The Endless Safari

We go hunting for vintage 4x4s and classic cars with the founders of Dutch Safari Co.
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Jun 18, 2015 | By Erica Plumlee

When we jetted off to Miami to put together our inaugural travel guide, we needed a set of wheels. The normal airport econo-rental just wasn't going to cut it, so we called up our friends and neighbors Erica Plumlee and Nick van den Akker at Dutch Safari Co. to see if they could give us a hand. Did they have anything in Miami? No. Could they find something anyway? Yes. We touched down in Florida to find a vintage, mint blue Ford Bronco waiting for us. Perfect. Here's the story of how Dutch Safari Co. came to be.

hen we were teenagers living in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, we had a 1972 Land Rover Series III. Our favorite activity was taking the Rover out, never going anywhere in particular, just going. We called it going on safari. The Rover broke down a lot. It was an adventure always.

We spent a lot of time sitting in the back of that Land Rover, talking about stupid stuff, talking about important stuff. I was going off to college, and we both knew we were being asked to grow up. We agreed that jobs weren’t for us. We wanted to do what we did best and loved most: drive around in our Land Rover, see new things, see old things in a new way, go places, get stuck, have adventures. We wanted to stay on safari.

So we came up with a plan to drive from Alaska to Patagonia, allotting two years for the expedition. Any quicker and it might seem like we had somewhere to get to. We applied for grants, announced our plans to friends and family, spent countless hours in our garage discussing modifications to the Rover, and made a packing list. Eventually we decided that, although we loved our little truck, a Land Defender 110 was more suited to our purposes. Of course, they aren’t for sale in the United States. We wondered what it would take to import one.

Two and a half years later we have a business sourcing and importing classic European vehicles of all kinds, with an emphasis on overlanders and 4x4s.

The Hunt Begins: One Month, 6,000 miles, and Ten Countries, in Search of One Alfa Romeo Montreal

Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Austria, Czech Republic, Italy, Germany, France, Poland. On the road, every day is the same: We eat three gas station sandwiches. We drink twelve or twenty cappuccinos. We look for a McDonalds so we can get free WiFi and bathrooms. We narrate the lives of the people we pass by, and listen to the stories of those we meet. We drive all night. We inspect cars all day. We camp for a few hours on the side of the road. We are always in a hurry, never on time.

On most buying trips, we are chasing lots of different types of cars. On this one, we are after one thing: an Alfa Romeo Montreal. We buy our cars almost exclusively from private sellers. It usually goes something like this:

We email them from the US.

We are interested in your car.

They don’t believe us.

We are in Poland, can we come see your car?

They laugh at us. Sure, sure you can come. I am waiting on you.

We drive four hours through the countryside.

We are in your town. Where do you live?

They laugh, again. You’re here? Sure, sure, come, I am waiting on you.

We arrive. More laughter, handshakes, coffee, car.

On this trip, we drive thousands of miles through a dozen countries, but drive the same routes over and over. We zip past big cities and stop in small towns. Perhaps we can’t tell you about the Reichstag building in Berlin, or about the fondue in Zurich, but after one month on the road we can tell you other things. We can tell you what a cup of coffee tastes like in ten different countries. We know which countries have the nicest rest stops. Give us a gas station sandwich and we can tell you exactly what country we’re in. We see everything and nothing. We are going everywhere and nowhere at once. There is only us and our car.

We make it to Bischofszell just after 8 am. The seller's wife has just baked bread, which we have along with our cappuccinos. Coffee first, business second, always. From his stories, we begin to discern what kind of life his car has lived. It’s a summer Sunday car. This is good news. Time for the inspection. After seeing so many Montreals, we know what we are looking for. One glance at it and we make eye contact, we already have a sense. Better than the one in Vienna, comparable to the one in Delft, not quite as good as the one outside Nuremburg, but priced accordingly. We get on our hands and knees and begin the search for our nemesis: rust. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of where and how much. Cars in Europe are typically in worse condition than their US counterparts; our climate and culture keep them in better shape. This is what makes the selection process so tedious, and why we reject so many cars. Time for the test drive. As with each Montreal, the first thing we notice is the exhaust note of the V8 as it growls to life. The ride quality is unbelievable. Smooth as silk on the Swiss mountain road. The noise under full throttle is like nothing else. We pull the car back into the garage. We haven’t spoken a word to each other yet, and ask for a minute alone. We look at each other, careful not to give anything away. This is what we’ve been looking for. We list out every flaw, however minor. Ammo for negotiations. In hushed voices, we talk numbers. 

More often than not, we leave these visits with only stories. But every once in a while, we leave an old Swiss man in our rearview mirror, shaking his head, watching two young American kids drive his car away on their crazy tour.

We spend so much time thinking about what we have to do, where we have been, where we have to be, that we often overlook where we are. That’s why these cars are so special. Modern cars are so comfortable, efficient, and reliable that you almost forget you’re driving. You don’t need a specialized overland or classic car to be on a safari, but it sure as hell helps. People who drive classic cars, people who overland… they understand that it’s not about Point A or Point B. It’s about the space in between, moving intentionally, and reclaiming driving as a visceral experience.

Traditional African safaris are about maintaining a level of luxury at all times, even in the remote African bush. How little do you need to have everything you want? Is it a gin and tonic sundowner, a roaring fire, a canvas tent to relax in after a long day of lion spotting? For us, it’s a classic car, a gas station sandwich, a cappuccino, and miles of road. Safari is about reclaiming the lines in between the points. [H]

All photos courtesy of Dutch Safari Co. Go follow them on Instagram!