Back in the day, most six-year olds spent their pocket money on Sherbet Dib-Dabs and catching up on Desperate Dan’s pie-eating antics. Not so for a young Mark Evans. Famously the co-creator and presenter of the globally embraced “…Is Born” series of car restoration TV programmes was squirrelling his cash into a savings account dubbed the ‘Land Rover Trust Fund.’
This was clearly not standard form, but then, Mark’s upbringing wasn’t entirely standard either.
His dad is an engineer who spent his National Service developing Land Rovers for military use. It sparked an obsession.
“Dad was put into a special team developing and trialling a number of special Land Rovers fitted with the Rolls-Royce Austin Champ engine,” he recalls of the now legendary Land Rover B40 Project. “They built a number of them which they field- and road-tested for a couple of years and dad had one the whole time. I got hold of his engineering notes from his Army days and I copied them all out so I could learn how the internal combustion engine worked. Suck-Squeeze-Bang-Blow. It’s been a love affair ever since.”
The idea of the trust fund was that, when he reached 17, Mark would have banked enough cash to fulfil his Land Rover dream. It didn’t quite work out that way. Not quite having the necessary dosh, he instead “slightly bizarrely” picked up a Triumph Herald 13/60, which, as well as gobbling up his savings, greedily ate up the precious time which should have been reserved for his A-Level studies.
“Every waking hour that I could, I worked on it, and I was at school six days a week at the time as well as helping with my dad’s engineering business at weekends.” His dedication was also tested by the fact he had to slog on the restoration under tarpaulins rather than the relative luxury of the family garage, which had been hit by subsidence. The doors were jammed shut, meaning Mark couldn’t make use of a six-foot inspection pit on t’other side.
It may have cost him all his teenage savings and his place at Edinburgh Vet School — A-level resits were necessary to get into the Royal Veterinary College the following year — but “It was worth it; kind of! It was a sweet little car by the time I’d finished. None of my mates had a convertible,” he fondly reminisces.
But the Land Rover dream lived on, even if it were to take another 23 years before it was fulfilled, through A 4×4 Is Born. As with all his TV projects, the ‘Landy consumed some 2,500 man-hours and countless follicles, courtesy of Mark’s hair-tearing pursuit of perfection. The latter is, he thinks, a big part of the series’ appeal to enthusiasts. “I think they quite like that we f*** it up, but that we’re anal about getting it right. If we do something and it doesn’t work, we’ll take it to bits and do it right, no matter how long it takes.” The bottom line with every project he firmly states is that: “I ‘ain’t going to put that much effort in without the car being the very best we can possibly make it.”
It’s a philosophy shared by most enthusiasts, but, of course, they don’t suffer the indignity/glory of their failures being broadcast to viewers in over 80 nations. As with the Herald, the Land Rover — dubbed Hill Billy — was special; with gold-plated bells on: “Because it was a Land Rover, it was extraordinarily special, the one thing I always wanted to own and drive. It was also the fact that we were making such a unique vehicle — a 21st century tribute to the very limited run of brilliant 100-inch wheelbase ‘Landies made in the late 1970s.”
Phase one of the mega-build began at the Dunsfold Collection, home, Mark believes, to the world’s largest private collection of Land Rovers, and a chat with curator and friend Phil Bashall. “We are all familiar these days with 90-inch and 110-inch wheelbase ‘Landies, but I had never even heard of these really special 100-inch Land Rovers. Phil told me their extraordinary story and convinced me that recreating one would be a great project that Landie enthusiasts would really enjoy following. He also introduced me to two of the original vehicles in his collection. It was love at first sight.” So, Mark and engineer Les Dale (better known as ‘The Bloke from Stoke’) set about measuring and photographing them from every angle. Land Rover built the originals by taking rolling chassis off the Range Rover production line and bodying them as Land Rovers. So, Mark and Les tracked down an early 1980s, totally knackered, shed of a Range Rover. It cost £250. Then, with the help of Land Rover guru Phil Hinsley, they fiddled and fettled it into what has now become one of the world’s best known Land Rovers. “Hill Billy is very, very special to me. Not just because it was my first Land Rover — I now have three — but because in building it, the three of us became really good friends.”
Triumph: Herald 1360, Mark’s first car.
The end result is nothing short of remarkable — an extraordinary transformation and a vehicle built with the kind of attention to detail that you would expect with the concourse restoration of an Alvis or an AC Ace, not a Land Rover. “Lots of people bodge Land Rovers, but I think they deserve the best. So that’s what Hill Billy got. We could have bodged it (lots of people do!), and it still would have looked great on TV, but that’s not our style.” All very well, but what’s it like to be behind the wheel? “It’s amazing to drive because it’s just feels and in particular sounds extraordinary. It sounds like you’re driving a race car and wherever it goes it just draws a huge amount of attention. Everyone loves a big, raw, throaty V8.”
This brings us to a point of contention. Mark takes it out, “Very, very rarely,” terrified that it’ll come to some harm. “People think I’m nuts and I get a lot of flak from some enthusiasts, which is fair enough,” he concedes. “They presume that, at every opportunity, I must take it to extreme off-road events to put it through its paces — to do what it was built to do. But, “Nope, I haven’t got the balls to do that. Sorry. Maybe one day.”
Whilst taking that criticism on the chin, he does point out the very real issues at stake. “I am terrified of damaging it because of things like the paint. I managed to convince Akzo Nobel to make a specific paint that’s not been used on any other vehicle and I have no idea how much it would cost to get it re-sprayed.”
But, as many, many enthusiasts will appreciate, it’s also the emotional price tag. Mark has built everything from a replica AC Cobra kit car through a Jaguar E-Type, MGB Roadster and Triumph Bonneville T120R, and Hill Billy is the only one that’s still with him. It’s properly special. “This is a vehicle that feels so much a part of me. If I damaged it, I would weep, just from the work it would take to rebuild it,” he says, citing as an example the all hand-built rear bodywork.
So, being buttock-clenchingly nervous about anything happening to Hill Billy, he’s protected it with a very hi-tech, state-of-the-art alarm system and his own security tweaks. “I’m a great believer in having the security kit and other things that people don’t know about, which are actually quite simple from an electrics point of view. They immobilise it but you’d never know how to switch it because we put all our own wiring in.”
So it’s unique, renowned and features priceless modifications like that paint job. Is it difficult to insure? “It’s not that tricky, because it’s fairly standard in a lot of ways so it’s not massively extreme, but I’ve always had to go to a specialist insurers,” he comments, noting that he opted to protect Hill Billy through Carole Nash, citing not just their specialist expertise but passion. “What really impressed me about Carole Nash is they understand and want to understand the kind of insurance issues that classic vehicle enthusiasts have. Carole Nash knows that we have vehicles that are a bit special, different, that we cherish.”
For the last five years, Mark has been putting his veterinary know-how to good use, fronting a raft of science and nature documentaries for Channel 4, including the BAFTA-winning ‘Inside Nature’s Giants.’ It means travelling all over the world and, in the last 12 months he’s only been in the UK for about four weeks. So, has Mark got any more automotive projects in the offing?
“I’ve now found a knackered old workshop that I’m moving into, and I am hoping that by the end of this year or into next, I will do another project. I’m just looking at ‘how,’ because broadcasters will not give the amount of time you need to give enthusiasts the detail. I’m plotting and having to keep it under my hat, but it will be kind of a first, something that really tunes into enthusiasts.”