Original Land Rovers were used to build Australia’s roads, fight its fires, and toil on its farms for decades. But those that remain are more likely to be falling apart in a paddock or shed.
What to do with these icons? Sure, they could be restored to factory standard. Or they could be modernised in a way Maurice Wilks and his team could scarcely have foreseen.
Enter a privately- and crowd-funded startup company based in Melbourne’s inner north, called Jaunt, which is buying up old Landies, ripping out their tractorish guts, and turning them into silent battery-electric vehicles.
“We believe everyone should be able to explore Australia in beautiful, capable vehicles while reducing their impact on the environment,” goes the company’s mission statement.
In other words, making a classic and iconic 4x4 with all of the charm and none of the guilt, all of the history but less of the outdated technology. How thoroughly Zeitgeist...
As Jaunt points out, Series Land Rovers are actually perfect fodder for conversions. Their aluminium panels are free of rust. Their body-on-frame construction makes them easy to work on. They're built to carry heavy loads, such as a bank of batteries. Moreover, there's still a big parts network and heaps around.
In time, Jaunt wants to convert a whole range of classic cars, but clearly the Landie is an ideal place to start.
One of the big challenges is how to keep the old school charm while making them accessible to anyone and everyone, not just diehards with tweed, brogues and flat caps.
“It’s keeping the spirit and the charm and the feel, but I think that people’s expectations have changed in the last 40 or 50 years. For most people getting into an original Land Rover of this vintage is pretty scary,” reckons Jaunt co-founder Dave Budge, who runs the company alongside COO, former production executive Marteen Burger.
Dave, a Bendigo native who carved a path heading up digital experience agencies in the corporate world, has a bit of mad scientist about him. I was surprised to find he’s not actually an engineer, though there are obviously a few of them helping with the early resto work.
He’s also spot-on, as anyone who's juxtaposed an old Land Rover with anything modern can attest. Charming, sure, but let’s be honest - they’re noisy, slow, ponderous and heavy, served with a side of smoke and sore arms. Half tractor, half mountain goat.
To show what it means to do, Jaunt has built a proof-of-concept model with the cutesy name of Juniper, the first of a handful of vehicles it’s working on as I write. She was purchased privately in Queensland, but the plan is to source all other donor cars from Land Rover Heaven in Goulburn.
Juniper is a 1971 Series 2a that has been given the full treatment. It’s restored immaculately and on initial impression presents like a box-fresh original - Kenworth-ready Narva headlights aside. This, of course, is precisely the point.
But the engine, fuel system, exhaust, and cooling system have been yanked in favour of an electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack under the bonnet, an onboard AC charge receiver, a regenerative braking system, and even a power steering motor.
The motor makes 100kW and 235Nm, which thoroughly outstrips outputs from the 2.25-litre petrol and diesel engines that were fitted at the factory.
The battery pack has a 52kWh storage capacity that betters what you get in a new Nissan Leaf, and was fitted (along with the motor and other high voltage components) by Melbourne’s-own EVolution, a Clayton-based firm that installs wall chargers - its own AC wallboxes, and DC units sourced from brand’s like Queensland's Tritium.
Note the ingenious way the charging plug has been integrated behind the original (re-fabricated) fuel-filler cap.
Given Jaunt’s goal to build at scale, viable battery sourcing is one thorny issue. One potential idea is to source Tesla battery modules from crashed cars, which can be salvaged and recycled. “Tesla’s battery packs are substantially more dense than others,” Budge says.
While Juniper isn’t yet road-ready, she should be soon.
“It’s not like you just do the work and then roll in for a roadworthy,” Budge said.
“We hope we can set a good example, we’re not trying to build a hot rod. It’s still fit for original purpose. We abide by all the laws and regulations that are there for any kind of engine swap. Making sure new components can stand up to certain forces... There are only a few certifying engineers qualified on EVs [locally].”
But a quick blat on private land showed me a few things. Motor-driven electric steering and the lack of a clutch transforms the car’s ease-of-use case, and the electric motor’s instant response and silent operation is worlds away from anything of this vintage in its traditional state.
You just hop in, push the starter button and go. Juniper still has her old long-throw gearstick to put the car into drive and reverse, though Jaunt wants its products to have gear buttons eventually, in common EV style.
She also rides well, thanks to help from Australian company Pedders, which has overhauled the tired suspension to account for the added drivetrain weight, and redone the brakes. You still have the open-air feel of an original Landie, but to say it drives better on pavement is an understatement of some magnitude.
Perhaps more importantly, these electric Land Rovers are being developed to handle 4x4ing, fitted as they are with protective bash plates, tough battery boxes, extensive sealing and the like. “An iconic four-wheel-drive that’ll get you out into the bush using renewable energy,” goes the marketing material.
“Part of the goal for this, EVs by design and necessity have been about efficiency. And that’s been the selling point. The thing that’s been missing is utility. And so keeping, if not improving that utility, has always been the goal,” Budge added.
So where to from here? The company is planning an imminent move from its cluttered home in the hipster heartland of Coburg, to a more spacious production site in Williamstown, an original settlement site in Melbourne and home to historic seaside monuments and ship works.
The current team of two full-time engineers and up to 10 contractors, brought in during the development of prototypes, will obviously be scaled up should all go to plan.
And who are the target buyers? Various, from private buyers with some cash and a taste for the quirky, to tourist-facing businesses in need of promotional vehicles or 4x4s for rent - with a difference.
Jaunt wants to source and convert short- and long-wheelbase station wagons, dual-cab ute, and troop carrier Land Rovers as well as the open-tops if buyers wish.
“There are both Land Rover and EV enthusiasts, so we know we’ll find private buyers, which is helpful to get production going,” Budge says.
“One of the real goals behind Jaunt was to help Australians get excited about EVs. It’s easy to be logical about them but where’s the car I want to use? To take camping?
“But they’re expensive to build right now, so let’s put them in places you want to use them and have them for rent… work with local wineries, accommodation sites, have them ready in places.
“By pushing into the tourism market we can have an EV that’s super fun to drive and rent for a few hundred bucks. You’re on holiday in Byron Bay, say, and it gives you a first exposure to an EV.”
Jaunt's second vehicle is not too far behind, destined for a winery near Jervis Bay.
This latter plan is ideal since converting a classic to an EV, and paying down the overheads, isn’t going to be cheap. Jaunt is not yet ready to disclose its pricing, and as it scales up, the unit costs will drop steadily anyway. But the first examples won’t be affordable to all and sundry.
Yet it’s a worthy mission, and one that has the potential to give the iconic Landie a whole new lease on life, and to make it relevant to an audience that otherwise wouldn’t even entertain the idea of driving one.
“We want Jaunt to be a piece of Australia's future transport puzzle that sparks the imagination and drives us toward more sustainable travel,” the company says.
This writer is a fan. How about you let the company know your thoughts here?