Imagine taking a vacation in Colombia and discovering a diamond in the rough like this 1974 Land Rover Santana Series III. How would you cut and polish it?
Brian Mallin, of ZSM Custom, thought he was just going to Colombia for a short, two-week vacation in December of 2017. However, he was so enchanted by the beauty and vibe there that he stayed, off and on, for nearly a full year, exploring the country from top to bottom, finding a girlfriend, and learning Spanish along the way.
One key discovery was the proliferation of classic 4x4 trucks. They were everywhere—still in use as work trucks, farm vehicles and even as public transportation. By October of 2018, he had purchased this 1974 Land Rover Santana Series III to use as his daily driver.
The company that would one day become Santana Motor began as an agricultural equipment manufacturer based in Linares, Spain named “Metalúrgica de Santa Ana, SA”. Seeing an opportunity to expand into broader markets, they petitioned the Rover car company for licensing to produce Land Rovers in their factory.
After securing licensing, they proceeded to produce kit versions of the Land Rover for Central and South America, as well as Africa, from 1958-1968. Over that ten year period, due to the harsh driving conditions of those markets, they developed a deeply responsive relationship with their customers. They were able to listen to their customers’ needs and engineer specific design solutions which uniquely differentiated them from Land Rover. That differentiation led to a localized partnership with Land Rover that spawned the name change to “Land Rover Santana, SA” in 1968.
Land Rover Santana proceeded to flood the South and Central American markets with a tsunami of classic 4x4 trucks that still inform the flavor of the culture. Trucks similar to this are so common as to be unremarkable in Colombia. The rugged, mule-like ability to transport people and goods across difficult terrain, along with the low cost of ownership, made them a preferred vehicle. It also has led to an unfortunate association with drug cartels.
Initially, Brian had no idea how this particular choice would be perceived by Colombian police and soldiers. He chose this vehicle and then he chose Defender front doors with power windows to replace the OEM doors as well as shaved door handles and a metallic, diamond patterned trim.
Brian (right) and his brother Zachary (left) spent a year navigating the numerous obstacles they encountered while taking this diamond from rough to refined. Whether dealing with incompetent body shops, overcoming the language barrier, legal issues, or negotiating the exporting process, the entire year was an adventure.
Of course, the adventure was only heightened by the fact that Brian looks less like the mechanical engineer that he is, and more like Johnny Depp in the movie "Blow." Add to this that he was tooling about in the truck most commonly associated with drug cartels, and you get a recipe for all manner of excitement.
“I didn't know that this type of Land Rover was used a lot in the Colombian Cartels. Needless to say I got pulled over a lot and searched by the police or machine-gun wielding soldiers at random road blocks.”
This black diamond shines a bit more brightly in the Colombian sun because of the metallic, diamond-pattern trim. Integrating both form and function, Brian kept the stock wheels but upgraded the tires to Toyo Open Country 265/75R16s for enhanced grip in both on and off road conditions.
The dash was kept original while the custom diamond motif also graces the front seats and doors with upholstery which was all installed in Colombia.
The stock cluster was swapped out in favor of these gauges from New Vintage USA.
The shifter is vintage while the four-speed transmission and clutch were both updated with OEM replacements.
While the diamond patterned upholstery throughout the interior signals both class and comfort, the overall feel is open and informal—Brazilian steakhouse meets open air festival.
The rare exocage frames the diamond-themed second row interior, lending an air of rugged personality. This truck has an engaging style that is uniquely its own.
The spacious rear interior of the Series III is a testament to the power of simplicity. The placement of the jump seats in relation to the stock sliding bay windows naturally immerses the passenger in the beauty of nature. It encourages appreciation for both the vehicle and the scenery it showcases.
What the jump seats hint at, the rear ladder promises - access to an unfettered view of the world from a specialized vantage point.
This rare exocage and raised safari roof immediately draw ones attention as does the neatly buttoned spare tire. The safari roof also serves to significantly lower the cabin temperature—again, form meets function.
Black Britax mirrors make a nice accent to the overall theme.
This recessed fuel filler niche and gas cap are not original to the Santana Series III; it's a custom fabrication. The original fuel filler was inside the vehicle, under the rear passenger jump seat. Imagine all of the smokers in the seventies who graced the rear jump seat of this car after a fill up.
This wingnut and washer combo now sits where the original fuel filler was located.
The engine bay has been entirely refurbished with updated OEM Land Rover parts, and Brian’s brother Zachary personally rewired the entire vehicle with high-grade, cross-linked wire, Molex waterproof connectors, and Bussmann fuse boxes. The stock engine can produce up to 74 HP @ 4200 RPM with a peak torque of 120lb/ft @ 2000RPM. The bay is pristine and, once again, nicely framed by the metallic diamond trim pattern.
The stock, one barrel carburetor was replaced with a two barrel aftermarket Weber carburetor with an accompanying intake manifold and copper element fuel filter.
This original Colombian VIN plaque hearkens back to the heyday of Land Rover Santana and commemorates the individual uniqueness that these trucks embody.
With massive ball joints like these, it’s clear why these vehicles were so sought after for rough road conditions.
The stock springs for the Series III are spring under axle design, but Brian decided to convert this one to a spring over axle design. The spring over conversion allows for greater flexibility, clearance, and articulation. In addition, Bilstein shocks were installed to replace the stock shocks.
Under any circumstances, undertaking the modification or restoration of a vehicle involves commitment and resolve. An older vehicle complicates this process by definition. If this undertaking is begun in another country, with its own laws and standards, compounded with the further handicap of negotiating it all in a second language, then we officially have the makings of what could be perceived as an insurmountable task.
Despite all of these compounded obstacles, Brian, his friends, and family were able to realize their goal. If nothing else, this was a triumph of hard work and persistence. When asked what he would do differently were he to undertake a project like this one again, he replied “I would not outsource any restoration or modifications! I would purchase the vehicle, make sure she was roadworthy, and bring her down to the port for shipping. This would save time and give us the ability to monitor quality control at our shop.” Wise words.
With the help of his friend, Christian Hernandez, arranging all of the export inspections, organizing the necessary documents and closely monitoring the process, Brian and Team ZSM Custom achieved their goal after a full year and $23K invested; a job well done.
Despite the beauty of this Land Rover Santana Series III, she is more than just the sum of her parts. She is also the sum of her journey and the stories of those who made that journey with her. It was a year’s trek through trial and hardship that supplied the perfect amount of pressure to produce this black, silver-trimmed diamond—a trek that concluded on these shores.
Story by Avon Bellamy
Photos by Antonio Alvendia
If you liked this Land Rover, be sure to check back here often as more Land Rover material is coming out soon. If there's anything specific you would like to see, or if you have any questions/comments, leave them in the comments section below.
FCP Euro's Feature Editor Antonio Alvendia is an aficionado of cameras, rare wheels, 90s hip hop, and obscure aftermarket car accessories. He bought his first E39 Touring after seeing M5 Estates on photo trips to several racetracks and automotive museums in Europe. He is currently devising a plan to return to the Nurburgring to shoot the N24 race and drive the Nordschleife again. ••• Instagram : @MOTORMAVENS