By last April, the thrill of winter had diminished considerably here in Maine. The temperature would “rise” into the 30s as the winds howled more viciously than normal. You still had to carry a windshield scraper in the Land Rover. By my lights, the Sand Rover Rally in Fort Walton Beach, FL, loomed like a life ring tossed to a mariner who fell overboard. With delight, I stuffed my winter coat into the back of Land Rover and boarded my flight south.
The Sand Rally grew out of the twin enthusiasms of organizer Mike Ragsdale: his love of “Truman,’ his Defender 90 diesel, and his affection for the towns and villages that line Florida’s Route 30-A. It’s located along Florida’s Panhandle that borders Alabama and Georgia. Despite white sand beaches, crystal clear waters and very favorable temperatures, this stretch of Florida has managed to retain a simpler vibe than most anywhere along the Gulf Coast. Along these shores Land Rovers join no-longer-in-production vehicles like Ford Broncos, International Scouts and Jeep CJ’s to serve a critical recreational function as “beach cruisers.” Their primary purpose is to get you, your friend[s] and gear alongside or onto a sandy beach. Unless you’re surfing or fishing, these trips will only occur on warm, sunny days. Off-road kit tends to run towards coolers and cozies rather than diff guards.
Still, a network of state parks and forests retain trails open to off-roaders. It’s these trails that attracted Mike and his local friends, and in 2014, he decided to create the Sand Rover Rally to share the good times. Mike founded and operates 30A.com and its related social networks, and he marshaled his company’s resources to treat hundreds of enthusiasts to a great time.
There’s no better way to arrive at a Land Rover event than in a Defender, so I booked a flight to Birmingham, AL, first to hitch a ride with the enthusiasts from Adventure Motor Cars. After attending the inaugural event in 2014, Steven Ogletree made his firm an event sponsor for 2016. While he drove down one custom NAS Defender a day early, sponsorship meant that his company would show the flag with a Land Rover fleet. Scott Johnston and his crew drove Defender 90s, each with custom touches, and they drew stares from envious drivers on I-65. The star of the convoy would be the Defender 90 owned by country artist Alan Jackson. Billy Jones, who maintains Jackson’s auto and boat collection, and his wife Kim, brought the Defender and spent the weekend enjoying the event.
I lucked out when I jumped into the passenger seat of a ’95 Defender 110 soft top, a most unique vehicle first engineered by East Coast Rover. Once I figured out the proper way to tie down all the ropes that came on the Exmoor top, technician Jason Weldon and I hit the interstates for the long drive to southern Alabama. We could converse the entire trip at 65-70 mph without getting hoarse. This Defender had the standard 5-speed and cruised the highways in ideal control and comfort, at least in the front seats. The six jump seats in the rear might only accommodate close friends or relatives, but oh, my, what a ride they would enjoy!
Driving from Birmingham to Montgomery required too much time on the interstate highway, but once there we jumped onto the two-lane roads that remind you of the reason you want to drive in your Land Rover. We drove through the small market towns that connected the small family farms with their larger world, and then abruptly, the massive Hyundai manufacturing plant. At the border town of Florala, the farm fields gave way to the different topography of the Florida Panhandle. We passed Britton Hill, at 345 ft. the highest point in Florida, and soon after, grassy fields became scrub pine and sandy soil flora. You could begin to smell the ocean.
Did I mention the 80-degree temperature, soft breezes off the water, brilliantly white sand beaches, a few rough-hewn wooden buildings still standing amidst the rows of pastel-colored stucco buildings? The cumulative sunshine, beach vibe and good spirits washed away my winter gloom.
If Mike Ragsdale’s ’86 Defender 90 is one signature vehicle of the event, then Ricki Hopper’s Santana Liegero screams “Beach!” just as loudly. Based on Series III running gear, the Spanish company Santana built its slightly different models under license from Land Rover. Their version of the Military Lightweight featured a few¬—but not many—creature comforts and drove like any Series III. Last year Mike led a long convoy of dozens of Land Rovers, causing traffic jams and concerns about losing the off-roaders. This year we left quite early on Saturday morning and met everyone at the off-road trail location, Point Washington State Forest. Whereas last year’s conditions featured plenty of deep mud, this year’s drier weather meant that outside of a few puddles, you had less opportunity to become mired down.
Mike organized a driver’s meeting and a large group had shown up, rather early in the morning for a beach town, I thought. A park ranger spoke to the condition of the trails and the legal restrictions imposed by state regulations. Among them was the current fire danger, which must have been serious as the ranger’s radio crackled with the report of a fire. I jumped from Mike’s Santana into the ’03 Discovery of Jack Griffiths, Bonifay, FL, for some light-off roading and then joined Jesse and Shannon Benjamin in their “junkyard find” Discovery I. “I found it at an auction lot off Craigslist,” said Jesse. “The previous owner had butchered up the center console trying to figure out why it wouldn’t go. When I started it up it sounded good, but it still wouldn’t move. I looked around and found the e-clip from the shifter to the shift cable was missing. At a nearby parts store I bought a variety pack of e-clips for $7.00, came back to the lot, installed the clip and it slid right into gear. Our purchase price was $800, so it cost me $807 to get it off the lot. And the AC even worked!” We convoyed through some dead-end trails with the Discovery of Dana and Maggie Gravedoni, took a walk through some campsites, and wondered just what creatures lived in the swampy lagoons at the end of the trails.
Most of the convoy returned from the trails to the waterfront meeting site to swap stories about their Land Rovers, ogle the Defenders from Adventure Motor Cars, enjoy the hospitality and swag from Land Rover Gulf Coast, and meet and greet friends new and old. Joshua Barnett of Southern Overland brought a wonderful ’82 Series III 109” in Russett Brown, the quintessential 80s auto color. He also shared his experience of pulling a ‘66 Series II-A that had been sitting under trees for a decade. You could also see enthusiasts of the many Discoverys and LR3/4’s present peering into the Series Land Rovers, Lightweights and Defenders at the event. As the afternoon progressed, a few mud-splattered Land Rovers pulled into the meeting site proving that if you searched hard enough, you could find challenging off-roading at the event. Charles Bell, Jr. led a crew of enthusiasts from the Gulf Coast Land Rover Club and it’s clear from their turnout that Land Rover enthusiasts along that part of the coast know how to have a good time. Mike Ragsdale created a Facebook Live broadcast during the afternoon, featuring many of the attendees. At the afternoon’s end, we found ourselves across the street from a very accommodating bar to cap off the perfect day.
“The enthusiasm for the 30-A Sand Rover Rally just keeps growing every year,” said Mike Ragsdale. “People showed up in dune buggies, old Broncos, vintage Army jeeps, and of course, Land Rovers spanning all years and models. The event has now firmly cemented its place as an annual tradition here along the Gulf Coast.” Given the ever-increasing attendance each year, it’s found a place in the hearts of Gulf Coast Land Rover enthusiasts, too.
By Jeffrey Aronson
Photography by Jeffrey Aronson and Fletcher Isacks of Isacks Imagery