A couple of years ago I met an assuming guy and struck up a conversation about his Jeep. At first I had absolutely no idea who I was talking to but over the next half an hour I learned what an absolute legend Mark A. Smith was, so much so that he inspired me to start the Living Legends sections to highlight the life and achievements of some of the off roading world’s biggest contributors.
You might not have noticed his passing last summer, or even heard his name before, but if you ever enjoyed a weekend green-laning, done a winch challenge, geared up a 4×4 for an expedition, or even reading this magazine right now, and wondered how all of this came to be, I would suggest that you can trace it all back to one man.
He organised the very first Jeep get together back in 1953, gave us the Rubicon Trail and spent years fighting to keep it open, did the world’s longest 4×4 expedition, which included one of only two successful crossings of the Darien Gap and was involved in the design of every Wrangler since the late 50s to the present day. It’s not for nothing that one of his accolades is Father of Off-Road.
He leaves his wife of 63 years, four children, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Sir, it was a pleasure to meet you and thank you for the inspiration! You will be remembered.
Here is the interview I did with him.
How did your love of Jeeps and off-roading start?
Back in 1940 I saw a short film of the Jeep being developed and I looked up at the screen and thought, ‘Boy, I want me one of those’. Then when I was in the marines in WW2 I was stationed on a light cruiser and got to drive Jeeps around the military bases. Still no off-roading though and it wasn’t until 1953 that I bought my first CJ2A for $1852, including tax and road licence! I headed out into the country with it and never looked back!
Which is just a year before the first Jeep Jamboree…What was the reason for starting the first one?
We moved to Georgetown, California which was just a small logging and timber town in a very bad economic situation. I mean, people bought their groceries on credit in the winter and then spent all summer paying them off, so some fellow Rotarians got together to think of a way to bring something into the economy. Back then we had 55 Jeeps and 155 people which was brilliant for its time, but now we have 32 Jamborees a year just in America, as well as ones in Mexico, Canada and Australia.
You are also famous for giving the world the Rubicon Trail.
Yes. I was just out exploring the Sierras in a surplus Jeep I’d picked up for $500 and followed an old trail. It used to be a kind of cobbled road that stage coaches and early vehicles used it to get to a holiday resort. That was in the 1880s though and it has never been maintained in all that time. But it had complicated ownership rights between the forest service, private land owners and the county government and it took many, many years of fighting to keep it open, even to the point of being threatened with arrest. But sometimes you have to fight for what you want and finally in 1992 the county officially declared the Rubicon Trail as a designated unmaintained road and now no one can touch it!
But it’s not just Jeeps you are famous for. It’s also Land Rovers.
Back in 1987 I was asked to be involved in the Madagascar Camel Trophy. It wasn’t exactly an expedition as I would call it, more of a series of forced deliberate hardships. You’d get to a 300 metre long run of mud and the organisers would wait until it was nearly dark and then start sending them in and they’d be there all night trying to get through… even though there was a normal road around. It was still a very hard event though!
You are also one of a very select few to get a vehicle through the fabled Darien Gap. How and why did you attempt that?
Once a mountain climber has got to the top of a high peek he will look for the next one… and for many years, even from the 1960s I was looking at the Darien Gap. It always seemed to be kind of the final frontier. We did a couple of reccy trips in 1976 and 77 but knew we didn’t want to do it like the British in their Range Rovers. They had 250 people from the army with them and lost 8 people in an accident and it took 100 days to get through. In our crew we had 16 Americans, two Colombians and 25 Chaco Indians cutting a trail, and did it in 30 days. And the Inidans had to leave us half way because they didn’t have visas for Panama. One day it took us 9 hours to go 500 feet, others we could do up to 3 miles. Our secret was a Columbian called Carlos Martinez and he helped us find the way through. Also, when we were in the jungle we got local tribes people to make us a raft to get the Jeeps across some of the bigger rivers. That was in 1979 and still to this day there is no road through the Gap, nor do I think there ever will be. Foot and mouth disease is a big issue so those in the north don’t want easy traffic passing through. Also the civil war in Columbia means that the jungle is full of drug runners and bandits these days, so to my knowledge no one else has managed it. In my opinion I still think that the Darien is the ultimate thing you can do in a Jeep. The drive from the Southern tip of South American to the north of Alaska was just the decoration around the Darien.
But perhaps more importantly to you and me it’s what Mark has put into Jeep that is his most lasting legacy.
We did the first Jamboree in ’53 and in 54’ Willy’s Jeep came along and have been with us ever since… all through Willy’s, Kiaser, AMC, Renault, Diamler, Chrysler and Fiat. We took the board executives out and basically showed them what their vehicles are capable of doing and now they say that every Jeep they make has to be capable of doing the Rubicon Trail. That’s every stock vehicle. I think what they make is absolutely outstanding off-road. Although there might be a bit of an issue of someone wanting to do the Rubicon in a new $50000 Jeep!
What do you think has changed in off-roading in 60 years?
Haha, nothing has changed! Hiking, horses and a Jeep is the only way to see the beautiful outdoors and in this country we are really blessed with the landscapes and wilderness we have. OK, the technology has come a long way. When I started the vehicles were much simpler machines and I suppose recreational driving is also more popular. But the reasons people do it is just the same.
Which one of all the Jeeps you’ve owned and driven is your favourite?
That has to be the 1978 CJ7. I lived in it for 5 months on the Las America’s Expedition, I went through the Gap in it… and it’s still only got 21,000 miles on the clock!
Looking back, what would you say is the one highlight of your off-roading life?
Well, I’ve travelled over 3 million miles to over a hundred countries, Australia I love and have been there about 25 times, I was even at the North Pole on a nuclear powered ice-breaker! But for me it has to be the Darien Gap. I really do think those 150 miles is the ultimate challenge.
To sign off, do you have some words for today’s off-roaders?
Yes, I do! Your most important mission is to fight to keep roads and trails open. Every year agencies and environmental groups propose closures and individuals need to be diligent in not allowing the closure of public lands. Follow the Tread Lightly principals, drive only on designated off-road trails, respect the environment, don’t litter and pick up what others have left behind. Be courteous and most of all… have fun!