9th May, 2019

The very first: Land Rover

One life. Live it. But when did Land Rover’s life really start? In this month’s guide to ‘the very first’ we look at the legend that is the Land Rover Series I. The off-roader has gone on to serve our country and farms, transport families on and off-road, tow an array of vehicles and become an iconic silhouette of British culture and automotive design.

The story starts with the Wilks brothers (Maurice and Spencer), who were key parts of the Rover Company from 1929 and after WW2 were at a loss with sales and manufacturing. Maurice Wilks loved his war ‘Willys’ Jeep and used it on his Anglesey-based farm but was nervous about lack of spares and breaking down. Jeep weren’t exporting them from the US to UK shores and with that news he then thought, why couldn’t he build his own with Rover Company?

Works started with a completely new design with Maurice’s engineering knowledge and that of using his Jeep, combined with Spencer’s management know-how. The brothers sketched the design on Red Wharf Bay while on holiday in 1947 and by September the same year the Rover Company board approved the "all-purpose vehicle on the lines of the Willys-Overland post-war Jeep", as per Maurice’s dream.

Christened 'Land Rover' the initial 'mule' prototype featured a central driving position. They made two, tested them on the Isle of Islay and it was then, when on Spencer Wilks’ Islay-based estate, that the name Land Rover was born. In 1947, while driving his Rover 10 across rugged landscape, the estate’s gamekeeper remarked: “This must be a Land Rover then”, and the name was famously born.

Launched in 1948 at the Amsterdam Motor Show, the brothers took the covers off the Series I Land Rover, made from surplus war-effort aluminium and green fighter plane paint. Priced at £450, the Series I had an 80-inch wheelbase, a 1.6-litre petrol engine that put out 50 bhp (the same engine as a Rover P3) and had a pick-up body. The same year, in December, Land Rover introduced the station wagon but only built 641, most of which were exported due to tax.

What set the British Land Rover apart from the American Jeep was its genius chassis design. To make sure it worked well off road the Land Rover team introduced a ‘body on frame’ or ‘ladder frame’ to the Series I. In effect it took the stress of flexing and movement to the chassis with the body remaining unaffected – perfect for off-roading and agricultural activities and roads.

The Wilks brothers didn’t have an easy job launching the car. While Maurice knew how capable it was on the farm, and the engineers knew it would handle off-road terrain, they had a sceptical audience in the form of farmers who had perfectly good horses tending to their land. However, their efforts weren’t in vain, as today more than 2,000,000 Land Rover ‘Defenders’ have been sold, with the new model reaching the end of its testing and is set to be launched later this year. It’s said that more than 60% of the developing word has seen a Land Rover and without the Series I that wouldn’t have been possible.

Have you got a Land Rover or a story related to its off-roaders? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section.