Like cups of tea, fish 'n' chips and red telephone boxes, the Land Rover is something of a British institution. Anyone who's ever been serious about country life will have owned one at some stage. In fact, our very own queen used to drive a Land Rover around her estate. The workmanlike Land Rover was more often than not brimming with the trappings of country life: dogs, hay, saddles, shotguns and the like. Driven by all manner of country folk from poverty-stricken hill farmers to the landed gentry, the Land Rover transcended all class divisions and soon became a quintessential icon of rural Britain.
Early Land Rovers were minimalist in design, totally devoid of luxuries like carpets, cloth seats and plastic dashboards, which meant they couldn't be harmed by any amount of dog hair, muddy boots and bits of hay. Only in more recent times has the Land Rover's interior design become luxurious, and that change has probably come about because more people who aren't country folk are buying them.
There is now a breed of person in the UK who feels the need to drive a large four-wheel drive vehicle despite the fact that he or she lives in the middle of a large, flat town where it never, ever snows. These people may never intend to tow a trailer either, but for some reason the off-road style vehicle is the latest "must have." It is purely a status symbol of course, and over here we laughingly call such vehicles "Chelsea tractors" (because wealthy places like Chelsea were the first urban areas to become overrun with unnecessary four-wheel drive vehicles). Chelsea tractors are always big, new and shiny, and are a very far cry from the no nonsense Land Rover Series I, II and III that I know and love.
The thing about those early Land Rovers is that because they aren't all that easy to drive, they were never going to appeal to a very wide market. In fact, it could be said that you wouldn't drive one unless you had to. They are slow, noisy, heavy on fuel (particularly the petrol models) and the turning circle is like that of a small field. But all the same they have an unrivalled charm, and whilst today there are a great many off-road style vehicles on the road, at one time the Land Rover really was outstanding in its field (excuse the pun).
In the 1940s, brothers Spencer and Maurice Wilkes saw a need in the market for a dual-purpose vehicle that could be used for farm work and transport. The first prototype was made in the summer of 1947, and in 1948 the first Land Rover was launched at the Amsterdam Motor Show. It could be said that the Land Rover bridged the gap between a tractor and a car, and not only that, it gave the Rover Car Company a new angle at a time when the car market was still suffering from the effects of World War II. Constructed on a steel box section chassis, the body was made of aluminum, readily available at a time when steel was being rationed.
The Series II Land Rover came out in 1958, with a wider track and a 2-1/4-liter petrol engine. That look remained virtually the same for the next 25 years. In 1961 came the introduction of the Series IIA (1961-71) with its slightly different dashboard layout and diesel engine. Later IIA models had their headlamps in the wings, rather than the grille. All Series III Land Rovers (1971-85) had their headlamps positioned in the wings and featured a plastic grille, a different dashboard and, more importantly, a synchronized gearbox. In 1971 the 1,000,000th Land Rover rolled off the assembly line, and the little sideline planned by the Rover Car Co. had well and truly become a global success story.
So well-made were the early Land Rovers that we still see plenty of them on the roads here in the UK. They might be vintage, but they can still do the job they were intended for, and certainly the Series II and III models are still useful workhorses for many a small farmer. Even Series I Land Rovers are by no means rare or terribly expensive: It is certainly possible to obtain a good example for under £1,000. Those who enjoy off-roading, scrambling or whatever you care to call it, gain great pleasure from heading out into the wilds, armed with a winch and a baseball cap, in an attempt to "get stuck" and "make mud" in their "Landies." These rural adrenaline junkies tend to like Land Rovers because they are fairly easy to beef up with V-8 engines, coil springs and the like, turning innocent looking vintage vehicles into mud-making monsters.
Ten years ago I bought myself a 1970 Series IIA Land Rover. It was my pride, joy and only vehicle for several years. I harrowed the fields with it, I went to the shops with it and every summer I braved the unreliable Welsh summers, took the roof off it, donned a sun hat and tore around the countryside in my "convertible." I say "tore around the countryside," but in fact 50 mph is about all it did. However, with the roof down and the rather poor road handling, it felt like it was doing a whole lot more than that.
I even did a Land Rover trial (an off-road competition) once and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's the ideal way to get the adrenaline pumping without having to actually endanger your life. It is also the ideal way to break your lovely old Land Rover, and I think that is probably why I didn't do a second one, because unlike many of the people competing, I had driven my Land Rover to the event, and I had to use it for work on Monday morning.
In the end I decided the Land Rover didn't quite do the job of a tractor or a car so I sold it, and at the time I was able to buy a little "run around" car and a tractor for the money I got for my Land Rover (those were the days!). Now I wish I'd kept it, because despite the fact that it was noisy, smoky, gutless on hills and had an annoying tendency to drip water in over my head every time it rained, it really did have a certain charm. Still, if I hadn't sold it, I would probably never have bought my first tractor. When one door closes, another opens. FC
Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.