land Rover enthusiasts.

These were also the days before cell phones were ubiquitous let alone reliable on remote trails. Ben recalls one of the early drives he was supposed to join. Arriving late to the gathering spot, he took off into the woods on his own, following certain tire tracks in the snow because, he reckoned, they looked like the right track width and tread pattern for a Land Rover. Thankfully his intuition paid off and he eventually found the rest of the group, but it was an early indication of the analytical mind necessary to put up with old Land Rovers for more than a quarter century.

That Series III was Ben’s only college car, and he used it ambitiously, making several cross-country passes for summer breaks and even a couple of holiday trips home. After graduating with a physics degree he went to work in the Mojave Desert and afterwards the SF Bay Area. That’s when he began accumulating more Rovers.

The first addition to the fleet was a three-year-old 1994 Discovery, which made for a more comfortable and socially acceptable daily driver, even with its five-speed gearbox. A couple years later he came upon a pair of 101 Forward Controls, both of them dead, and spent what seemed like a mighty sum for the pair at $10,000.

After the dot-com crash of 2001, Ben said goodbye to the West Coast and brought his growing fleet back home to New Jersey, where he had picked up work in his field and could settle in to a more relaxed pace near his family home.

It wasn’t long after that he met Christina, a nearby girl who needed help with her BMW 320i. He lent a hand and some tools and was impressed by her mechanical aptitude and gritty self-reliance. They hit it off immediately. When they married, Ben acquired a parcel of his family’s land to make a home of their own.

First he designed the perfect farmhouse for his property and picked up a 1995 Discovery for Christina. Then they hauled all the stone used to build their home from a quarry in northern Pennsylvania — on Sankey trailers pulled by four Discoverys.

By this point, the Land Rover affliction had a choke-hold on Ben’s identity. As he sees it, there are three things you need to maintain a healthy Land Rover habit: ample space, a trailer, and an understanding spouse. He had all three, so there was no reason to fight it. The Smith farm soon became a gathering spot for other Land Rover enthusiasts, especially once Ben acquired donor vehicles and odd projects. He figures he’s owned at least fifteen drivers plus countless parts vehicles. He houses an impressive library of Land Rover books, magazines, technical manuals and other rare and original documentation. However, the farm wasn’t just a place for picking, whether for parts or Ben’s knowledge. In 2002, he cut some rudimentary trails into the forested area on the outskirts of his property, giving him a place to play without worrying about how he’d get home if something broke.

Friends also came to play, and eventually Ben and Christina started hosting what has become a summer ritual among their closest Rover friends: Blacker Than Night, or BTN. The weekend-long party includes camping and driving, the occasional game of Rover Polo (it’s exactly as it sounds), and the mother of all barbecues. If you’re lucky enough to be invited, it’s an event to remember.

On the drizzly fall day we visit with Ben, we walk out to the stable, typically the hub of activity during BTN. The conditions on this day are quintessentially British. The colorless sky and soft, soupy ground mean Wellies are the footwear of choice around here, and the persistent mist calls for a waxed coat to stay dry. There couldn’t be a more perfect setting outside of the Midlands for viewing a collection of classic Land Rovers.

We walk past the DC-3 cockpit and slide open the barn door. A licensed pilot and aviation enthusiast as well, Ben has plans for this unusual prize. The nose of the plane will eventually become part of the stable as a second-story perch accessible from the loft. He readily admits he has too many projects and not enough time. Entering the stable, we see what he means.

There are perhaps half a dozen Series trucks in various states of repair or restoration. A Series One frame sits off to one side, and a nearly complete 2.25-liter engine occupies one of the engine stands. In the back corner is a rare Land Rover four-wheel-drive trailer, one of eight prototypes developed for testing that used the rear PTO to drive the trailer axles. They never went into production, as they had a tendency to want to torque themselves over on tight turns, but Ben sees it as a treasure.

While the stable was designed so that it could indeed house horses, from the outset Ben intended it to be his workshop. The center of the loft is open, which allowed him to install a lift (not that he’s gotten around to it yet). Off to another side, a wooden section interrupts the concrete floor; below is a service pit where he performs routine services like oil changes and chassis greasing. He’s given a lot of thought to the little things.

Upstairs, bins of parts are organized and labeled by application. Wings, bonnets, glass, seats, transfer cases, axles, gauges and all manner of engine parts are sorted for easy access. Ben has picked up countless donor vehicles over the years and has been generous in allowing fellow enthusiasts to shop through his wares to keep their aging trucks true to form.

As much as he enjoys driving his Land Rovers, it seems Ben is equally happy working on them and sharing his knowledge with others. It’s not uncommon for him to be coaching a newbie on the differences between models or rattling off the correct part needed to fix a given problem. He knows from experience, and it seems he’s forgotten nothing of what he’s learned.

Ben readily admits the newer Land Rovers don’t really appeal to him. The family fleet of daily drivers includes a Subaru Outback and a VW Touareg TDI. He still has that original Series III that took him back and forth to college, as well as Christina’s old 320i that introduced them. He’s owned both unique and rare Land Rover vehicles but would still like to get his hands on one of the five original 1948 imports.

We have a feeling there’s no stopping that quest. After all, he still has plenty of space, a trailer, and a wife who somehow still understands.