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Next month will mark the 75th Anniversary of the launch of the original Series I Land Rover. On 27th April 1948 L03 (the third of three prototypes) set off from London and was driven to the Amsterdam Motorshow. That same car is still going strong, having been converted to right hand drive at some stage and having been in the same private ownership since 1974.
For me one of the main reasons the Land Rover anniversary is such a significant one is that, with the Series Land Rovers (and later Defender), they stayed true to the initial design concept right through until 2016. So despite being a relative latecomer in automotive terms (Rover heritage aside), it is a mark with tremendous history and heritage.
The origins of the Land Rover are far from glamorous (well away from more recent models). In the aftermath of world war 2, there was limited materials available and the government were pushing UK manufacturers for a utilitarian vehicle with good export potential. This was a long way from the luxury saloons Rover were used to producing.
The original Land Rover was the brainchild or Maurice Wilks, whose older brother was the managing director of Rover. He was a well proven designer, having worked for a couple of other manufacturers before coming to Rover and having designed jet engines during the war. He dreamt of producing a gas turbine engine passenger car with Rover, a project that very nearly came to fruition! As the basis for the original Land Rover Maurice began with his army surplus Jeep, which he had been using on his farm on Anglesey. In the Post War period there were a lot of these Jeeps left behind, and Maurice was confident he could produce something far superior.
The Land Rover utilised army surplus Birmabright Aluminium for the bodywork, used readily available box section for its simple but sturdy Chassis and the early models were even painted in a light green paint, which was military surplus, usually used to paint the cockpits of fighter planes. To keep production costs to a minimum Wilks used almost exclusively off the shelf Rover mechanical parts, other than the transfer case, which was based on that used on a Ferguson Tractor of that era. And with the assembly of borrowed parts the Land Rover was born, with the initial intention of it being a short term production run for a few post war years to fulfil demand before Rover could get back to focusing on it’s main product range… that of luxury saloons.
In 1958 Land Rover Launched the Series II, offered with a 2.25 litre petrol engine and 2.0 diesel. The LWB 109” was added to the range and several changes were made to the bodywork. It was at this point the Landy got it’s distinctive ‘shoulder’ where the bodywork curves out slightly (to accommodate the wider wheel base), the curved roof (which allowed for the addition of the ‘alpine windows’) and bodywork along the sills, effectively hiding the chassis and petrol tank from view, making it appear much more refined. Later Series II Land Rovers had chassis numbers with an additional letter on the end (initially A, then B etc.) these are what is now referred to as Series IIA Land Rovers, which roughly coincided with the headlights being moved on to the wings (from the location either side of the grill set back at the front) to comply with vehicle lighting regulations in America and Australia. One thing to bear in mind with the updates throughout the series land rovers is that, often some changes were available on some models before the change and some changes did not occur on all models until a little after… depending on what parts were still left on the production lines! The Diesel engine offered in the IIA had the increased displacement of 2.25 litres and the 109” petrol model was equipped with a 2.6 litre straight six engine, though many consider the 2.25 to be a better, more reliable engine. In a vehicle designed with being both reliable and repairable on the roadside as essential characteristics this was more relevant than any increase in power/refinement.
While at this stage in Land Rovers history they were still very much offering one model they were now offering slightly more variation within that model. In addition to the 2 wheel base options during the Series IIA era (1961-1971) Land Rover introduced both the Lightweight and Forward Control models, designed to suit very different purposes but displaying the versatility of the simple and sold ladder chassis design.
The Forward Control was a Cab over Engine design, freeing up much more load space and, with upgraded running gear and chassis and increased carrying capacity of 1.5ton. Land Rover also created the ‘1 ton’, which looked almost identical to a standard 109” pick up truck but carried across the upgrades to chassis and running gear of the Forward Control, hence the 1 ton payload.
The lightweight was designed to be air transported for military purposes, often with even the doors removed for weight saving. They were also narrower, to enable them to fit side by side in the aircraft.
In 1971 the Series III was launched. Visually the main change was the ‘luxury’ of a plastic dashboard, which covered most of the metal at the top of the bulkhead, along with the change to a plastic grill at the front. From this point forward the higher compression 2.25 petrol (previously offered on some models) became standard, as did synchromesh gears. Other than this things were much the same as the outgoing model. When I had my Series III I used to find it funny when buying parts (which as is the nature of these I did rather a lot of) that parts were listed as ‘Land Rover, all models 1958-1985’.
A production run of a largely unchanged model from 1958-1985, 27 years, is virtually unheard of in the automotive world, with very few iconic cars lasting that long but the replacement for the Series III lasted even longer.
Introduced in 1985 (as the 90 & 110), with a31 year production run the Defender was given a name rather than a series No. This was because by 1990 in addition to the Land Rover and Range Rover, Land Rover started to offer a Range of Models, with the (by Land Rover standards) ultra-modern Discovery and later Freelander models. The change from Series III to Defender was a much more significant change than previous model changes, with the introduction of coil spring suspension (leaf spring rear for high capacity models), permanent 4x4 (with lockable differential), a modernised (though still utilitarian interior) and most noticeable from outside a full length bonnet and single piece windscreen.
As with the individual cars the Land Rover marque has survived through huge change and outlived it’s original parent company Rover (1947-1967) and been passed through British Leyland (1967-1988), British Aerospace (1988-1994), BMW (1994-2000), Ford (2000-2008) and now Tata.
In September 2019 Land Rover unveiled the new high tech and modern Defender, following many of the distinctive styling traits of the earlier model and keeping the Land Rover spirit going, though possibly not that of being able to complete most mechanical tasks at the roadside! One of the reasons there are still so many Landrovers on the road today is that along with their mechanical simplicity you can still get all the parts you need to keep them running.
Check out our range of Landrover weathervanes here!