The 101 Forward Control Is The Opposite Of A Posh Land Rover
Story by Spencer Canon and Yasha Varga
It could have been a shovel. Or a canteen. Or maybe a boot lace with a specific shade of olive drab hashed out by a distinguished panel of Colonels. Every piece of military gear, from backpack straps to aircraft carriers, goes through an exacting process to become military certified, including Yasha Varga‘s—who restores Land Rovers and other interesting vehicles—1973 Land Rover 101 Forward Control, which is living out its retirement in the suburbs of Los Angeles.
The Forward Control, like its Unimog, Volvo, and Pinzgauer cousins, is basically a box perched atop cartoon-size tractor tires, its name coming from the driver’s seating position, not this vehicle’s place in battle strategy. Driving this rig, I sense the gawking of bystanders but am too focused on herding the wandering Brit between lane lines to see who’s staring. It’s certainly a spectacle out here among the Teslas and townhouses, but to say the Forward Control is out of place here wouldn’t be entirely accurate. After all, the British Ministry of Defense required it to be at home in literally any environment.
Development of the 101 Forward Control began at the height of the Cold War in 1967, with the truck going into production in 1972. Great Britain had departed most of its colonies, but still maintained a presence on every continent, and faced an entirely new set of future threats during the Cold War era. Conflicts in Indonesia, Oman, and deployments to every imaginable terrain and climate promised challenges the military couldn’t predict, but could prepare for.
The army’s planners would have had long lists of necessary equipment, and on on such list was a requirement for an off-road vehicle that could tow a 2.5-ton field gun while carrying an additional ton of equipment. Additionally, the truck had to be convertible to a myriad of uses, including as an ammo and troop carrier, ambulance, communications center, and even a mobile rocket launcher. External dimensions were strictly limited to just 170” long and 72.5” wide to permit efficient transport in the belly of a cargo plane. And, of course, the final vehicle needed to be able to actually start up, run, and traverse any country said plane landed in.
Given these restrictions, Norman Busby, Land Rover’s designer on the project, recalls how he arrived at the vehicle’s compact 101” wheelbase calculation:
“I sat down and put four British soldiers, 22 inches wide each, inside. … Then a 10”-wide spare wheel. That left the cab a bit small for the gunners, and that’s why it’s a little cab! We wanted a good departure and approach angle. Draw this back down to the ground, draw the wheels in, and you get a 101 inch wheelbase.”
“A little cab,” he says. In present-day Los Angeles, I get it. I’m straddling the Land Rover’s nearly vertical steering column and sawing at the wheel like a sugared-up toddler on a Sit ’n’ Spin. There may not be a posse of British soldiers and a spare tire in the back, but I certainly feel like my uncomfortable proximity to the windshield is a byproduct of the vehicle’s primary mission—which does not make concessions for comfort.
At a stop sign, Yasha notices that it’s idling high. The engine sits between us under a thin fiberglass clamshell that a few seconds later is hinged back. I’m hit by an updraft of hot, oily air from the motor roaring between us. Careful not to catch any clothing in the alternator belt, Yasha turns in his seat and hunches over the running engine, nudging the idle screw clockwise while I try to think of another vehicle I’ve driven that can be serviced from the front seat.
With the idle behaving itself, we head off again on an ungainly trip though a subdivision and past a gated community on our way to an area with fewer corners stores and slabs of concrete. We wind our way up a broken asphalt park road, and though it’s no battlefield, the truck feels like it’s getting a bit closer to home.
Land Rover fitted these 101s with the same all-aluminum, 120hp 3.5-liter V8 petrol engine and a slightly modified version of the four-speed gearbox as was equipped in the civilian Range Rover. This example currently runs a newer, yet still carbureted, 4.9-liter variant attached to an automatic transmission donated from a Discovery. Despite this newer engine’s bump in power, the 101 doesn’t feel anything remotely comparable to quick. I can only imagine what it would be like to drive it with the original motor, though it probably would have plenty of torque in low gear, especially if one only needs to travel at the hiking pace of a solder on foot.
Another mile on the asphalt behind us, pull off onto dirt, where the ground’s sudden undulations are exaggerated by the truck’s high seating position, unforgiving leaf springs, and a wheelbase less than an inch longer than a standard Range Rover. We’re on gentle terrain no doubt, but the sensation still catches me by surprise. I’m clinging to the wheel like the top of a sailboat mast in high seas. Yasha is unfazed beside me, and as we continue overland, I too become used to the swaying and bouncing motion, the dramatic steering wheel inputs now feeling more natural. The Forward Control can handle this. It can handle a lot more than this. In fact, it can handle a lot more than I can, I realize.
A few minutes later and we’re in a landscape devoid of human development, or at least blocked from view by the rolling hills surrounding us. The slopes to either side are fresh with post-rain grass, with a copse of burned trees providing a morbid contrast to all the new, green life popping up. Soon enough, the sky darkens and makes good on the overcast omen of rain. It’s like we’ve been transported in the belly of a cargo plane and carried to remote deployment via heavy-lift helicopter. Thankfully the only tough decisions to be made involve where to go for dinner later.
We stop the truck and hop down from the high cab. I’m glad my knees are good.
Referred to by British troops as the “One-tonne,” which they pronounce as “one tunny,” most 101 Forward Controls were canvas-topped. However, those intended for use as radio or electronic warfare vehicles, and later ambulances, were given aluminum bodies, resulting in an even more dramatically rectangular appearance. It is one of these “radio bodies” that sits idling here on this hillside in front of us. At this distance, with no size reference, it looks like a toy truck; its proportions just aren’t something my mind can instinctively resolve. With no buildings or other manmade objects for scale, it feels like we’ve shrunken ourselves down into the proverbial kid’s sandbox.
I imagine half a dozen young soldiers in a place that looks just like this; the middle of nowhere in Cyprus or Rhodesia or Wales, waiting for orders or even just a squawk from the radio to break the boredom of sitting. Numb from cold or baking hot, passing the time with cards or the best gentlemen’s magazines 1980 had to offer. One of them cracks the same joke for the third time of the day and gets an empty can of MRE thrown at his head.
Despite what Land Rover and the Army’s Fighting Vehicle Design Establishment intended, to me, this vehicle is endearing, in a sense. Its cuboid shape, somewhere between tough and goofy, is so humorous as to be almost designed to evoke that response, especially emphasized by how the lower body line almost completely clears the top of the tires. It’s something a very young kid would draw or build out of kindergarten-grade blocks and wheels. On this example the decades of brushed-on camouflage paint help tone down the silliness of the shape, but I have seen pictures of one radio-bodied Forward Control that now roams the deserts of Africa, painted pink, evoking an image of a rolling metal bouncy castle.
By the end of 1978, Land Rover built about 2,650 Forward Controls, and there’s no better proof of their robustness than the simple fact that the original production continued in service for the next two decades. There’s an irony to driving an old military vehicle around in a modern city, even on its outskirts. One of these rolling across a foreign countryside was probably more often an unwelcome sight than not. Their presence did not always come hand-in-hand with peace.
But we cannot help but divorce history from form, which was shaped from steadfast purposefulness and nothing else. As if to consider such a triviality as “looks” would be a misappropriation of taxpayer funds—as if some politician could have the beauty of a project used against him in a future election. But the real irony is that although these vehicles are the definition of serious, some, by nature of their size or quirks of their use, cannot help but have a personality. To me, this radio-bodied Forward Control falls squarely in that group.
Yasha Varga can be found here on Instagram