Isn’t it funny how the anecdotes that accompany a car are often more interesting than the car itself? When we covered “Nekkies” Smit’s fascinating collection, it was the Land Rover Series III Lightweight parked halfway into his living room that grabbed my attention. I had never seen one before and Nekkies and I spent quite some time discussing the history of this military-spec 4×4.
These lightweight military vehicles were specially designed for the British Army so they could be helicoptered into a war zone. Following the release of the Westland Wessex helicopter in 1958, the army was finally able to transport a vehicle by air … the only catch was the vehicle needed to be lighter than 1 135 kg. Of course, a standard Land Rover Series II was too heavy, so engineers went back to the drawing board.
The first vehicle they stripped down was the Series IIA (88-inch). Apart from removing several panels and any equipment deemed unnecessary for military use, the Series II was made narrower by 100 mm. This meant even the half shafts had to be cut and lighter panels fitted in certain places. Crucially, this new model had to fit on a standard NATO pallet, perfect for air travel.
Even with all these modifications, the Series IIA wasn’t able to dip below the weight restriction; however, once the removable body panels were taken off, the vehicle was below the target weight. From 1973 onwards, the new Lightweight was based on the Series III before production ceased in 1983. It is claimed the Lightweight saw service with the armed forces of more than 20 countries.
Nekkies explained how this particular vehicle crossed his path: “I purchased it in 2005. My brother’s friend mentioned they had this interesting Land Rover on their farm. Knowing I was a Landy fanatic, my brother called me. I went to have a look and bought it on the spot.” Following his purchase, Nekkies investigated its history. It entered South Africa in 1986 from Angola. Back then, thankfully, one could still import left-hand-drive cars. Nekkies’ research revealed it had been used by none other than the leader of UNITA in Angola, Jonas Savimbi.
Since its acquisition, the Lightweight has received a new coat of paint which perfectly suits the odometer reading of less than 27 000 km. It is often seen at car shows in the Western Cape and is always a firm favourite. Although it now looks relatively civilianised, when it was used during the war, it was fitted with an M40 106 mm recoilless rifle. This 210 kg anti-tank gun was sited in the middle of the vehicle, protruding over the bonnet between the split windscreen. There was also ample seating for troops on both sides of the loading bay.
I opened the door by pulling the familiar Land Rover door lever upwards and stepped up into the vehicle. The Series III’s cabin layout and controls are immediately recognisable, only the unique split windscreen and body-panel deletion stand out. Its execution is utilitarian with zero luxuries and basic levers for the all-wheel-drive system. It looks exactly as it should; a Landy in combat fatigues!
I closed the small driver’s door and twisted the key on the left-hand side of the steering column. The engine turned immediately and idled sweetly. The long gear lever was positioned far off to right and, although there was plenty of play in neutral, first gear was a short push up, with second down and third further to the right and up; a standard H-pattern shift with a pleasingly mechanical action slotting into each gear.
The alfresco feel of the Lightweight is fantastic. Although, you can’t help but think what the occupants of this vehicle must have seen and experienced over the years. Today, it’s such a special vehicle and stands out among the rest of the cars on the road. It’s by no means fast but keeping up with town traffic is easy. You can comfortably rest your left arm on the doorsill in true Landy tradition. As expected, the ride quality is bumpy. Keep in mind these vehicles were hardly used on tarred roads but rather jungles and deserts, areas where off-road ability was far more critical than comfort.
Once parked for our photoshoot, I had a closer look at the split windscreen. Each screen can be lowered completely by simply removing two pins. The headlights are covered with mesh to protect the lenses, while there are smaller covers to hide illumination from, you know, the enemy. The spare wheel is fitted in front of the passenger door, a convenient spot to remove it swiftly.
Ironically, the Lightweight has one of the heaviest engine lids I’ve ever come across but it feels sturdy enough to withstand a standard rifle bullet. Underneath is the iconic 2,25-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine.
With the photoshoot done, we headed back to Nekkies’ residence. Driving on the road with no seatbelts or driver aids and having an almost uninterrupted 360° view is something most commuters will never get to enjoy. I could sense this Land Rover Lightweight beseeching me to do an extensive 4×4 trip; it wasn’t happy pottering about on tar.
Although more than 37 000 Series II and III Lightweights have been manufactured, they were never available in South Africa. Our defence forces also did not use them. The fact that this one has an Angolan war story to tell makes it unique.
Engine:2,25-litre, 4-cylinder, petrol
Power:50 kW @ 4 250 r/min
Torque:Torque: 157 N.m @ 2 500 r/min
Top Speed:100 km/h