Our European Roadtrip in a Decommissioned Military Land Rover

March 20, 2024
Posted in Adventures
March 20, 2024 /* */

A Journey from the South of France through the Pyrenees Mountains into Madrid, in a Ex-Military Land Rover Defender

It all began with an idea—a bit wild, admittedly, but the best ones usually are.  Jason and I were sitting in a cramped, cluttered garage in New England, surrounded by car parts and half-finished projects. Our latest plan? To shoot a pilot for a digital series about the company we had founded, MOTORIOT. Not just any show, though. This one would dive deep into the nitty-gritty world of classic car sourcing, restoration, and adventure.

We knew from the get-go that pulling this off would be a tall order—especially on a shoestring budget. But hey, necessity is the mother of invention or something like that.

With Jason and I at the helm, our dynamic duo quickly expanded. We knew we needed to bring together a dream team crew to pull this off. First, there was Noah Kaplan, a director with enough enthusiasm to power a small city and a knack for seeing the beauty in the chaos of our mission. Then came Dave Burdette, the camera guy with a steady hand and an even steadier temper, which we’d come to rely on more than we initially thought. Marcelo Naccarelli, our jack-of-all-trades driver, promised he could get us out of (or into) just about anything, and Will Narwold, my younger brother, who we somehow convinced that being our second cameraman was a good idea.  We quickly LLC’d a production company, calling ourselves MOTORIOT MEDIA SYNDICATE.

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Our first gathering wasn’t in some fancy production office but at the MOTORIOT garage. Under the glow of the shop lights, we laid out our plan on a table, maps, and notes scattered among empty takeout boxes. It was there, among the laughter and the skeptical glances, that our journey truly began. We were a team now, bound by a (mostly) shared vision and, idealistically speaking, an insatiable thirst for adventure.

At the core of our mission was a singular challenge: to embark on a road trip with our ‘trusty’ early 1990s Land Rover Defender 110 Snatch.  We’d planned on starting at Jason’s villa in the south of France and going to Madrid where our EU shop was located.  The shop was run by a gentleman named Carlos, who was the lead on our Land Rover builds and restorations.  The Land Rover Snatch was more than just a vehicle, it was an emblem of rugged endurance and historical significance. Originally designed for military use, its bulletproof frame and resilient spirit made it an ideal candidate for the ambitious journey and restoration project we had envisioned. Clad in its distinctive camouflage, the Snatch bore the marks of its past life with pride.  This would be a nice way of putting it.

vintage land rover defender 110 ex-military snatch

Our client and planned end user for this vehicle was Justin Fornal, an intrepid explorer planning to traverse Africa.  Fornal had entrusted us with transporting and resurrecting this Land Rover for his use. Our assignment? To restore it to its former glory, ensuring it was not only capable of enduring the harsh terrains of Africa but also equipped to be a reliable companion on a journey filled with unknowns.

This endeavor was about capturing the essence of adventure on camera, documenting every hiccup, repair, and moment of awe as we navigated Europe’s varied landscapes. It was a narrative woven from the threads of discovery, teamwork, and the relentless pursuit of breathing new life into classic cars while laying the groundwork for an epic African expedition.

As the night wore on and the plans became more audacious, the reality of our undertaking began to sink in. So, with a healthy dose of naivety, we set out to make our mark, not just on the automotive world, but on the fabric of adventure storytelling, or so we told ourselves.

The adventure kicked off with quiet anticipation and a flight from the United States to France. Packed into that plane were our hopes, the gear, and, frankly, a whole bunch of nerves about what awaited us in France. Touching down in Antibes felt like we were finally letting out a breath we didn’t know we were holding.

The ride from the airport was a mix of jet lag and wide-eyed wonder as we soaked in the views of cobblestone streets and the Mediterranean glimmering under the sun. You could feel the shift in energy among us; excitement started bubbling up, mixed with a dose of reality about the adventure we’d just dived headfirst into.

vintage land rover defender 110 ex-military snatch

Reaching our villa base camp in Antibes, it was like the official starting bell rang for our mission.

The first night was straight out of a movie—only, the kind you don’t really want to star in. There was this undercurrent of “what have we gotten ourselves into?” Robert Doornick, Jason’s dad, was there, trying to instill some wisdom into us while subtly questioning our life choices.

We had all gathered around a fire at the villa. It was a ceremony of sorts, marking the beginning of our journey. Jason, ever the instigator of meaningful moments, had prepared cards for each of us—little messages that captured the essence of why we were here. One by one, we read our cards aloud. And then, as if to let go of any lingering doubts, we tossed the cards into the fire.

The next day, reality hit. Our Land Rover, stoic in appearance, was far from ready for the journey ahead. The tires, especially, were a source of concern – dry-rotted and, by our judgment, not suitable for a cross-country road trip. Our quest for finding new tires for the truck took us through about 50 different phone calls, leading to a maze of dead ends until a glimmer of hope emerged from a shop in Marseille.   It turns out that 99% of the shops in France don’t carry tires suitable for old Land Rovers. This one in Marseille, however, did.

We now had our sights set on Marseille as our first stop and checkpoint on our trip.  That drive would be our first real test, fingers crossed that the tires held up until we arrived. Leaving Antibes behind, we hit the road with excitement and a pinch of anxiety sitting in our stomachs. The drive along the French coast was breathtaking, with the azure blue of the Mediterranean on one side and the lush greenery on the other. The mood in the car was light, filled with banter and speculative plans about the journey ahead, all underscored by a soundtrack of the Snatch’s engine and the occasional squeak that reminded us of the work still to be done.

vintage land rover defender 110 ex-military snatch

Our little bubble of adventure came to an abrupt halt when we stopped at an auto shop for some last-minute supplies. What started as a simple return turned into a full-blown altercation, with Jason at the center of it. Tensions flared over a misunderstanding, voices raised in a mix of French and English, making the scene feel like an international incident over car parts. The police were called. Somehow, we managed to smooth things over, but not without leaving a palpable tension in the air as we hastily retreated to the safety of our vehicle.

The rest of the drive to Marseille felt like tiptoeing across a tightrope. No international driver’s license, and a Land Rover that looked like it barely survived a war (because, well, it did).  With our Snatch’s questionable registration (or lack thereof), and the makeshift DHL envelope serving as our rear license plate, every checkpoint felt like a roll of the dice. We held our breaths, exchanged nervous glances, and somehow, made it through each without incident. It was a testament to our luck, the police’s indifference, or perhaps a bit of both.

Arriving at the tire shop in Marseille felt like a victory in itself. Watching the mechanics work on the vehicle, replacing the worn-out rubber with fresh treads, felt symbolic. The shop’s buzz of activity and the scent of new tires mixed with engine oil marked the end of one chapter and the beginning of another, as we set our sights beyond Marseille, ready for whatever the road had in store for us.

vintage land rover defender 110 ex-military snatch

Just when we thought we had hit our stride after leaving Marseille, our adventure took a comedic detour, courtesy of Will and our follow car. Tasked with leading the film crew to our next checkpoint, the Airbnb nestled in the Pyrenees, Will’s sense of direction (or lack thereof) turned a straightforward drive into an unexpected road trip across the French countryside. With confidence that could rival ancient explorers, Will managed to drive the crew not towards our mountain retreat, but in the opposite direction, adding a two-hour scenic loop to their journey. The realization dawned on them only after picturesque vineyards started to look suspiciously familiar, and the mountains seemed to be playing a game of hide and seek—by not appearing at all.

Back in the Snatch, oblivious to the unfolding drama, we pressed on, marveling at the efficiency of our progress, unaware that our counterparts were on their own unscheduled tour of France. Our nocturnal escapade towards the Pyrenees was more ‘Planes, Trains & Automobiles’ than ‘The Great Escape’. There we were, MOTORIOT’s finest, threading our way up the foothills of the mountains with a truck more suited to a leisurely Sunday drive than a mountain rally. The stars above might’ve been bright, but our headlights must’ve been plucked from a candlelit dinner – dim and utterly romantic if we weren’t trying to avoid becoming part of the landscape.

vintage land rover defender 110 ex-military snatch

As Will confessed his GPS-defying adventure to us over the phone, we couldn’t help but chuckle. The snail’s pace of our beloved Snatch meant they would catch up despite their geographical oopsie. The symphony of the night was our grumbling engine, protesting as we dared it to climb steeper and steeper inclines. When the Snatch finally decided to overheat and puff smoke like an old-timey train, Jason’s colorful expletives were, unfortunately, missed by our film crew. Pure gold, lost to the mountain air.

The Airbnb waited for us, a beacon of ‘rustic charm’, which is realtor speak for ‘you’re lucky it has walls’. With no Wi-Fi to connect us to the outside world, we were left with just our own exhausted company. The rain poured, perhaps in solidarity with our mood, as we huddled inside.  And so, in a place that felt a million miles from anywhere, our day ended. Not with a bang, but a snore.

Leaving the Airbnb the next day tucked away in the Pyrenees felt like we were hitting the reset button on our adventure. The morning air was crisp. We were a motley crew, bleary-eyed but buzzing with anticipation for the road ahead. The Land Rover Snatch, our stalwart companion, was loaded up and looking surprisingly majestic in the early light as if it knew something we didn’t.

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vintage land rover defender 110 ex-military snatch

vintage land rover defender 110 ex-military snatch

The drive from the mountains was a mixed bag of “oohs” and “uh-ohs.” The views? Postcard-perfect. The vehicle’s performance? Let’s just say it kept us on our toes. Every rattle and groan from the Snatch was met with a collective hold of breath, but we pressed on, united by a mix of stubbornness and blind optimism.

Crossing into Spain felt like crossing into a new chapter of our journey. The landscape changed, and so did the vibe. It wasn’t long before we had our first real “welcome to Spain” moment—a run-in with the local Guardia Civil.  We’d been warned by more than a few folks about the police in Spain and their proclivity for pulling cars over liberally. There we were, a group of foreigners in a beat-up military vehicle that looked like it had seen better days (because it had), trying to explain ourselves with a mix of broken Spanish and wild hand gestures. Surprisingly, it worked. Maybe it was our charming smiles or the Snatch’s rugged allure, but we were back on the road with nothing more than a wave and a warning, and an 800 Euro “tip” to the Spanish government.

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vintage land rover defender 110 ex-military snatch

As we ventured deeper into Spain, our excitement was tinged with the reality of the challenges ahead. Breakdowns were no longer a matter of “if” but “when,” and the Snatch did not disappoint. Each time we were forced to stop, it was like a pop quiz in Mechanics 101, with Jason playing the role of both professor and savior. Whether it was an overheating engine or a stubborn belt, we tackled each challenge with a mix of DIY fixes and crossed fingers. Our camaraderie was the real MVP of this trip. Laughter became our default response to just about everything, from navigational mishaps to roadside repairs.

The spirit of adventure took a wild turn just as we thought our journey was smoothing out, courtesy of Jason’s sudden urge to test the Snatch’s off-road capabilities in the most impromptu manner imaginable. Outside our shop, just as we were about to finally arrive, with the air thick with anticipation for the restoration phase, Jason eyed the sprawling farmland with a mischievous glint in his eye. In a moment that could only be described as equal parts daring and downright reckless, he veered off the path and into the open fields, convinced the Snatch could conquer the muddy terrain as easily as it had the roads. The land, freshly soaked from recent rains, had other plans. Almost immediately, the heavy vehicle sank into the soft earth, its wheels spinning futilely as it became clear we weren’t going anywhere fast. This attempt at off-roading quickly turned into an unexpected lesson in the laws of physics and the unpredictability of adventure, leaving us stuck in the mud, literally, and Jason with a sheepish grin that said, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

vintage land rover defender 110 ex-military snatch

vintage land rover defender 110 ex-military snatch

vintage land rover defender 110 ex-military snatch

vintage land rover defender 110 ex-military snatch

vintage land rover defender 110 ex-military snatch

Our shop’s lead, Carlos, arrived to rescue us from the mud in one of his many Defenders, armed with a tow rope. Getting the Snatch unstuck was a team effort, a final bonding moment that felt like the perfect end to our adventure.

As Carlos looked at our Land Rover back in his shop, he began outlining the path to restoration. His assessment was thorough, balancing the need to preserve the Snatch’s character with the practicalities of making it a reliable companion for Justin’s ambitious journey.

The truck stood before us, not just as a vehicle but as a testament to our journey together. Carlos had laid out a clear and comprehensive plan for its restoration, instilling in us a renewed sense of excitement and purpose. The vehicle that had once been a symbol of rugged endurance was now poised to embark on a new chapter, ready to face the daunting landscapes of Africa with Justin at the helm.

Standing amid the buzz of the workshop, we began sketching out this adventure’s next phase. The plan was slightly audacious: once Carlos had worked his magic, we would drive the Snatch across the Gibraltar Strait, a symbolic bridge between continents and cultures, to meet Justin in Morocco. This journey would not just be a transfer of keys; it would end up being the culmination of countless hours of work.

vintage land rover defender 110 ex-military snatch

The idea of driving the Snatch through the winding roads of Morocco, against the backdrop of the Atlas Mountains, and into the heart of Africa was exhilarating. It was a fitting continuation of the journey we had started, a journey that had tested our resolve, brought us closer, and taught us the true meaning of adventure.

As we left Carlos’s shop, the Snatch’s looming journey to Africa felt like both an end and a beginning. We had brought it this far, and soon, it would be part of an even greater story under Justin’s stewardship. The plans to meet him in Morocco, to hand over this vehicle that had become so much more than just a means of transportation, felt like the perfect way to honor the spirit of adventure that had driven us from the start.

vintage land rover defender 110 ex-military snatch

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