Ask any schoolboy from the past 50 years to draw a 4x4, and he will probably draw a Land Rover. Along with the Mini and the Beetle, they are iconic shapes that most of the world's population will have encountered at least once in their life. Like all vehicles, the Land Rover has undergone various evolutions since it was first introduced. But the basic form has changed very little in nearly sixty years.
It was 1946 and Europe was recovering from six years of bloody war. On Anglesey, Maurice Wilks (Rover's technical chief) had a farm that made use of a beaten-up war surplus Willys Jeep. The Jeep, he found, was useful for a variety of practical farm uses. Nearing the end of its life, Maurice needed a replacement. No British alternative existed, and parts for a Willys Jeep were hard to get at that time. What spares were available had to be purchased as bulk war surplus stock. This problem identified a gap in the market for a farm vehicle that was smaller than a tractor but was more versatile, and was rugged without being cumbersome. He approached the Rover Company with his ideas to see if they would consider turning them into reality. After World War II, Rover desperately needed to get car production going again. Steel was in very short supply and exports got first preference for all raw materials. The Land Rover project was made official. Board Meeting minutes describe it as 'the all-purpose vehicle on the lines of the Willys-Overland post-war Jeep was the most desirable' using the Rover P3 engine, gearbox, and back axle. In reality, the first prototypes were already running, with design work starting in spring 1947. The first prototype Land Rovers were actually built on Jeep chassis. The bodywork was made of an aluminium alloy called 'Birmabright'.
Using similar dimensions to the Jeep, the first Land Rovers had an 80" wheelbase. This 80" wheelbase-Land Rover was unveiled at the Amsterdam Motor Show, 30 April, 1948 and was produced until 1953. It used a 1.6-litre, four-cylinder Rover engine from the P3 Rover car range. Permanent four-wheel drive featured, with a freewheel in the front driveline, and a high-low transfer gearbox in addition to the normal four-speed gearbox. Power take-offs were fitted to enable the Land Rover to be used as a stationary power source. The engine was upgraded to a two-litre version for the 1952 season. In 1954, the Land Rover was given a complete upgrade including a wheelbase extended by 6" in the rear to make the wheelbase 86". Another model was introduced with a longer wheelbase of 107". The 1948 to 1953 models were identified, once the new models had been announced, as the 80" models.
The 86" and 107" Land Rovers, as they are known, were only short-lived. In 1957, there was another wheelbase extension of 2" in the front of the chassis to make way for the new two-litre diesel engine. The Land Rover then became the 88" and 109" models. The 107" stayed in production to 1958 as the five-door station wagon because it was not available with the diesel engine.
This 'stop-gap' vehicle was much more successful than Rover could ever have expected. For 25 years they could sell more Land Rover, and later Range Rovers, than they could make. The aluminium bodywork became a characteristic and explains why so many Series Is are trundling around today.
In 1958, the Land Rover underwent a major redesign to become the Series II. It kept the 88" and 109" wheelbases that had come in with the later Series Is; the most visible changes were to the bodywork, which was wider with a 'waist' and had 'modesty panels' on its lower edge to hide the chassis. The Series I 107" station wagon continued in production until a Series II 109" ten-seat station wagon was introduced in 1959.
Some early Land Rover Series IIs had the two-litre engine from the Series Is fitted, but the new 2286cc (nominally 2.25L) petrol engine became standard. The two-litre diesel engine continued until the Series IIA Land Rover was introduced in 1961. There is little that is obvious to distinguish a Series II from a Series IIA; changes to the steering being the biggest alteration. The Series IIA underwent many changes and redesigns throughout its production life. The more notable changes were: those to the engine range, the headlamps being moved onto the wings and stronger 'Salisbury' type axles fitted to 109" models.
By the start of the 1970s, The Rover Company wanted to give a 'facelift' to the Land Rover, so the Series III was introduced in 1971. The series III Land Rover can be identified by the plastic radiator grille, neater door hinges and simpler (possibly weaker) bonnet hinges. Inside, the dashboard is plastic with a degree of padding. Again, the Series III evolved during its life. By June 1976, the 1,000,000th Land Rover rolled off the production line, in Solihull.
In 1979, a new development programme began to bear fruit with a V8-engined 109". Essentially, the V8 petrol engine and 4WD transmission from of the early Range Rover was fitted to a Series III; this variant moved the grille level with the wings, to allow room for the larger engine. Land Rover dubbed this development the 'Stage One'. The 'Stage One' was so-called because it was the result of stage one of a major investment plan at Land Rover, which eventually led to the 90, 110 and 130 models, (later 'Defender' range). The 'Stage One' lasted until 1985 and was the last of the 'Series' Land Rover.
Lander Rover Around the World
It is estimated that over 70% of all Land Rovers ever made are still running around somewhere in the world. A drive around any town, village or city in Great Britain confirms that there are plenty of old Land Rovers still alive and well. These days anyone driving a 'Series' Land Rover will undoubtedly be an enthusiast. They tend to be owned for different reasons. For many, the appeal is the same as Maurice Wilks's original idea for a rugged, versatile vehicle. Some owners are trying to preserve a part of motoring history, and regularly take them to classic car shows. Other owners like to 'play' with them by taking them 'off road' (a good day is seen to be one where the vehicle gets coated in mud). The 'play' aspect is taken a step further by a few owners, who enter their Land Rovers into competitive trials involving driving skills and offroading ability. These trials are friendly events, and relatively inexpensive, owing to the fact that any 'standard' Land Rover enter. The final competitive steps a Land Rover owner would undertake are competitive rallies. This, however, is an expensive hobby, and is limited to the few.
As with any old vehicle, there are things that should be remembered about owning a 'Series' Land Rover. Their fuel economy is not good, but fitting an overdrive can help, as can a more efficient carburettor. Conversion to unleaded fuel is possible by fitting an unleaded cylinder head. Another way to make any 'Series' Land Rover cheaper to run, is conversion to LRP (Lead Replacement Petroleum) which is a popular upgrade. It must be remembered that they are old vehicles designed in a time when fuel efficiency was not too important. Another worry is corrosion; although the bodies are an aluminium alloy, the chassis and front bulkhead are made from steel, and consequently prone to corrosion. Proper maintenance can get around this problem quite readily; in severe cases new parts are available for all models.
In the UK, most 'Series' Land Rovers are classed as classic vehicles, which entitles owners to a reduced rate of insurance premium. And vehicles built before 1973 are classed as 'historic' vehicles for taxation purposes, which means there is no road tax to pay on them. These two facts alone mean they can make a cheap car to run, for anyone looking for something a bit 'different'.
Today, even the newest 'Series' Land Rovers are around 20 years old. However, most parts and spares are still widely available from the many Land Rover specialists. The mechanical simplicity of Land Rovers is often described as being 'like a big mechano set.' The 2.25-litre petrol engine is tolerant of poor fuel quality, and infrequent oil changes. One of the main reasons for good sales in the developing countries was that most repairs can be effected with simple tools and a limited knowledge of mechanics. A classic example of true practicality that will be running around somewhere in the world for years to come.
The Land Rover is a princely mode of transport too; everyone from kings, oil sheikhs and Prime Ministers to farmers, foresters and builders have all owned Land Rovers. 1.8 million cars have been built, spawning the Range Rover and in doing so, created the concept of the sports utility vehicle (SUV). They have taken pregnant mothers through snowstorms to hospital, carried rescuers up remote mountains, and supported the livelihoods of countless families. The Land Rover has contributed to all of our lives, through peacetime and war. It has crossed deserts to bring food to starving people, explored inaccessible territories to help map the world, helped build telecommunications networks, and assisted to help in the conservation rarest of animals. It has been claimed that the first car seen by 60% of the developing world's population is a Land Rover. They're classless, clever and virtually indestructible; for these reasons they were voted the greatest car of all time.