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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

February 13, 1998

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Land Rover and if you check the parking lot of your local country club, chances are you'll find several late model versions of this famous SUV. These British-built machines are handsome, upscale, and very posh. But don't let their carriage-trade demeanor fool you; they're as much at home in the wilderness of the Australian Outback as they are in The Hamptons on New York's Long Island. And Land Rover wants you to know it.

But the road to success hasn't been easy. Rover, the parent company, was, like most European wartime survivors, engaged in a life or death struggle after World War II. There was a time when it was a distinct possibility that the company would disappear.

In 1947, the British economy was a shambles as the war had all but destroyed that country's ability to produce civilian consumer goods. In order to recover, Britain needed exports to earn hard currency (especially dollars) and the members of the British car industry could only obtain government-controlled raw materials if their product could be sold in stable markets like the U.S.

But there was one exception to that rule: materials would go to manufacturers whose vehicles were considered "essential" to the home economy.

The Rover Company had been in the auto business since the turn of the century and had several pre-war designs available but they were ponderous, underpowered sedans in the typical "upright" British tradition. As such, they weren't likely candidates for American buyers.

But the company had the manpower and production capabilities to produce "something" on wheels, having been involved in war production since 1939. Then it occurred to Maurice Wilks, then-head of design for Rover, that an agricultural machine might be the salvation of the company. His inspiration may have been a personal one in that he had to find something to replace the worn-out surplus U.S Army Jeep that he used on his large farm in Wales. But there was nothing then available that was British-built. Like the U.S., England had produced no multi-purpose farm machines before the war, America's versatile General Purpose (GP or "Jeep") vehicle being a war-baby born of necessity.

The first step for Wilks was to dissect the Jeep to see what made it tick. With this in mind, Rover acquired two surplus military Jeeps, dismantled them and used the applicable pieces to make its own version. One of the chassis was fitted with a pre-war Rover 10 engine and gearbox with converted Jeep parts to drive the front wheels as well. The body, such as it was, was stark with the steering located in the middle of the machine. The rationale was that this single design could be sold in all parts of the world. It was a practical, but unsatisfactory idea that was changed on later designs.

That first prototype was field-tested on the Wilks farm and proved to be exactly what the government planners had in mind. It would do more than any farm vehicle then available and that included the operation of various ancillary units (electrical generator, power saw, etc.) through its myriad of power take-offs. Legend had it that it also provided a ride for the Wilks farm hands to the village pub on Saturday nights.

Rover executives saw the utilitarian vehicle as the possible savior of the company and another 50 refined versions were ordered up for publicity and promotion and more testing. The original crude bodywork was replaced with a boxy but more conventional open body that could do double duty since it was equipped with a top and side curtains. Labeled the Land Rover, it was a vehicle that was viewed as a "filler" until the company could get back into the serious business of making passenger cars. Before the war, the manufacturing of farm vehicles was something that members of the auto trade didn't engage in.

The first production Land Rover made its debut at an auto show in Holland on April 30, 1948 and in various forms, it has endured for half a century. It's been made in various lengths and sizes from the original 88-inch wheelbase version, to the huge 12-seaters built for safari bus service. It's become the favorite of African adventurers and farmers, and even became a central "character" in the award-winning motion picture comedy "The Gods Must Be Crazy."

The powerplant evolved from the tiny unit that powered the original, through larger four cylinder engines and on to a couple of different sixes. The vehicle has utilized a diesel or two and then went on to a Rover-built aluminum V8 originally designed and produced by General Motors. The body work has undergone a metamorphosis from the original utilitarian but homely design to the svelte, chic models seen today on Land Rover showroom floors. The newest ultra-plush Range Rover derivative is upscale, to say the least.

Although the Land Rover itself has enjoyed success worldwide, Rover the company has had its problems. But unlike other models in the Rover automobile line, the ubiquitous 4X4 has survived several auto company amalgamations and remains a good seller. And not long ago, BMW bought Rover, but was astute enough to not upset the Land Rover status quo.

There's no doubt that with the current SUV craze, the Land Rover will survive. And how ironic that today's leather-clad luxurious Range Rover can trace its genes back to our rough-neck war hero, the Jeep.