- Words by Mr Eric Dymock, author of Land Rover File
In June 1970 I was into sporty cars, pretend racers, usually open and the faster the better - I preferred cars you climbed down into. So I thought Land Rovers were for farm hands when I set off for Cornwall, in the southwest of England, for the press test of a new model, called the Range Rover, that was aimed at gentlemen farmers.
The Range Rover was upright, well proportioned and properly sprung. Unlike Land Rovers (as the Defender was known back then) it was supple and compliant and came with heaters that worked and smart instruments in a purpose-made binnacle. It had an aluminium V8 engine that was originally produced by Buick and powerful enough to take the Range Rover to 95mph and Michelin supplied tyres that worked at motorway speeds as well as in peat bogs. This split personality was important, because Rover (the company that built Land Rovers at the time) never forgot the farmers. The inside of a Range Rover was trimmed in materials that could be hosed down before the gentleman farmer went out in the evening. In 1970 I wrote in The Guardian's motoring column that it was "a car to drive in gumboots or city slip-ons but which somehow feels best in brogues".
I was hooked, and have loved Range Rovers ever since. It didn't matter if the gears whined or if the fuel consumption was down to single figures of miles per gallon. Petrol was still so cheap that it didn't much matter how fast it washed down the throats of the two Zenith Stromberg carburettors. Despite the oil crisis of the 1970s the Range Rover never looked back. It has become increasingly luxurious and is, in effect, the pre-eminent modern limousine and the vehicle of choice for people, from royalty to celebrities, who can afford any car they want.
The interior was made of materials that could be hosed down before the gentleman farmer went out in the evening
In April this year the opportunity to try a classic military lightweight Defender at Land Rover's 65th anniversary shindig at Packington Estate, in Warwickshire, England reminded me that the Defender is as capable as it is unrefined. My bones jarred as it climbed over bumps on springs with the resilience of steel beams, but it can also climb stairs (I've actually done this at the Land Rover test track). And it can tilt sideways at 30° without falling over, and wade in metre-deep water. However, only hair-shirted, back-to-basics masochists would want to go to the shops in that particular model.
But then the Defender was invented in a different era. In the years immediately following WWII steel was rationed, and Rover was prohibited from annually making more than 1,100 cars. Something had to be found to keep the factory going, and chief engineer Mr Maurice Wilks, who had an ex-US Army Jeep on his family farm, suggested something similar be built as a stopgap until car production could properly resume.
Prototypes were built on to the chassis of war-surplus Jeeps. An agricultural runabout was made with a rather meek Rover 10 car engine. The gearbox was from the Rover production line, the steering wheel was standard Rover and almost the only novelty was a transfer gearbox, taking drive to the front axle for four-wheel drive. Next to nothing was spent on tooling since the production run was to be short. Bodywork, in freely available aluminium, was rudimentary; flat panels were cheap to make and easily repairable. One prototype had a central seat, like a tractor, so it would appeal to those needing to pull a plough.
Rover's management, which thought Land Rovers would merely keep its Solihull factory occupied for a year or two, were surprised by the response. Orders flowed in and the "stopgap" was soon outselling Rover cars. Within a year 8,000 were made and within two, 24,000. Soon Rover was building 1,000 a week of what The Autocar called "a practical road and cross-country vehicle built to high standards". The Motor, however, was more cautious. "It is a vehicle intended to bash over fields in far-flung parts of the empire on un-metalled tracks. So why should it be built with the same care as a Rover? Surely something more agricultural would be better and cheaper."
It proved to be a remarkably versatile vehicle - there have been Land Rover fire engines, camper vans, snowploughs, police and military vehicles, small armoured cars, ambulances, riot control vehicles, pick-up trucks, mobile workshops and personnel carriers. Land Rovers have crossed deserts and mountains, and the company has never compromised the off-road ability of its vehicles - even when (as with the Range Rover Evoque) they're aimed at urban customers.
The line-up now features six models, Land Rover's Defender, Freelander (introduced in 1997) and Discovery (since 1989), and Range Rover's eponymous model, Sport (since 2005) and Evoque (since 2011), and is likely to expand with the potential introduction of a baby Land Rover. However, the iconic Defender, which is still remarkably true to its 1948 ancestor, will be killed off in December 2015. While a new model is promised for 2016 it's unlikely to mirror the Spartan Defender, the appeal of which is increasingly niche.
What form that replacement will take, and where it will be built, have yet to be revealed. The Defender was invented in a different era, in terms of technology, aspiration and use. The success of the Evoque reveals just how far we've come over the past 65 years, and we should probably all be grateful for that.
Buy Land Rover File here.