Until 25 or 30 years ago, four-wheel-drive vehicles were strictly utilitarian, but extreme off-roading is a growing recreational sport usually engaged in during warmer weather'roughly Easter through Labor Day. Moab hosts big events on both weekends. (Jeep Safari, anyone?)
There are many facets of the sport, from long-distance expeditions to purpose built rock-crawling versions with everything in between. Utah is known as one of the premier off-road destinations on the planet and a significant local industry has developed as a result.
And not, as you might think, just in southern Utah.
From his shop in Salt Lake City, Bill Davis supplies parts that keep ancient-but-much-beloved British Land Rovers running on roads all over the world. It’s a niche thing, he’s been doing it since 1992, and he makes a good living at it. That’s important to keeping his personal stable of Rovers going and growing.
Davis isn’t sure exactly how many vehicles are actually in the stable, but 25-ish is a good guess. They range in age from 1951-93, although most are ’50s and ’60s vintage.
There’s a 1964 Rover painted to resemble a reticulated giraffe; a plain white 1963 Rover sports a license plate reading DAKTARI (it may soon become a zebra). Davis’ favorite is a 1960 faded industrial-yellow number with a vintage Grateful Dead sticker on the front window. There are Rovers with short wheelbases, long wheelbases, military versions, expedition versions. And there is, of course, a red Rover.
The forest green Range Rover that Davis’ wife, Moni, likes to drive is a 1993'practically new, she says. Like most Rover devotees, Moni (yes, she is one too) has given pet names to many, such as Fridolin, Hermi (that’s the giraffe), Miltilda, Bertha, Ferdanand and Adalbert. They will no doubt be the Davis family’s lifelong companions. Davis’ daughter Shawn works with him at Great Basin Rovers; even at 6, son Liam appears to be developing the requisite collecting bug.
First manufactured in 1948, a Rover is a simple but elegant machine, built to withstand about any punishment you care to give it. They are constructed with a lot of aircraft aluminum (of which there was plenty of surplus after World War II) and a minimal amount of steel, which was then in short supply.
Most have a hard top with a roof rack and a spare tire slapped on the hood. (Davis says to go rent the film The Gods Must Be Crazy, set in the Kalahari desert, for a good mental picture of one.)
Some have four seats in the rear, two on each side facing one another toward the center. All have plenty of windows. They leak oil like crazy and you couldn’t describe the ride as forgiving. Plus, they are very thirsty. (Davis admits he takes a Volkswagen for pizza runs south to Nevole’s.) Beyond jungle, slickrock and desert safaris, Rovers have outfitted the British, Australian and various NATO armies.
Before running off into the west desert or southern Utah by yourself, Davis recommends learning something about mechanical troubleshooting. If you are not mechanical, then join a local club, he says. Serious off-roading can be dangerous: You can end up a long way from civilization and, if you have a problem you aren’t prepared for, it can be way more than inconvenient. Though he sees little point in exploring nature with 3,000 other people, Davis says that traveling with a companion vehicle or two is smart.
Picture this: Nick and Cindy Baggerly from Los Gatos, Calif., stopped by to see Davis after visiting Burning Man. They were organizing not a trip to Moab, but a Rover trip around the world to raise money for Parkinson’s disease research. It took 15 months, 41,000 miles and a lot of Red Bull to cross four continents. Check out www.drivearoundtheworld.com.
In addition to the too many Land Rovers, Davis has a few Austin Healeys, London Black cabs, Morris Minors, MG’s and a vintage Triumph Motorcycle. He is one of the guiding lights for the British Field Day, held each June at Pioneer Park.
What started as a Vintage British Car and Motorcycle Show has evolved into a mini British festival that includes music, dance, food, children’s games and lots of vintage British iron.
They close off a portion of 300 South and organize a timed street rally in which anyone with a car on display can compete against the clock. The best seat in the house is on the north side of what Davis calls Caputo Curve.
“You can be sitting at one of his outdoor tables having one of his delicious sandwiches, watching these cool little British sports cars doing four-wheel drifts right in front of you,” he says. “Forget the little bit of Paris up on Main Street; this really is a little bit of Monte Carlo right here in Salt Lake City.”