Land Rover - The Best 4x4xFar

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Perhaps more than any other company, Land Rover has battled for solo survival and to ensure that every vehicle designed will fulfil the 'go anywhere' intent that the original did. From the fields of the English countryside, to the mountains of Nepal and the deserts of Africa, there are few other vehicles that can compete for off-road ability. It has been estimated that the first vehicle ever seen by a third of the world's population was a Land Rover.

Particularly in the UK, Land Rovers have an enthusiastic and dedicated following, perhaps best shown by the private Dunsfold Trust, which has what is probably the largest collection of historic Land Rovers in the world. Other owners use their Land Rovers for recreation and compete in trials, and other off-road events. Many owners highly modify their vehicles specifically to increase their off-road ability, and indeed many off-road racers which are sold commercially are proud to have their roots in Land Rovers.

How it all began

Immediately following World War 2 (1939 - 1945), the British economy was attempting to restructure and rebuild to recover its pre-war strength. Material shortages were rife as resources were spent on rebuilding infrastructure damaged during six years of war. The British car industry, which had been strong pre-war, had lost nearly a decade of development and was desperately trying to regain competitiveness.

Rover, largely due to its diversification into aerospace production during the war, was in a better situation than most. Assisted by the government during the war years, it had benefitted from the construction of a brand new factory at Solihull in the West Midlands, to which production and development was moved after the war.

Brothers Maurice and Spencer Wilks, the owners and directors of Rover at that time, were instrumental in what happened next.

The Inspiration

On his farm in North Wales, Maurice Wilks, the Engineering Director, owned a World War II surplus Willys Jeep that he used as both light tractor and road transport. Without Power Transmission Overdrive (PTO)1 it made a poor tractor, and its road handling left a great deal to be desired. Despite this, Maurice and Spencer saw in the Jeep the basis for their vehicle, and development work started immediately.

Right from the start, the need for economy was a key player in the ultimate shape of the Land Rover. Due to the fact that steel was still being rationed, "Birmabright" aluminium sheeting, as formerly used for aeroplane skins, was employed for the body work. Wherever possible, existing Rover components were used to keep costs and development time down.

By the summer of 1947, Maurice and Spencer had the first prototypes running. Although there were some unavoidable similarities with the Willys Jeep, the Land Rover was a more refined and practical machine, sporting front and rear PTO's for the farmers, an extra low gear for hills and a freewheel device that allowed permanent four wheel drive without tyre scrub. In its original guise, doors were optional, and it only had a canvas roof.

'Land Rover' Launch

On the 30th April 1948, the Land Rover was launched to the world at the Amsterdam Motor Show. Initially, it was classified as an agricultural tool to get around the high British sales tax for passenger cars, and sold for the grand sum of £450. It was an instant hit; by October 1948, it was already being exported to over 68 countries, and the first year's production was over 3,000 vehicles.

Rover were taken aback by the high level of demand for the Land Rover, and rapidly began working on improvements. In 1949 a seven-seater station wagon version was launched, which had an enclosed, wooden frame body; but as this attracted the higher sales tax for passenger vehicles, which made it £959, it wasn't a big success. When production stopped in 1951, only 641 of these vehicles had been made. In contrast, production of its older sibling had risen to over 12,000 a year in 1949.

Rover continued to improve the vehicle throughout the 1950s. Steel and aluminium hardtops were added to the options list during 1950, and the 1.6 litre petrol engine was replaced by a 2.0 litre in 1952. The wheelbase2 was increased from 80" to 83" (2.03m to 2.18m) in 1953 in response to customers demanding a longer loadbay.

1954 saw two big milestones reached; the 100,000th Land Rover was produced, and a lengthened pick-up version with an enclosed cabin was launched, called the 107 in reference to its 107" (2.71m) wheelbase. The 107 came with 4 doors, a full-length hard top with Alpine lights3 in the roof, and could be ordered with ten seats to make it a practical people mover.

Series I, Series II and IIa

The Land Rover's success continued, and in 1958 they launched the Series II4. It remained basically unchanged, but the growing economic prosperity of the time allowed styling and driver comfort to become more of a priority5. New doors, front indicators and rear lights were part of the external changes - along with an external fuel filler pipe to save people from having to refuel by taking out one of the seat bases. The pedals were enlarged, the seats were changed, and a larger range of colours and other accessories was added.

By November 1959, 250,000 Land Rovers had been built; 70% of these had been exported to over 150 countries.

Enhancements kept coming along every couple of years; in 1961 the Series IIa was launched, which put the headlights in the wings rather than the radiator grille, and brought a 2.25l diesel in. In 1963 a 109" (2.77m) 12-seater version was introduced as another work-around tax laws; vehicles with 12 or more seats were classified as buses, and were tax exempt. Still the sales kept going; by 1966, annual production was 48,000 vehicles and 500,000 Land Rovers had been produced.

In 1962, the first ever Forward Control (FC) was produced to give extra load carrying capacity with off-road ability, and proved popular with the military as well as the civilian market. Based on a Series IIa 109" with the 2.25l petrol engine and using 75% of its components, this had an shortened cab, with an extra sub-chassis on top of the vehicle chassis to give the structure needed to take the 1.5 tonne payload that could be fitted in the 10' x 5'3" (3.05m x 1.60m) loadbed. Variations included a drop-down side pick-up, a fixed side pick-up, and a flat bed; or, if further customisation was required by the customer, a bare chassis and cab.

The British Leyland Years

As part of the Rover Motor Company, Land Rover was merged with Leyland and British Motor Holdings in 1968, resulting in the industrial behemoth that was British Leyland. In theory this merger was a good idea, but as a whole British Leyland was never able to mould the individual philosophies and aims of its component companies into a coherent whole, and it became a byword for inefficiency, industrial action, and bad build quality.

In 1968, development of the Lightweight began for the British military. Intended to be a lighter version of the Series IIa, it had body panels shaped for easy removal and storage to allow the vehicle to be lifted by the helicopters of the time; although with the panels actually on, it ended up no lighter than the civilian vehicle. These carried on through to the end of Series III production in 1983, and are still popular in the civilian market today for their extreme off-road ability.

Despite the inefficiencies of British Leyland, in 1970 the first Range Rover was launched - the very first premium SUV. Its designer, Spen King, envisioned it as an off-road vehicle that would be as comfortable to drive as a car. Available only as a two-door estate, with a split-folding rear tailgate and 4-speed manual gearbox, it became another instant and surprise success, winning an RAC Dewar Award for its technical achievements. A Range Rover was also the first vehicle to cross the Darien Gap on the British Trans-Americas Expedition.

It won critical acclaim for its styling as well as its capability; in 1971, it made history as the only vehicle to ever be displayed at the Louvre as an example of automotive art.

In 1972, the 101 Forward Control was launched as a Military vehicle, replacing the previous Forward Control. Conceived as a load lugger and people carrier, it had a utilitarian design, increased ride height, and was available in 4 different variants until production ceased in 1978. The most common variant is the canvas-roofed GS, or General Service, followed by the hardtopped Ambulance, Radio body unit, and finally the Vampire, of which only 4 were built. In civilian life it isn't quite as popular as the Lightweight or other ex-Military vehicles, as it doesn't lend itself so well to everyday use. However, several hardtop 101s have been converted into off-road campervans, like this example converted and used by Graham Kelly and chronicled in his Landyman website.

The Series IIa became the Series III in 1972, with 88" and 109" wheelbases, a new radiator grille and interior and, for the first time, a full synchromesh gearbox.

During this time, though, British Leyland ran into massive financial trouble, and the government was forced to intervene, effectively nationalising the company. In the turbulent years later, amid reorganisations and closures, Land Rover became, for the first time, a separate operating company within the group.

Despite the lack of investment and development, Land Rover and Range Rover sales remained a steady source of income for British Leyland; annual production remained steady at around 50,000 vehicles, and the millionth Land Rover was produced in 1976.

The Range Rover remained more or less unchanged for ten years, but its sales steadily increased. Eventually the government offered money to modernise the production facilities, and in 1981 the first four-door Range Rover was launched. This kicked off a range of improvements and additional features in rapid succession, peaking with the introduction of the "Vogue" model in 1984, which launched Range Rover into the true luxury market. Sales increased dramatically, and in 1987 Range Rover was finally introduced into North America; for the first time in that year, more Range Rovers than Land Rovers were sold.

In 1983, the 90 and 110 were launched, replacing the 88" and 109" Series III. Coil springs and MacPherson struts replaced the leaf springs, and more modern powerplants were fitted. The exterior was updated to the face we see on the vehicle today; a longer bonnet and new grille, with new headlight and indicator surrounds. But after this, things remained unchanged for some time for Land Rover while British Leyland, soon to become Austin Rover, underwent massive changes.

End of British Leyland

In 1987, British Aerospace bought Austin Rover, including Land Rover, from the government for £150m.

Outwardly, development seemed to start again. In 1989 the Discovery was launched, in three-door form, at the Frankfurt Motor Show; halfway in size between the 90 and 110 and the Range Rover, it was conceived as a practical, family leisure vehicle. The interior was notably designed by Terence Conran. Again, this vehicle was an instant hit, and even early versions are still sought-after. Particular vehicles to note are what are referred to as G-WAC vehicles; these are the original vehicles which were used for all the press and publicity material. G is the registration letter for the year they were launched, and the -AC suffix indicates they were registered in Solihull. All the press vehicles, as they were registered together, had the registration suffix -WAC.

In 1990, the 90 and 110 model names were dropped, and the original Land Rover was renamed Defender. A new diesel engine, the 200 Tdi, as fitted to the Discovery, was now fitted, alongside the Rover V8.

Under New Ownership

In 1994, BMW bought the Rover Group and Land Rover from British Aerospace. During this time, the second-generation Range Rover was launched; the first all-new Range Rover in the model's history, its styling was criticised as being somewhat Metrocab-like, but demand continued unabated. This model gained the nickname 38a, after the building at Solihull where most of the design and development was done. Rumour has it that the prototype vehicles on test weren't camoflaged, but were in fact painted up in Ordnance Survey van colours, and drew little or no attention whilst out on test in the countryside.

Land Rover finally entered the smaller SUV market with the introduction in 1997 of the Freelander, which again immediately became a success against such rivals as the Toyota RAV4.

Land Rover's 50th Anniversary in 1998 was marked by a number of special edition vehicles; notably, the Rover V8 was reunited with the Defender in a limited 50th Anniversary edition, along with a special paint colour and a long options list. Each vehicle was individually numbered with a special plaque, and these are highly sought-after.

2000 - New Life Under Ford

While BMW had poured investment into the Rover Group, including building a state-of-the-art paintshop at Solihull and a new Engineering Centre at Gaydon in Warwickshire, trouble was brewing. BMW were falling deep into losses as a result of their "English Patient", and the BMW board weren't prepared to sacrifice their company any longer.

In May 2000, the Rover Group was finally split apart, and the newly-created Land Rover Group was sold to Ford Motor Company. With this went the Solihull manufacturing site and the Gaydon development site and test track.

Despite all this upheaval, the launch of the 3rd generation Range Rover went ahead at the Detroit International Motorshow in 2002, and this was hailed as a return to the values and styling of the first Range Rover.

Amid all the focus on the new, a specially modified Land Rover Defender 110 pick-up was used in the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider as Lara Croft's transport through the jungle; in addition to all the special off-road kit it was fitted with, it had a 4.0 litre V8 with straight through pipes6. A special limited edition Tomb Raider Defender was launched in 90 and 110 form with special paint and other external additions such as a roof rack, but unfortunately without the V8.

Ford has renewed and expanded the Land Rover range, and has invested and expanded even more. The Discovery 3 7 was launched to critical acclaim in 2004, and has won numerous international awards. Its stablemate, the Range Rover Sport, aimed squarely at the BMW X5 and Porsche Cayenne, was launched early 2005 and has also been a great success. These vehicles, which share the same platform, are still the most capable vehicles in their class when it comes to off-roading; even the supercharged Range Rover Sport will outperform all rivals in the mud.

Off-road ability is still paramount to Land Rover; the Discovery 3 and Range Rover Sport saw the introduction of a "Terrain Response" system; this industry-first system allows the driver to adjust the settings of a number of different vehicle systems and components to a number of pre-defined settings for the most common off-road situations such as wet grass and snow, to help both novice and experienced off-roaders to stay safe.

The Future?

Recently in the UK, Land Rover and parent company Ford have attracted some criticism for the "school run mum" and "Chelsea Tractor" image of its vehicles, and in particular for their size and fuel consumption; a supercharged Range Rover will do 17.7mpg in the Combined cycle, compared to 25mpg for the Td6 diesel version. A team of Greenpeace activists invaded the Solihull plant and chained themselves to the Range Rover production line in May 2005, claiming the area was a climate crime scene. The BBC News article covering Greenpeace's invasion of Solihull can be seen here.

However, Land Rover claim that since 1997, they've actually reduced the CO2 emissions of their vehicles by 13%, compared with the overall industry reduction average of 9.7%.

The second-generation Freelander8 has recently been launched to much press acclaim. It made history as the first Land Rover to be built outside Solihull; the Freelander 2 is manufactured at Jaguar's Halewood plant alongside the X-Type saloon. The company did take a lot of criticism for moving production, but said that it was necessary to maintain competitiveness and productivity. Currently, it appears the rest of the range will stay at Solihull.

Despite the controversy surrounding its younger siblings, Defender still has a large and loyal following and is still the first choice for many farmers and companies who need a capable, go-anywhere, do-anything vehicle. Thanks to the existence of Special Vehicles at Solihull, you can still buy a Defender and get it customised at the factory to your needs; a van or a station wagon, a single cab pick-up or a double cab pick-up, a canvas roof or a hardtop... There are potentially over 120 different variations (not counting colour or trim options) on Defender that you can still buy direct from Land Rover.

It is rumoured that Defender production will continue until 2010; the recent replacement of the Td5 engine with the 2.4 litre Ford Duratorq diesel engine was done to meet the legal Euro IV emissions standard and to ensure it could still be sold in Europe.

At the Geneva Motor Show in March 2006, Land Rover showcased the Land_e, which incorporated many ideas for hybrid drives and ultra-efficient technologies for future vehicles. It remains to be seen how many of these will make it into production in the near future, or whether the environmental heat on Land Rover will ease off.

The Heritage Motor CentreLand RoverTomcat MotorsportBowler Offroad'Series' Land RoversDefender 110
1A socket off the front of the crankshaft that allowed the engine to drive other machinery, such as a winch.2Distance between the centres of the front and rear wheels.3Small windows on the upper edge of the roof, which are still a feature in Defenders today.4It was only after the introduction of the Series II that the earlier vehicles were called Series I.5Although it must be said that no Series vehicle was ever a limousine to ride in, even by the standards of the day.6An exhaust which has no silencers and, in fact, no catalyst. Straight through pipes help the engine's 'breathing', and also make a V8 in particular sound rather throaty.7LR3 in North America.8Now to be branded LR2 in North America

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