The Classic Land Rover: Britain's Favorite Dual-Purpose Vehicle

Tractor Tales from Wales: The Land Rover, first produced by the Rover Car Company in 1948, is practically an institution in rural Britain.

| September 2008

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.