From humble post-war beginnings as a farm utility, the Land Rover has maintained its aura of ruggedness and its simple design for over 65 years.
The Land Rover was conceived by Maurice Wilks, Rover's chief designer at the time, as a light go-anywhere type of utility vehicle in line with the Willys Jeep used during the war, but with an emphasis on agricultural use.
Conceived as an agricultural vehicle, the Land Rover prototype featured a centre-mounted steering wheel that would be familiar to farmers, with seats on either side that could be removed to make room for cargo or supplies.
The design resources required for the Land Rover had to be low cost due to the restrictions on materials. Aluminum was chosen for the body and its moulding was “no-fuss,” hence the flat panels and constant-radius curves that would be easy to form.
Initially intended to only be built for only two or three years until post-war Rover car production could be ramped up, the first Land Rover Series was in production for a decade, starting in 1948 with an aluminum bodied, steel-box chassis 4-wheel drive vehicle introduced at the Amsterdam Motor Show.
The original Land Rover was a basic vehicle with 1.6-litre gasoline engine, a 4-speed gearbox and an innovative 4-wheel drive system that featured a “lock-up” pull mechanism for those times when you needed all four wheels turning. The tops of the doors and a canvas or metal roof were optional.
Shortly after start-up, Rover became aware that buyers wanted more than just a Spartan go-anywhere vehicle, and started offering a wagon with body by Tickford (which was well respected for its work with Austin, Hillman and Lagonda). It featured a wooden frame and seating for up to seven.
Initially only available as a Spartan 2-seat vehicle meant to toil in the fields, it eventually grew to offer a variety of body and cabin styles, from a pickup similar to the original, to covered versions meant to shelter driver and passengers or cargo from the elements.
Originally designated a commercial vehicle, Land Rovers were not allowed to exceed a top speed of 48 km/h, but their acceptance became so widespread that its designation was changed to “multi-purpose vehicle” in order to allow a broader range of uses, including service vehicles.
After 10 years of production, the original Land Rover was recreated for a Series II, staying true to the original design and intent, mostly, but growing to 88-inch and 109-inch wheelbases. The short wheelbase version of Series I had grown to 88 by the end its run (from 80 originally, and then 86), while the LWB was 107 inches.
It took just three years before the Series II was refreshed, but the changes were minimal so the designation became Series IIA. The main difference was under the hood, where the 4-cylinder engines (gasoline and diesel) grew to 2.25 litre displacement and a 6-cylinder engine was offered for the first time.
A variety of bodystyles again marked the new Series, which is widely regarded as the most durable of all Land Rovers. It was also probably most responsible for the success of the marque, though its exposure in television and film, mostly set in Africa (such as the 1966 film Born Free).
One of the more notable Series II vehicles was the 4-door, long wheelbase, 12-seat station wagon, and it continued into the more popular Series IIA, a vehicle that provided a bridge to the premium off-roader that would become the company’s Range Rover (which moved into production in the late 1960s).
With the creation of the Series IIA, Land Rover made a Forward Control platform for heavy duty vehicles, with the engine under the cabin in order to create more space for people and cargo. Only about 2,500 were made before a larger Series IIB Forward Control dropped in a more powerful engine to further the heavy-duty emphasis.
There weren’t many changes from the later life of the Series IIA to Series III vehicles, though this Series put the most vehicles into service, including the 1-millionth Land Rover. The Series ran from 1971 to 1985, with the biggest changes happening toward the end of its life, at which point Land Rovers acquired model names.
The path to Defender began in 1983 as the One Ten, the designation for its 110-inch wheelbase, with the Ninety (also according to wheelbase) following soon after. Similarly monikered 127 and 130 models followed in subsequent years, mostly for commercial applications.
Defender was introduced in 1990, primarily because Land Rover had introduced a new vehicle (Discovery) the previous year. During this final stage in its life, the vehicle made gains in powertrains, drivetrains and interior comfort, with the biggest change being the change from sideways facing (jump) rear seats to conventional benches.
Defender embraced its heritage of ruggedness and utility while moving forward in areas that had become important to its customers — power, amenities, comfortable ride — allowing it to better compete against its main luxury off-road rivals, most notably the Mercedes G-Class and Toyota Land Cruiser.
Defender also embraced its iconic status with a series of special editions and branding partnerships, particularly in films such as Tomb Raider and the James Bond franchise, whose plots conveyed the rugged adventurous lifestyles that had made the SUV iconic.
On January 29, 2016, the last of the historic Land Rovers came off the Solihull line before it was shut down to retool for a new generation of Defender. Appropriately, it was one of the modern vehicles that paid homage to the first ever Land Rovers.
At the 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show, Land Rover showed off a couple concepts to demonstrate potential future Defenders. Though designer Gerry McGovern has stated the new Defender expected in 2018 will be far removed from the concepts, they still represent probably the best guess at the future vehicle expected to distance itself from the basic utility look that has persevered little changed over 65 years.
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