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LAND ROVER HISTORY: THE 50-YEAR MIRACLE

 

ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES April 30, 1998, marks the 50th anniversary of a truly remarkable and uniquely British institution: Land Rover is a name which has become universally identified with the definitive four-wheel-drive-vehicle, and is recognized from Anchorage to Ankara and Tasmania to Tashkent. The story of this modern day legend, created in a post-war world only just beginning to recover from the drastic effects of a global conflict, is no less remarkable than the vehicle itself.

The world in 1947 was a very different one from today - the colors on the map had changed, as had many of the borders, and once mighty nations lay near financial ruin. Great Britain, whose resources had been drained almost to the last drop, was in the grip of harsh rationing and economic control which affected every man, woman and child in the country. British industry, having often benefited from war work, found itself short of orders, short of resources and, in some cases, short of actual factories in which to operate.

The General Election of July 26, 1945, brought a change of government and, with it, a steely determination to win despite the austerity, to rebuild the economy and to establish a new era of post-war prosperity. Britain's car industry, one of the world's largest, was a fundamental part of this equation, but was hampered as badly as the rest of business by an effective six-year gap in development work and a heavily regulated home market.

Economic conditions were sufficiently tough that in the midst of this, Rover, in common with other car manufacturers, had to seek permission from the government in order to re-start civilian car production.

The government had effective power over the car manufacturers by strictly controlling the supply of steel, without which, production would be out of the question. In the hope that these restrictions would eventually be lifted, the Rover engineers prepared a novel small car design. But as soon as it became apparent that rationing would continue and supplies would be allocated in proportion to the number of cars exported (thereby earning foreign currency), it became obvious that a small car for the U.K. market was not the way forward.

 

Rover had a very real problem; the company had been fortunate in securing its new Solihull factory, built at no cost to the company for aircraft engine manufacture just prior to the war as one of the government's "Shadow" factories, however, the building was vast and the limited car production which Rover could muster - producing cars to basically pre-war designs - was far too small. It was obvious that something else was needed urgently, at least on a temporary basis.

The pivotal figures at the helm of the company were the Wilks brothers - Spencer and Maurice - and they put their minds to the problem of coming up with a vehicle which would be simple in design, cheap to build, require minimal tooling and preferably would use as little sheet steel as possible. It was not long before the two brothers homed in on the idea of some sort of utilitarian vehicle to suit the immediate post-war climate. But it was Maurice who provided the seed of the idea which became the Land Rover.

Maurice Wilks owned a 250-acre estate running down to the sea on the island of Anglesey, just off the North Wales coast. As Maurice liked to get involved in his farm as much as possible, he needed a versatile vehicle which could double as both a light tractor and road transport. At one stage, an ex-army Willys Jeep was brought into play to partly fulfil this role, but it must have been galling to the Rover car man that he had to depend upon a second-hand vehicle of overseas origin to do his bidding. For all its go-anywhere ability, the Jeep was really just a vehicle for traversing rough ground, without the useful power take-offs that a farmer expected from his tractor.

The story goes that, when asked by his brother what he would replace the Jeep with when it wore out, Maurice admitted he had no idea - there just wasn't anything else he could buy. It was promptly decided that they should design their own replacement.

Work on this quickly got under way back at Solihull, using the Jeep as the basic yardstick. Maurice Wilks saw the project as an ideal "stop-gap" for the Rover range, to be kept going until the government relaxed quotas. It was he who coined the name "Land Rover."

THE FARMER'S FRIEND The need to act quickly, and the shortage of steel, made the choice of "Birmabright" aluminum alloy for the bodywork a clever one: aluminum, being much softer than steel, was obviously easier to work, and therefore tooling requirements could be minimized. As aluminum alloy was no longer in such high demand for aircraft production, it was more readily available than steel, and there was the added benefit that it was lightweight and more resistant to corrosion - an obvious advantage for a vehicle likely to spend much of its life in harsh conditions. To make the panel work even simpler, the body itself was made up of three separate units, each of which could be easily and independently unbolted from the basic structure.

Cost constraints also came into play with the chassis design, for while normal practice would have called for substantial heavy presses to form the chassis members from sheet steel, this would have been difficult, expensive and time-consuming to achieve. The solution which the Rover engineers adopted was to fabricate the chassis members by welding together strips of steel into a ladder-shaped box. Charles Spencer "Spen" King - a nephew of the Wilks brothers and an engineer who would later play a fundamental role in the Land Rover story - credits Rover manufacturing engineer Olaf Poppe with this solution, which saved not only time and money but also resulted in a stronger and more durable chassis than anything yet seen and would become a Land Rover construction hallmark for the next 50 years.

Work on the prototype began in earnest in the spring of 1947, and by summer it was finished. Not surprisingly, the new vehicle bore some resemblance to the Jeep, but it would be unjust to dismiss it as a copy; the Rover engineers were far too thorough to simply copy a design, for good or for bad. The Land Rover was quite simply the son of versatile vehicle which Maurice Wilks wanted - and so, luckily, would many other people. The power take-off points which Maurice Wilks specified were just the beginning of many firsts for the company.

The engine in the prototype was a stop-gap pre-war 1,389 c.c. Rover 10 four-cylinder, but it was obvious that this engine, which could barely muster 40 hp, was not up to the task. Therefore the engine chosen for the production Land Rover was a version of that developed for the new Rover "P3" 60 saloon (due for launch in 1948) and was a fairly conventional 1,595 c.c. four-cylinder sloping-head petrol engine with overhead inlet and side exhaust valves, producing 50 hp at 4,000 rpm. The basic gearbox was also derived from that intended for the P3 saloon, but modified to include a very useful step-down ratio of 2.52 which offered significant benefits when descending steep inclines - an excellent ability for which Land Rovers would become particularly well known in the years to come. Another Land Rover hallmark in the making was a quite sophisticated permanently engaged four-wheel-drive transmission set up. In order to avoid rigid gearing between the front and rear axles - with consequent tire scrub - the Rover engineers fitted a free-wheel device between the transfer box and the front propeller shaft, thereby allowing the front wheels to overrun the rear ones if required. This was a typically thoughtful Rover touch -- the Jeep, for example, had relied upon a simple dog clutch to engage four-wheel drive, with terrible tire scrub on road bends which the Land Rover sailed through.

Following a pilot-build of 25 vehicles for testing and assessment, the Land Rover debuted at the Amsterdam Motor Show on April 30, 1948. Even Rover was surprised at the interest. Here was a car which could be used by Britain's farmers - men who could be key to the country's economic recovery, and whose vehicles consequently were not subject to purchase tax - but also had appeal in many export markets where poor roads meant that a regular car would be of no use. Similarly, its simple construction and durable alloy bodywork meant that repairs far from a sophisticated workshop would not be a problem.

 

Much had been made of the concept of a "Peoples' Car," the original Volkswagen having been the first manifestation of this idea. Therefore it was not perhaps too surprising that before long some observers were hailing the new Land Rover in a similar vein. Coverage of Solihull's new baby spilled over from the pages of The Autocar and Motor (where it was expected) into non-motoring periodicals and newspapers (where it was not). Public awareness of the Land Rover soared, and the order books quickly bulged.

 

Far from being a stop-gap, as the Wilks brothers had assumed, Land Rover production in 1948 rapidly out-stripped that of Rover saloons and doubled the following year.

As the role of the Land Rover in Rover's fortunes became assured, it became possible to further develop the basic vehicle to better meet customer demands. The company did so with imagination. In 1950, the free-wheel was discontinued (the transmission now becoming optional four-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive, selection being by means of a lever adjacent to the gear lever) while two years later the engine capacity was increased to 1,997 c.c. (most owners tended to overload their Land Rovers because they were so tough!). Also along the way, various body options and chassis lengths were either offered or under development. By this point, the Land Rover name had become firmly established as a watchword for durability and off-road excellence.

About this time, the company explored the concept of marrying the lightweight, simply-made body of the Land Rover with some of the creature comforts expected of a conventional car - thereby bridging the gap between the quite disparate ranges. The outcome was the first "Road-Rover" but, although the idea had merit, the time was not felt to be right and, in any case, Solihull could hardly build enough Land Rovers as it was. Spen King points out that the commonly held idea that this vehicle was a predecessor to the Range Rover is incorrect. "Four-wheel drive was never part of the equation," he states, adding, "The Road-Rover was simply an experiment that never made it to production."

By the 1960s, sales were still rising, and the variety of major Land Rover options (including, since 1957, an entirely new 2,052 c.c. diesel engine, followed a year later by a new 2,286 c.c. gas unit) was matched only by the variety of customers and the uses to which they put their vehicles. Military strategists around the world had recognized the Land Rover's versatility and ruggedness, and sales to the armed forces of most western nations became an important element of the company's business. Competition from the BMC stable, in the form of the Austin Gipsy, launched in 1958, focused the minds at Solihull for ten years but, by 1968, when both Austin and Land Rover formed part of the British Leyland Motor Corporation, it was the Land Rover marque - with production well past the quarter-million mark - which survived at the expense of its inferior rival.

Land Rover expanded the range of its products considerably in the 1960s, offering a forward control variant and increasing numbers of individually tailored versions for one-off or specialized purposes, including an extra-light Land Rover suitable for air-freighting into the scene of battle. Land Rovers found themselves fulfilling roles as diverse as breakdown tenders in the Mersey tunnel, recovery vehicles for the AA and RAC, and adapted as ambulances which could go places formerly unreachable. From its origins as the "farmer's friend," the Land Rover had gone to the far corners of the globe and grown in importance far beyond its creators' vision.

NEW CUSTOMERS, NEW DIRECTION The 1960s saw a remarkable growth in the mainstream four-wheel drive market, something which Rover investigated quite thoroughly through a market research study commissioned in 1966 - a year which also saw the half millionth Land Rover. Among many other things, this survey showed that Land Rover held no less than a third of the world market for vehicles of the same type. Perhaps most interesting was the fact that two-thirds of Land Rovers were, by the mid-1960s, found to be used for recreational purposes or for general transport rather than the agricultural use which had been the original intent. This trend was most noticeable in the U.S., where the Land Rover found itself at the forefront of a burgeoning market - the sport utility vehicle.

The survey coincided neatly with a project called the 100-Inch Station Wagon which was developed under the direction of Spen King. His idea was to build something which combined the comfort, silence and road performance of Rover cars with the off-road capability of a Land Rover. This was a difficult challenge, but one with which the Land Rover engineering teams quickly came to grips.

Another survey was promptly carried out, and interviews were conducted with almost 500 people, about 200 of whom were estate car owners and just 10 percent of whom owned Rovers. According to Graham Bannock, who became involved in this exercise, the question was asked - anonymously - what the customers thought of the idea of "a new vehicle which would combine the comfort and appearance of a saloon car with a stronger more robust estate car that can go easily over non-paved roads, country tracks, or over the beach."

Of the replies, over 70 percent expressed approval of the concepts, and so, armed with these statistics, the task of persuading the top management was considerably eased. This was still no smooth passage; there were nagging doubts as to whether the general public would be prepared to pay a premium price for a Land Rover.

Early moves in the right direction came in 1966 and 1967, when a six-cylinder engine was offered in the Land Rover for the first time, followed soon after by a "luxury pack" including well-upholstered front seats. These options added refinement and creature comforts to the basic package, but the Rover engineers knew that they should - and could - go much further.

Adhering to the classic Land Rover principles of a strong chassis and a light, corrosion-resistant body, a team of 20 engineers - including Spen King - began to give flesh to the bare bones of the "civilized" Land Rover concept. Spen recalls that the main type of user being considered was still the rural dweller, rather than the urbanites who would eventually become such important customers. It hardly seems possible, in hindsight, that very little "styling" was ever carried out, other than fine tuning of certain features by the Rover styling studio, headed by David Bache. King recalls that the design "sort of evolved naturally - the shape just came as we worked out what was needed in terms of space." Nevertheless, the natural shape which evolved was to one day be displayed at the Louvre in recognition of its design excellence, the only vehicle ever to be so honored.

In developing this new, more luxurious off-road Rover design philosophy, the strong ladder type chassis was unquestionably necessary in order to maintain the highest Land Rover levels of off-road durability. It was also obvious that the Rover engineers had to make some fundamental departures from previous Land Rover leaf springs front and rear which could not provide the higher levels of ride comfort that customers would expect - on the road at least. The solution was to adopt long-travel coil spring suspension, the long coils allowing the large range of axle movement needed (up to 11 inches) while providing a far more sophisticated ride. In order to ensure that all this axle movement was available, a single Boge Hydromat self-leveling hydraulic strut was centrally located between the rear axle casing and the chassis frame.

Coping with the high power output of the V8 engine also necessitated some careful thought in the transmission and braking departments. An all-new, permanent four-wheel drive set-up was designed, with a third, central Salisbury limited-slip differential between the front and rear axles. This was a more sophisticated approach to the tire scrub problem which the original Land Rover engineers had resolved with a free-wheel. To stop from high speeds what would be a heavy and powerful vehicle, it was obvious that conventional Land Rover drum brakes would not be up to the task, so four-wheel disc brakes were adopted - still quite a novelty at the time.

The culmination of this exercise was of course the Range Rover, launched at the Blue Hills Mine at St. Agnes, Cornwall, on June 17, 1970. It was available only in two-door guise, with an opening tailgate and a comparatively spartan interior - suitable for hosing out the dirt and debris expected to collect there. The Rover board, now part of British Leyland, waited anxiously to see if the world thought that their gamble had paid off. The reception accorded the Range Rover was nothing short of astonishing: press coverage was immense, and virtually every report was ecstatic. The orders came flooding in and the company once again found itself with order books full to bursting, a situation which would continue for many years as the Range Rover assumed the mantle of unrivalled leader of the pack.

The men at Land Rover were naturally delighted at this vote of confidence, which they knew was perfectly justified. Despite this, however, there was bound to be the nagging suspicion among some devout Land Rover enthusiasts that the Range Rover was a car for dilettantes and could hardly be expected to be as tough or as versatile as the original. Any such doubts were firmly quashed just two years after launch when a brace of Range Rovers were driven by a British army team, under the leadership of Major John Blashford-Snell, from Anchorage, Alaska, to Ushuaia, Argentina, crossing Columbia's infamous and inhospitable Darien Gap in the process. Few vehicles of any kind could have coped with this treatment, but the Range Rovers survived the six-month ordeal with honor intact and reputation enhanced.

The initial success did not extend to the important North American market, however. Changing safety and emissions regulations made it far too expensive for many manufacturers to compete. Eventually, the faithful Land Rovers would be withdrawn in 1974 to be reintroduced more than a decade later.

Problems were on the horizon as well, for Rover's parent: the unhappy British Leyland Motor Corporation was heading for financial crisis. These troubles came to a head in 1974, when the company was nationalized by the British government. In the wake of this, a review of the whole organization was carried out.

Luckily, Rover was singled out for considerable investment, including the construction of a major new factory at Solihull. The management made noises about expanding four-wheel-drive vehicle output, but for a time these words did not translate into action.

The beginning of a new direction emerged following the arrival of a new Managing Director, Michael (later Sir Michael) Edwards in 1978. One of his first actions was to split the British Leyland car business into two semi-autonomous groups, one of which was Jaguar-Rover-Triumph Ltd. This group in turn was sub-divided into Jaguar Cars, Rover-Triumph and Land Rover Limited. At last, the four-wheel-drive part of the business was able to receive the attention it deserved, with a management team able to fight for Land Rover's investment and production needs.

By this time, Range Rovers were so much in demand that a "black market" had formed, with customers prepared to pay dealers over the asking price in order to jump the lengthy waiting list. Investment was therefore channeled into increasing production of the vitally important V8 engine. By the beginning of the 1980s, it was also obvious that some of the traditional export markets were in decline, and much greater profits could be achieved with more luxurious vehicles. Consequently, the Range Rover was eased up-market.

As a result of this policy change, significant developments took place, including a four-door version of the Range Rover. More luxurious versions also were made available, including, for the first time, the option of automatic transmission, making the transition from road to off-road even more painless for those used to their creature comforts. At the same time, a V8 engined Land Rover appeared, which for the first time featured coil spring suspension, using the lessons learned from the Range Rover.

MISSION TO THE NEW WORLD The next chapter in the Land Rover story quickly became inevitable, for although the Range Rover was not officially on sale in the United States, its fame had certainly preceded it. Those high achievers with the expectation of the best and the wherewithal to acquire it had already begun to buy privately imported specimens of the world's best luxury 4x4. The fact that these people were content to buy a vehicle with with no official sales and servicing franchise was all the more remarkable.

In order to deal with the performance issue - and to make it easier to meet the needs of emission legislation - fuel-injection was added to the V8 engine in 1985. The engine now produced 30 percent more power than the carburetor-equipped version, the top speed rising to well over 100 mph for the first time, and the 0-60 mph time dropping to a highly respectable 11.9 seconds.

Just before Christmas 1985, a new company - Range Rover of North America (later changed to Land Rover North America) - was established to pave the way for a U.S. launch in 1987. Customer surveys had confirmed that the Range Rover appealed to people with high incomes. Therefore, when the first Range Rovers - distinguished by a new grille design - entered the U.S. on March 16, 1987, all were fitted with air conditioning, cruise control and automatic transmission as standard. However these cars, for all their comforts, could still traverse the roughest terrain in the time-honored Land Rover tradition.

Sales of the Range Rover climbed to unprecedented heights, and once more the company struggled to meet demand; sales even held up in the U.S. in 1991 against the trend when sales of luxury imports slipped. Meanwhile, the ever inventive minds at Land Rover began to explore the idea of a junior Range Rover, effectively filling the shoes of the original which had gradually shifted up-market. Just as the original Range Rover had been defined as a marriage of traditional Land Rover values with everyday comforts, so the new project - which got under way in late 1986 - followed the same precepts.

EXPANDING THE FAMILY "Project Jay," as the exercise became known, relied upon the use of the Range Rover chassis with a smaller, simpler and less expensive body. Approval to proceed was granted by the Rover Board in August 1987, just after the first North American Range Rovers went on sale, and an ambitious and challenging target was set for a launch in 1989. It was clear from the outset that the new vehicle could not rely upon austere styling or trim. The company turned to the highly respected Conran Design Studio to come up with a novel interior. Similarly, various engine options were developed to provide an economical alternative to the powerful but hardly parsimonious V8.

The result of this hard work, the Land Rover Discovery, emerged at the Frankfurt Motor Show in three-door form on September 16, 1989. At least one person at the show, ostensibly from a rival Japanese company, was found to be surreptitiously scraping samples from the dashboard of the new car. Clearly, the opposition was worried - with some justification. With the addition of a five-door version the following year, and a facelift in March 1994, the Discovery carved out a new niche for Land Rover - the Family 4x4.

The classic Land Rover design was not neglected of course. Since 1990, the old standard had been known as the Land Rover Defender, a recognition in part of its continuing role in military applications. While the glamorous part of the action was generally focused on Discovery and Range Rover, the Defender was able to share in the improvements brought about as its younger siblings evolved - and still shows no signs of allowing its pre-eminence as the ultimate off-road workhorse to be overturned. Yet another landmark was reached in July 1993, when the 1.5 millionth Land Rover vehicle was built.

A year later, shortly after the dramatic acquisition of the Rover Group by BMW, a brand new Range Rover was launched. Developed under the code name 38A, it featured a larger body and moved the marque even further up-market, consolidating Range Rover as undisputed "Gold Standard" in the luxury off-road sector. For a while, the original Range Rover continued to be produced, marketed as the Range Rover Classic, but it finally slipped out of production in 1996; 317,615 had been built in 26 years and as many as 70 percent are still in use around the world.

The latest chapter in this remarkably packed 50-year story is the Land Rover Freelander, a story which is only just starting to unfold. While small four-wheel drive vehicles have been on sale for a number of years, none of them had either the genuine off-road ability or the heritage of a Land Rover. Research clearly showed that customers of such vehicles often aspired to more glamorous vehicles such as the Range Rover, but were limited in their existing choice to a handful of Japanese marques with considerably less pedigree.

Of course, a simple pastiche of a Land Rover to see off these pretenders to the throne would never do, and Freelander has many unique features which will establish new hallmarks for future Land Rover products.

Maintaining the traditional Land Rover off-road versatility has been aided by the patented Hill Descent Control (HDC), which uses a sophisticated system based on the anti-lock brakes to allow controlled descents of steep inclines. This is but one of many features which mark the Freelander as a thoroughly well-engineered vehicle which can go most of the places its big brothers can.

So the small 4x4 sport utility market has a new contender with the off-road abilities which its forebears have made legendary. In partnership with its Defender, Discovery and Range Rover stable mates, the Freelander is part of a family of four-wheel drive vehicles which is absolutely without peer. From a 1947 stop-gap product, to a motoring legend, the Land Rover brand is uniquely qualified to take four-wheel-drive versatility, safety and adventure into the 21st century. Thank you, Maurice and Spencer Wilks for a job well done!

   
Copyright Dixon Kenner, 1995-2011. Last modified March 15, 2005.
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