Bealiba Beast: 1954 Land Rover Series I

By: Matt Wood

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1954 Land Rover Series I Mal Butler’s 1954 Land Rover Series I 1954 Land Rover Series I
1954 Land Rover Series I The Landy’s design is said to have been influenced by the Willys Jeep 1954 Land Rover Series I
1954 Land Rover Series I Ah, the simple old days 1954 Land Rover Series I
1954 Land Rover Series I The old fourby was left sitting in a Bealiba shed after Mal’s father passed away in the mid-1980s 1954 Land Rover Series I
1954 Land Rover Series I The odometer stopped working some time ago 1954 Land Rover Series I
1954 Land Rover Series I The old engine has allegedly never had a spanner on it 1954 Land Rover Series I
1954 Land Rover Series I Aside from the vinyl seats there’s not a stitch of padding anywhere 1954 Land Rover Series I
1954 Land Rover Series I The Landy has no body overhang and a small footprint 1954 Land Rover Series I

Like the fabled big cats of Victoria, the Land Rover Series I is a rare sight. Matt Wood catches up with Mal Butler, who rescued his father’s 1954 Landy from a shed on the family property.

Country gravel crunches under the wheels as we grind through the Victorian bush. The ancient 2-litre petrol engine puffs, huffs and groans as the driveline whine resonates through the cabin, building to a crescendo before Mal goes for another gear change.

You’d have to look a long way to find an old Land Rover as original as this one. And, when I say original, I mean that the old engine huffing away out front has allegedly never had a spanner on it. A rare beast.

There’s something quite evocative about an old Land Rover. Maybe I read way too many Wilbur Smith novels as a youngster but, to me, the Landy badge has always reeked of adventure and distant outback horizons.

Though it could be said that, for many owners, the Land Rover badge has equally reeked of electrical gremlins, questionable reliability and busted knuckles. Maybe I’m just a romantic.

Not 12 months before production of the Land Rover Defender finished up, I took the opportunity to take one of the last examples of the breed for a spin in the bush. Even in modern form, the old bush bus still had character in spades, even if terms like ‘ergonomics’ have never been a part of the Land Rover design brief.

However, I recently got to reacquaint myself with a bit of Land Rover heritage.

Barn rescue

Mal Butler rescued his father’s 1954 Series I Landy from a shed on the family property a couple of years ago. I’d call it a barn find but Mal always knew it was there; it was down to either Mal or his brother to bring the old girl back to life. Mal decided to take the job on.

The Landy was sold new in the Central Victorian town of Castlemaine. But, in the late ‘60s, Mal’s father went in search of a workhorse for fetching wood to feed the wood-fired ovens of his country bakery.

The hills around the village of Bealiba were a rich source of wood for the family business, but there was a slight issue in going in and getting it. The family EH Holden wagon was just a little too good for dragging a trailer through the scrub in search of fuel.

Usually local labourers were employed to venture into the eucalypt forests but, during shearing season or harvest, the local labour force was busy and the family had to fetch the wood themselves.

Mal’s father came across the Land Rover for sale, a deal was struck, and the Series I hardtop ute became a part of the Butler family. The still relatively young Landy was then working for a living in the bushy hills around Bealiba.

I can’t help but wonder if the stories of the Bealiba Beast were doing the rounds back then as Mal’s dad ventured out into the bush. The story goes that American airmen kept a couple of puma cubs as mascots while stationed in Victoria during World War II.

After the war, these airmen were instructed to kill the cats before redeployment back home. Instead, as myth and legend would have it, the aircrew set them free in the forests around the nearby town of Maryborough.

For decades there have been sightings of big black cats and mysterious killings of lambs during winter. The carcasses have been splayed out on the ground and eaten, completely unlike a fox or dog kill.

I’m tempted to ask Mal about the legend of the big cats as we whine and groan through the bush, but I reckon he might think I’m a delusional nuffy if I do. I decide to leave the subject alone as the scrub marches past the slide-open windows at a modest pace.

1954 Land Rover Series I
A barely touched and original Series I Land Rover is a rare beast

Simple stuff

There’s not a lot to the old beast that first appeared in 1948 – a galvanised steel box-section chassis and an aluminium body. Something made affordable by the loads of surplus aircraft-grade aluminium lying around in England after the war.

Even the original drab green colour is said to be war surplus from aircraft manufacture. 

It was a go-anywhere vehicle for the farmer that become so much more. Land Rovers became the vehicle of the explorer and pioneer and were instrumental in opening up many tracts of agricultural Australia.

That was until the Japanese onslaught from Toyota. The arrival of a 4x4 that didn’t break down and could take an almost unbelievable amount of abuse soon began to sway those on the land away from offerings from the mother country. 

It’s hard to know just how much work this old girl has really done, since the odometer stopped working some time ago. But it’s probably safe to say that the old Landy hasn’t covered too many miles for its age.

The old fourby was left sitting in a Bealiba shed after Mal’s father passed away in the mid-1980s. But back in 2012 Mal decided to rescue the short-wheelbase Series I from the shed and get it back on the road.

As far as resurrections go, there actually wasn’t too much to do to the old girl. In fact, the fiddliest part of the job was rebuilding the brakes.

Other than that, a new water pump, new exhaust, new tyres and new radiator were all that was needed to get the Land Rover ready for club rego. Mal also decided to fit freewheeling hubs as well.

It’s probably fair to say that the Landy won’t be seeing a great deal of bush bashing these days.

A look underneath the old banger shows that it really has had a charmed life. All the usual Land Rover rust spots around the chassis are as clean as a whistle. Especially around the front of the frame.

Behind the wheel

After we stop to take some photos, I climb behind the wheel for a stint. The new cooling system seems to be working almost too well as it seems hard to get some heat into the engine. But with a bit of choke the ancient petrol four pot coughs into life.

I gingerly slot the shifter into first and give the Land Rover its head in the bush. As we build up a bit of speed I double-clutch it into second; the still cold engine protests, coughs then catches, and away we go.

The simplicity of the short 88-inch wheelbase of the fourby gives it the characteristic noddy ride that comes from driving many short off-roaders. It also shows why these things were such formidable off-roaders – there’s no body overhang and such a small footprint.

The Land Rover’s famed aluminium construction also means that the old jigger is also pretty damned light.

The engine becomes a bit smoother as it warms up. However, it would be fair to say that there ain’t a lot of compression going on under that bonnet. It may be original but it’s also pretty asthmatic. Mal hints that an engine rebuild may be on the cards.

Aside from the vinyl seats, there’s not a stitch of padding anywhere – it’s all flat panels, flat glass and flip open vents. The dirt road rumbles away underneath.

Despite all that, I can’t help but grin.

That old Landy has heaps of character and, even with its advancing age, still manages to evoke a spirit of adventure. You could pretend you’re searching for big cats in the African jungle … or driving through the Victorian goldfields scrub.

Pulling back out onto the blacktop and on the road back to town, I give the old girl some more gas. With a bit of momentum it seems content to cruise on 40 miles per hour (64km/h) which, I might add, feels like 100mph (161km/h) as I swing on the big old wheel.

Like so many old timers found in sheds, this Land Rover has its own story to tell. But, like the mythical big cats of the Victoria’s forests, a barely touched and original Series I Land Rover is a rare beast indeed.

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