If one thing came out of World War II, it was the amazing array of technology and engineering that influenced the world since then. Some of it we questioned. Others became a way forward in many respects.
One such innovation was what we now call the Sports Utility Vehicle.
The GP helped win the war by being the perfect reconnaissance vehicle. It transported generals and soldiers alike. It got supplies to the front lines swiftly. Thanks to Willys Overland and Ford, a new kind of vehicle was born on the battlefield.
The original Jeep shaped the way forward not only for the world’s defense forces. They were put to civilian use. They conquered mountains, deserts, wide swaths of grassland, and jungles the world over.
Interestingly enough, it was not Willys Overland’s civilian Jeep lineup that would be the world conqueror in the post-World War II universe. That would come from one of the vehicles influenced by the Jeep – the one the British automotive industry would produce as one of their own.
The story of Land Rover began a couple of years after the war ended. The British forces loved how the American Jeep was able to tackle the European terrain and tip the balance of the history. At this time, there was some discussions on how to implement this rugged vehicle into civilian life.
Also, Britain still had an empire that spanned the globe. They needed a vehicle that would handle the tough terrain of many of its holdings. They also needed a vehicle that would serve their defense forces worldwide, as well as to connect remote parts of their territories.
Back home, the Jeep was seen as a solution to help manage tracts of land that were not accessible by normal roads. Farms would benefit from such as vehicle as a way to go to market and managing their land with just one vehicle. This sparked the idea that Britain can create a vehicle for both home and far away from the motherland.
It would seem off base if a British automotive company would build the Jeep under license, as other global companies began doing. The Rover Company decided that they could do their own version of the Jeep with their own design and performance characteristics.
The result was the Land Rover Series I.
In 1947, Rover designer Maurice Wilks and his team looked at a former military Jeep and wondered what they could do to improve upon it. They thought about where they could use it and how.
Wilks’ own ex-military Jeep sparked another idea. As he noticed from farm tractors, one thing was missing from the Jeep. The power take-off feature was critical for agricultural use and it helped the prototype to accomplish more than just going off road.
From there, Wilks and his team at Rover began to develop the Land Rover from this basis. Since simplicity was the key, Rover’s design team developed a more simplified body that was mostly boxy and slab-sided – including doors. They produced an aluminum body using this design, which ended up being more expensive to produce. The upside was the ease of fabrication when producing the body panels, as well as being lighter in weight then the Jeep’s conventional steel body and structure.
Rover went on to create their own driveline, engines, and chassis for their vehicle. A 1.6-liter gasoline engine was mated to Rover’s own four-speed manual transmission. They added a four-wheel-drive system based from Rover’s freewheel unit. That was engaged through a ring-pull mechanism in the driver’s footwell to engage both axles to be locked for maximum traction. This disengaged the front axle from the gearbox on overruns.
The Land Rover was seen as a savior for the company as they were attempting to rebuild the Coventry plant and reboot car production. The first units were built at a shadow plant not far from the bombed out parts of the facility. They built Merlin engines for the war effort in that facility, so it would have to be modified for production of a simplified vehicle that did not require complex assembly methods from before the war.
The vehicle was finally shown to the public in April of 1948 at the Amsterdam Auto Show. The Land Rover Series I was first touted for agricultural and light industrial use. The first models rode on an 80-inch wheelbase and did not come with a top as standard. You could order a canvas or an aluminum top, if you wish. Or, you can have the coachbuilder Tickford create a more posh version of the Land Rover Series I called the Station Wagon with nicer seats and a metal roof.
Development of the Land Rover continued into 1952 with an increase in engine size and the switch to a conventional four-wheel-drive system with a dog clutch system sending power to the front axle. The flip side of the Land Rover’s development was its status on public roads. Because it was considered more of a farm vehicle, you could not drive above 30 MPH at all. However, that law was modified after an appeal of a speeding ticket giving it commercial vehicle status.
The wheelbase was stretched to 86 inches by 1954. The same year saw a long wheelbase model stretching to 107 inches, which had a long empty bed to be used as a pickup truck. Rover also resolved the cooling issues they had on the uprated engine. A factory-made station wagon was built on the 107-inch wheelbase in 1955.
The legend really took off in 1955 with the addition of the Safari Roof. This consisted of a second roof skin keeping the Land Rover cool in hot climates, while reducing condensation in colder ones. You also had improved vents for the interior. This would be a popular item for the Land Rover, as it made this vehicle distinctive in the places where it would roam.
At the end of Series I production, the wheelbases were stretched again by two inches and a diesel engine was added to the lineup. This would set the course for the next chapter of Land Rover’s development – the Series II.
However, things really took off when the Series IIA was introduced in 1961. This would become the most iconic Land Rover of them all. They were found across the Commonwealth, as the empire was already breaking up as former colonies declared their independence from The Queen. The post-colonial Land Rover Series IIA would prove to deliver on the promise beyond its original intent of a farm/commercial vehicle back in Britain.
You saw Series IIA models taking on the vast terrain of Africa, crossing the outback of Australia, the desert sands of the Middle East, and handling the Malaysian jungles with ease. Their new diesel engines had more than enough power to handle these various conditions. By the end of the 1960s, Land Rover has literally taken over the globe with the Series IIA.
They were sold in the USA and Canada, as well. Sales stateside and in Canada yielded only small numbers through Rover dealers. Not everyone was on board with SUVs during the decade. Jeep was now controlled by the Kaiser Corporation and was having trouble keeping afloat. Toyota and Nissan (er, Datsun) also had small sales volumes for their Land Cruiser and Patrol, respectively.
Back in Britain, Rover was dealing with their own financial troubles. The government was looking to consolidate the automotive industry under their control. Their target was Rover, Leyland, Jaguar, Standard-Triumph, Austin-Morris, MG, and so forth. Some of these firms were already forced into a shotgun marriage by the government, now known as the British Motor Corporation. By 1968, Rover became part of Leyland. At the end of the decade, Leyland was merged into BMC to create British Leyland.
There were two events that were spawned from these shotgun marriages conducted in the houses of Parliament.
First, was the introduction of the Range Rover. This was to be an addition to the lineup, as opposed to be the Series IIA successor. Land Rover saw that consumers were buying SUVs for recreational use. The idea was to take what they learned from the Series IIA and to civilize it into a package that was both tough and refined at the same time.
While slab sided, there was a bit of style to the Range Rover. Not to mention a permanent roof with two wide opening doors. The interior was more comfortable than the Series IIA, but the instrument panel was more functional and modern.
The Range Rover was powered by the 3.5-liter V8 that Rover dropped into their P6 sedan some years prior. Rover bought the aluminum block engine from Buick for car use. In developing the Range Rover, the V8 was seen as the best way to power a more modern SUV.
The second event was the evolution of the Land Rover into the Series III. The aluminum V8 mad its way into the updated Land Rover. This would be the only model sold in the USA by British Leyland until 1974.
Back in Britain, customers responded more to the Range Rover than the Series III. However, the country faced a cascade of crisis ranging from the OPEC Oil Crisis to continuous strikes at BL’s plants. Not to mention a lack of quality that BL vehicles earned a reputation for.
As the 1970s turned to the 1980s, BL was split apart. Land Rover itself was under the Jaguar-Rover part of the company through a portion of the decade. The pressure was on by the government of Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher to privatize all government-owned industries.
In the meantime, something interesting was happening with Land Rover products. Both the Series III and the Range Rover attracted a well-heeled customer. They had land tracts in the countryside and used their vehicle to tend to them. They were also commuting back-and-forth to their city homes.
This reflected the SUV market of the time. They were seen as the future of family transportation, let alone a symbol of upward mobility. The Range Rover would evolve into this new space by adding a four-door model, upgrading their interiors, and importing them worldwide – including the USA.
Keep in mind that the Range Rover of the 1980s was far from a Jaguar as one could get. Let alone a Rolls-Royce, Bentley, or Aston Martin. However, they started gaining status among the upper classes even though they still had great capability off-road and was practical to boot.
In 1987, BL became the Rover Group. Land Rover was starting to get more exposure and their lineup started to grow. The end of the decade saw the introduction of the Discovery, a smaller model seen as a modern interpretation of the Series III. The tall SUV sported a version of the Safari Roof, which became one of its most distinguishing elements in its design Yet, it borrowed a lot from both the Series III and the Range Rover to become the highly capable vehicle for the SUV revolution that was about to take hold of the globe.
The Series III (called Defender as of 1990), Discovery, and Range Rover yielded a formidable trio of SUVs. However, the rest of the world saw their presence dwindle in the places where they once conquered. Land Rovers were being replaced by Toyota Land Cruisers and Nissan Patrols as the preferred trekking machine. Their lower price, better reliability, and higher capability attracted adventurers, farmers, defense departments, and environmentalists around the world.
The once mighty world conqueror would soon find their place on the streets of London rather than the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Because of this change in the SUV market and of Land Rover’s place in society, things would certainly change for the brand and their products. This would be the end result of a series of corporate transactions that would shape the future of Land Rover.
First, BMW purchased the Rover Group in 1994. BMW’s involvement yielded much needed capital for improvements in quality and to develop new generation models for the Range Rover and Discovery.
During the brand’s time under BMW, Land Rover introduced their first compact SUV, the Freelander. This would be a revolutionary product for the brand, as it was based on a front-wheel-drive architecture – a departure from all other Land Rover vehicles. This new vehicle was under development by Rover group prior to BMW’s purchase of the company, which explains why it would start off as a front-drive derived platform with an all-wheel-drive that would actually be as capable as their larger, more expensive siblings.
BMW ended up splitting Land Rover from the Rover group before eventually selling it off to a new buyer, while keeping the MINI brand. Ford would buy Land Rover from BMW in 2000. What they received was a brand that needed a lot more care to tend to. To manage Land Rover, Ford would bundle them up with under the banner of the Premier Automotive Group with Jaguar and Volvo.
If you think this was a recipe for disaster, you would be wrong.
What Ford did for Land Rover was to improve quality overall, add more money for new generation models, develop new common drivelines and technologies across the PAG brand portfolio, improve production facilities, and boosted marketing efforts worldwide.
The lineup became more modern and upmarket. Land Rover was no longer the purveyor of vehicles that worked on farms and trekked across the globe. They were the makers of the original premium SUV. Ford simply put Land Rover on a plinth for all comers to look up to.
Then came the global economic crisis. The year 2008 left Ford to make some decisions about their corporate future. They sold Volvo to Geely, Aston Martin to a new ownership group, and spun Mazda off back to Japanese control. That left Land Rover and Jaguar. Luckily, Ford found a new owner for the two British marques – Tata.
The Indian industrial conglomerate bought Jaguar and Land Rover with a caveat that they would not only be joined at the hip, but to run independently back in Britain. Through corporate independence came a plan to grow both brands further.
Land Rover would enjoy a product renaissance by creating new niche vehicles, carving out a performance sub-brand, and retaining a lot of the reputation once laid down by the Series IIA of excellent off-road capability. There are now seven models to choose from ranging from compact SUVs to the flagship Range Rover. There is now a new Defender in the lineup.
These days, Land Rover are competing against all premium brands for SUV supremacy. They no longer roam the jungles, savannas, mountain passes, and deserts of the world. Instead, they carry children to school, and appear at clubs and hot spots. But, if you look back over 75 years, no one can deny where their DNA came from.
All photos by Randy Stern