A dramatic advert appearing in a 1953 edition of Punch magazine sees the Land Rover copy-writers in full swing. In it they claim that the Series I, an off-road utility vehicle that had been conceived as being somewhere between a Jeep and a tractor, was capable of "pulling anything, the 4-wheel drive Land-Rover can take it. All over the world, the Land-Rover stands for mobility, endurance, toughness".
Accompanied by an extraordinary illustration of a vehicle crashing through the sand dunes of Namibia's Skeleton Coast, the advertisement speaks from an era where hyperbole was the norm. If you've ever been on a game-watching safari in Africa and have been thrown around on ungraded tracks, you'll know that even Land Rovers can be victims of adverse driving conditions.
Brainchild of automotive and aeronautical engineer Maurice Wilks, the Land Rover has its origins in the Willys Jeep that Wilks used on his farm in North Wales after the Second World War. Baulking at having to replace his beaten up American vehicle, Rover's chief designer said that if he couldn't build something better for the purpose then he shouldn't be in business. His original design included power take-off, centrally located steering, and the gearbox and engine of the Rover P3 saloon. Due to post-war restrictions on materials, the bodywork was made from an aluminium/magnesium alloy instead of steel, and because paint was in short supply early models were military-surplus green. By the time the vehicle went into production the steering wheel had migrated to the side, and although heavier than a Jeep it was wider and faster.
The original Land Rover was only intended to be in production for a few years to establish cash flow for the Rover Company. But as the utility vehicle sold well in agricultural and defence markets, it continued as a brand that still exists today.
Launched at the 1948 Amsterdam Motor Show, the car that was later given the designation Series I originally had a 1.6-litre petrol engine producing 50bhp. It also had an unusual four-wheel drive arrangement with the capability of disengaging the front-wheel axle from the manual transmission. In terms of aesthetics, the Land Rover was a minimalist flat-panel design with simple constant-radius folds to allow for the hand beating of panels on a jig. In response to market demand for something less spartan, Land Rover created a wooden-frame station wagon with the assistance of the coachbuilder Tickford, introducing leather seats and other creature comforts. Expensive to build and taxed as a private car, the result was not a success and less than a thousand of the Tickford model were sold.
During the decade 1948-58 there were several major facelifts, including the discontinuation of full-time 4WD, an increase in engine size to 1997cc and an increase in wheelbase to 86in (218cm), supported by the introduction of a long wheelbase version of 107in (272cm). But this doesn't tell the full story of the bewildering range of sub-models and the constant variations of gearbox, steering and body style.
By the mid-1950s Land Rovers were being supplied to the British Army in batches of 200, and although the Army had wanted more powerful versions the Rover company persuaded it that the 1.6-litre version was suitable. The specification gradually changed to a 2.25-litre four-cylinder petrol engine as standard. The Army still uses vehicles made by Land Rover, notably the Defender, while the Series I remains a firm collector's favourite.