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Rover Land Rover

Rover Land Rover

by Jack Nerad for Driving Today


Rover Land Rover

Often the best-laid plans of men go awry, but sometimes plans that were conceived as no more than stop-gap measures work far better than their planners expect. Such was the case with the Land Rover.

Britain in 1946 was still feeling the devastating effects of World War II. Its industries were in shambles; its supplies of raw materials drained; and its forward progress at a standstill. To survive and prosper, Britain's car companies were forced to make do with what little they had available. In that spirit, Rover Managing Director Maurice Wilks looked at the U.S. Army surplus Jeep he had just acquired and said to himself, "We need to build something like this, only better." He envisioned a growing market for such a vehicle, both in Britain and in export markets around the world.

It was relatively easy for him to get his request to the Rover engineering department since the chief designer was his younger brother, Spencer. The goal was to build an interim vehicle that would help the company get through the first, very tough post-war years. Over the following18 months or so, the younger Wilks designed and built several working prototypes of a rugged, go-anywhere four-wheel-drive vehicle, the first of them on a Jeep chassis.

Two key design parameters were strength and simplicity. The former was obvious, the second not just a goal but a necessity. The war had taken a huge toll on Britain's stock of machine tools and investment capital was scarce, so Rover engineers were forced to use relatively rudimentary production techniques. Instead of creating special dies to shape fenders and body panels, for example, they designed pieces that could be fashioned by simple bending. For that same reason, sheet aluminum was chosen as the body panel material.

Similar tactics were used on the frame construction. Since Rover simply lacked the resources to stamp large, U-shaped frame rails, the designers decided to fabricate even larger "box" frame side members from sheet steel. The result was a ladder-style frame with impressive strength and rigidity.

For the drivetrain, Wilks' crew had little choice but to use the engine, gearbox and rear axle from an existing Rover model. He chose components from the P3, including its 1.6-liter four cylinder that produced about 40 horsepower. To drive all four wheels, Wilks team used the expedient of installing a front axle much like the rear with included differential. Both axles were suspended by semi-elliptical leaf springs and damped by tubular shock absorbers.

A transfer case shifted the vehicle from low range to high, but the original Land Rovers were full-time four-wheel-drive vehicles. For particularly treacherous terrain, the front differential/free-wheeling mechanism could be locked from the cockpit via a pull-ring.

If the original Land Rover's drive system was inelegant, it certainly proved to be rugged. With a stiff chassis and exceptionally sturdy cowl structure, it was a vehicle that could -- and did -- take on almost anything.

When it was introduced at the Amsterdam Motor Show on April 30, 1948, the Land Rover proved to be a solid success. It seemed well-suited to the intense demands of war-torn Europe, and it quickly became a favorite vehicle in the widespread European colonies in Africa and Asia.

Interestingly, from the beginning its rudimentary, slab-sided styling was not questioned by potential buyers, because it seemed well-suited to its intended use. Further, its aluminum body panels, installed by necessity, proved to be a major positive for the vehicle. The panels didnÕt rust, and their light weight over the heavy steel chassis kept the center of gravity low, a boon to handling. The 80-inch wheelbase aided maneuverability, but it did come at the expense of a choppy on-road ride.

Ride comfort, of course, was well down the list of priorities. What the Wilkses wanted and what they delivered was simple, go-anywhere utility. Because of this the original production Land Rovers were basic in the extreme. The only top was canvas; there were no external door handles at all; and the seatbacks looked like lightly padded shovels. As if that werenÕt basic enough, both turn indicators and the passenger-side windshield wiper were optional. A heater didnÕt even make the option list until 1950.

Externally the only bow to "style" was the slightly raised hood and radiator grille covering the headlights. This fillip was meant to protect them from brush and debris, but, in practice, it made them very difficult to clean. Additional lights were located on the bulkhead.

Where the Land Rover did score points was in utility. For example, the vehicle offered center and rear power-takeoffs that could provide power to a wide variety of ancillary equipment, from generators to crop sprayers. In fact, it was not unusual to see a Land Rover in the middle of a half-furrowed field, pulling a plow just like a tractor. Up front, an optional capstan winch was driven from the crankshaft pulley. If the driver found himself in a predicament that even four-wheel-drive couldnÕt rescue him from, the winch and a friendly neighborhood tree could often do the trick.

From the beginning, sales of the Land Rover exceeded the Wilkses wildest expectations. In the first full year of production, about 8,000 of the homely 4x4Õs were sold, outdoing the Rover sales projection by 3,000 vehicles. The following year sales doubled to 16,000.

Soon it became clear that, though designed as a stop-gap, the Land Rover could have a long and profitable run. Quickly, improvements were made: a station wagon model, more accessible headlights, a bigger (2-liter) engine, selectable two- or four-wheel drive.

By 1953, Rover had altered the grille, added exterior door handles and introduced a 107-inch (long) wheelbase model. Through the mid-Fifties, gradual improvements were added, while the Land Rover became the stereotypical choice of "Great White Hunters" the world over. In November 1949, a little more than a decade after its introduction, the 250,000th Land Rover was built.

That model was a Series II, which had been introduced in 1958. Later, a Series III would come to market in 1971, soon after the debut of its upscale brother, the Range Rover. By that time, the Land Rover had out-lived its original maker. (Rover became a part of British Leyland in 1967, though the Rover name was revived two decades later. Today, BritainÕs Rover Group is owned by BMW.)

Despite the sometimes chaotic changes of fortunes its parent companies have endured, the Land Rover remained a steadfast performer, both in the salesroom and in the field. As a vehicle that went where no others could, it was undoubtedly the most important vehicle most Third World countries ever knew.

Autoswalk.com has partnered with Studio One Networks to provide you with the history of the world's greatest cars. All of the pictures and information are copyright of Studio One Networks and Autoswalk.com, and are brought to you by Jack Nerad for Driving Today.

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