Land-Rover in the Snowy Mountains Scheme.
A. J. Maeder
The Monaro region is ideal territory for the Land-Rover, with rough rolling hills, summer sand and winter mud, the Snowy Mountain area with steep valleys and rocky plateau, and the annual onslaught of snow and ice. The NSW Rover distributors, Grenville Motors of Sydney, sold a number of early vehicles to farmers and graziers in the area, a market that survived for the next 30 years unabated. As the waiting list for new Land-Rovers lengthened, vehicles were obtained from a number of other agents including P.D.Murphy in Cooma, R.R.Genge in Canberra and several statewide trading companies such as Permewan Wright. The majority of these were intended simply for agricultural use and would probably have spent their entire working lives on the owner's property. The coming of the Snowy Mountains project changed all that.
At the time of its inception in 1949, the SMHEA had an immediate need for small 4WD vehicles for survey teams for use in conjunction with horses. It appears that initially surplus Willys Jeeps were used but a number of Land-Rovers were acquired within the first year of operations. The surveyors needs were soon eclipsed by those of road and housing construction workers and the ubiquitous overseers and foremen. Soon block orders of Land-Rovers were being placed: they filled the niche admirably and had no contemporary rival, so they became entrenched in the fleet and were ordered in comparatively large numbers throughout the Series I era. The SMHEA probably holds the record in NSW for the most prolific purchaser of new Land-Rovers. The sales records of Grenville Motors show that 96 vehicles were purchased from them between 1950 and 1952, and in 1953 alone a staggering 132 Land-Rovers were acquired. By this stage they were being used largely for individual transport to worksites, in much the same way as bicycles are used in some mines - simply pick one up in the morning and head off to the job. With the advent of the revised Series I in 1954 a further buying spree resulted and LWB utilities were added to the transport pool.
During this period a number of curious Land-Rover options were adopted by the SMHEA. The initial vehicles had all been basic utilities with full length canvas hoods and the standard Dunlop Trakgrip directional tyres. Popular in-service modifications were the fitting of universal straight bar lug tyres, dust excluder rings on the backing plates and multiple electric demisters on the windscreen. Many were factory-fitted with PTO units on the gearbox but it does not appear that these were particularly useful. By the mid 1950s front-mounted capstan winches were in vogue, doubtless to aid recovery of unaccompanied vehicles. When the metal hardtop became available in 1951, virtually all the SWB vehicles subsequently ordered sported this option. By this stage the spare wheel carrier on the bonnet had become conventional too, allowing more usable load space in the tray.
Some unusual vehicle models were also obtained, presumably for evaluation since very few were bought. In June 1950 a vehicle equipped with a Lincoln Arc Welding unit and DC generator was obtained, followed by a second unit in October and another in March 1953. There is little recollection about these vehicles in service. Two station wagons (left) with coachbuilt aluminium-on-timber bodies (constructed by Mulliners for the Rover Company) were bought in September 1953 and a third in November. Contemporary photographs show one of them transporting visiting dignitaries in the snow, fitted with wheel chains all round! Four fire engines were purchased in May 1953, and later photographs show them modified with the addition of lockers and storage space to improve their versatility.
In the mid-1950s, two SWB station wagons were acquired to accompany the Mighty Antar road trains that transported heavy equipment from Sydney to construction sites and installations. Another oddity was `The African Queen', a LWB utility stripped of all non-essential fittings and converted to track use on underground rails that ran through one of the tunnels, perhaps hauling carriages filled with workers. Even the steering wheel was removed, so the driver had merely to perform gear selection and operate the brakes!
By the late 1950s purchasing fell off considerably as the basic exploration and preliminary work had been completed and a road network had developed in the area to service specific worksites. Series II and IIA vehicles were still bought in smaller numbers for performing maintenance and inspection work. Subsidiary services such as Soil Conservation, Fire Prevention and the National Park authorities now made extensive use of them. Up to the arrival of the Series III the SMHEA was still committed to use of the Land-Rover. What is left of this magnificent fleet today? Most were sold off after several years of intensive service and were dispersed far and wide. Some ended up in the hands of contractors involved in the project and thus served two lifetimes worth. The SMA still operates a few Series IIA fire tenders but these are the only Land-Rovers in service. The competition and business interests provided by Toyota in the 1970s proved too strong to resist. Cooma is still a town where one can see a Series I passing by on most days of the week, but naturally all are now in private use. A few vehicles from the old days still languish in a wrecker's yard including chassis number 1 of the RHD Export sequence. And spare a thought for the colourful 80-inch on permanent display in the Snowtels Caravan Park playground - still serving Cooma valiantly after 37 years! These too had their hour.
This article first appeared in the program to the 40th Anniversary Land-Rover Gathering, Cooma NSW, 1988, and appears here with permission of the author: © 1988, A.J.Maeder.
Pictures courtesy of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority.
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