Who was king of the UAE's desert? The forgotten 1963 battle between Dodge and Land Rover

In 1963 the British came to the UAE to see who ruled the dunes

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It was an episode worthy of Jeremy Clarkson and television's Top Gear: a showdown between the rugged Land Rover and the mighty Dodge Power Wagon to find the king of desert terrain.

At stake was the pride of Britain and the United States but also the security of what is today the Emirates.

The tests, which can now be read online for the first time on the digital library of the UAE's National Archive, were carried out in 1963 on behalf of the Trucial Oman Scouts and the local forces responsible for keeping law and order in some of the most testing landscapes in the world.

Formed in 1951, the Scouts were a paramilitary force under the command of British officers, with the other ranks drawn from local men and Arab expatriates.

Barely 1,000 strong, the force had to patrol the interior of all seven emirates and parts of present-day Oman.

More difficult regions were reached by camel patrol, but to move large numbers of men and equipment, vehicles were needed.

The challenges were enormous, of which the threat of pot-shot taking bandits were the least.

Vehicles struggled up rocky mountains, slid across sand dunes and became bogged down in the claylike sand near the coast.

They frequently overheated, especially in summer, and guzzled their way through petrol, achieving less than 2.5 kilometres per litre and requiring a network of fuel dumps, often supplied by parachute drops and guarded by local sheikhs.

Punctures were a particular problem, along with damage to wheels and suspensions that could immobilise a vehicle hundreds of kilometres from the nearest mechanic.

Engineers test tyres during desert trials in 1950s Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Arabian Gulf Digital Archive
Engineers test tyres during desert trials in 1950s Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Arabian Gulf Digital Archive

An American magazine profiling the Scouts in 1967 described the posting as "Hell's Last Outpost".

Two vehicles were the backbone of patrols.

The Land Rover was the brainchild of the British Rover Company.

It was inspired by the US’s wartime Jeep, and designed as a lightweight utility vehicle aimed initially at farmers.

Almost from the first, the British Army saw the potential of the Land Rover, buying it in large numbers and using it in regions such as the Arabian Gulf. In the American corner, the Dodge Power Wagon also made its debut after the Second World War and was based on a military lorry.

Larger and more powerful than the Land Rover, it was also heavier and less manoeuvrable than its rival.

It came with both an open and enclosed cab, and among civilians, at least, was more popular for long trips because it came with optional air conditioning.

By the 1960s, the UK Ministry of Defence was concerned by the high mechanical attrition rate of both vehicles in the Gulf, and ordered tests that could offer solutions to make them more reliable.

Carried out by the Fighting Vehicles Research and Development Establishment of Britain’s War Office, as the Defence Ministry was then known, the tests were carried out in October and November 1963.

As well as the Land Rover and Power Wagon, it included a tyre test on the Ferret, a lightweight armoured car used by the Royal Air Force, which had a base in Sharjah.

Three types of terrain were selected, from sabkha – salt flats – to wadis and the dunes of Liwa, the latter carrying the warning: "No one ventures into the Liwa without a local Arab of the particular area to be visited as a guide."

Two Power Wagons and two Land Rovers set out from Sharjah on October 23, and in two days had reached Liwa, crossing 180-metre high sand dunes.

Over firm terrain they managed speeds of more than 50 kilometres an hour, but this dropped to almost walking pace over soft sand.

Arriving in Liwa, the group made for the sand dunes around Humar, a village that was the farthest point in Abu Dhabi accessible via airstrip, with petrol store guarded by the local sheikh, named in the report as Said bin Jardah.

From the start, it was clear the Land Rover was coming off second best in the hill trials, with the Power Wagon able to climb some dunes in two-wheel drive when the British vehicle had already switched to four.

The Land Rover also needed far more gear changes than the Power Wagon.

“Over a measured period of time of 10 minutes, while in convoy, the Land Rover driver had to change gear 46 times, whiles the Dodge Power Wagon driver only changed gear 16 times,” the report said.

It was also found that the Land Rover generally needed to be driven in a lower gear than the Power Wagon.

“One instance was a 50ft-long [14.24 metre] slope of which the first 30ft was of a 10 [degree] slope and the remainder a 25 [degree] slope,” the final report observes.

“The Dodge Power Wagons had no difficulty in four-wheel drive high ratio, but both Land Rovers became immobilised in this gear ratio and had to change to four-wheel drive, low ratios and reverse to the start before succeeding in climbing the slope.”

Dodge Power Wagons in the deserts of Abu Dhabi. The vehicle and its rival, Land Rover, were being tested by the British. Courtesy Arabian Gulf Digital Archive
Dodge Power Wagons in the deserts of Abu Dhabi. The vehicle and its rival, Land Rover, were being tested by the British. Courtesy Arabian Gulf Digital Archive

After each test it was necessary to lift the Land Rover bonnets to cool the engine “but this did not arise with the Dodge Power Wagons”.

The Land Rovers also consumed more water for their radiators.

The news got worse for Land Rover. They “not only had difficulties in climbing the steeper slopes up to 30 [degrees] but also had a tendency to slide sideways on the 20 [degree] slopes”. The lower height of the British vehicles also made it more difficult to spot sudden drops until the driver was almost on top of them.

In one test, “a Land Rover took off over a drop showing daylight under all four wheels but fortunately landed on its front wheels and did not turn over,” the report said.

With a typically dry British humour, the report continued: “Nevertheless the contents, human and otherwise, were severely shaken.”

To add further insult, it was discovered that despite having larger engines, the Power Wagons returned better petrol consumption than the Land Rovers.

An extra also appreciated by the Trucial Oman Scouts was that the more sophisticated Power Wagon came equipped with a compressor pump to reinflate tyres, while the Land Rover was only equipped with a foot pump.

It was not all bad news for Land Rover.

Tarif in Abu Dhabi's western region during the 1950s. It was the site of a Trucial Oman Scouts base - and also the region's only signpost. Courtesy Arabian Gulf Digital Archive
Tarif in Abu Dhabi's western region during the 1950s. It was the site of a Trucial Oman Scouts base - and also the region's only signpost. Courtesy Arabian Gulf Digital Archive

The British vehicle was discovered to be more manoeuvrable in testing conditions, while the American had a nasty habit of burning out the alternator.

Significant for Britain's military budget was that the Land Rover was almost half the price of the Power Wagon, costing around £900 to the Dodge price of £1,575.

In the end, it was concluded that better maintenance was needed, including a rather obvious recommendation that "salt water should not be used for washing down vehicles". Improved storage and inspections of tyres was also suggested.

It was also observed that both vehicles performed significantly better when driven by an experienced desert driver.

Versions of both vehicles can still be seen in the UAE today.

Land Rover now prefers the luxury Range Rover, but plans to launch a new Land Rover Defender in the near future.

The Dodge Power Wagon was discontinued in 1981 and replaced with the Dodge Ram pickup truck.

In 2005, Dodge brought back the Power Wagon name for an off-road version of the Ram.

The most powerful Ram in the UAE, the 2500, has a 6.4-litre engine compared to the 3-litre turbocharged Defender.

Price differences have also reversed with the passing years. A top-of-the-line Defender is expected to cost about Dh350,000, while the Ram 2500 runs up to a relatively modest Dh282,000.

Perhaps now is the time for a rematch?

UAE National Archives

A treasure trove of archives went online this year. Treaties, letters, maps, images and videos shed light on more than 200 years of life in the Arabian Gulf set against the backdrop of war and the search for oil.

The portal, called the Arabian Gulf Digital Archive, is the fruit of two years of work by the UAE and UK. Most of the files are from the UK’s foreign office and provide a fascinating glimpse into the way the British tried to keep a grip on the Middle East, the poverty here following the Second World War and how oil transformed the region.

But the huge archive is also littered with vignettes, diplomatic asides and colourful flourishes that bring these yellowing and faded documents to life. It would take months to pore through them all but here is a small taste of its vast riches.