'Series' Land Rovers, the beast that won't die

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Ask any schoolboy from the past 50 years to draw a 4x4 vehicle, and he will probably draw a Land Rover. The Land Rover, the Mini and the Beetle are unique shapes for vehicles; they are iconic shapes that most of the world’s population will have encountered at least once in their life. Like all vehicles the Land Rover has undergone various evolutions since it was first introduced. But the shape has changed very little in nearly sixty years. The Mini and the Beetle however have been reborn, as caricatures of the original designs.

It was 1946; Europe was recovering from 6 years of bloody war. Maurice Wilks (Rover's technical chief) had a farm on Anglesey that made use of a beaten-up war surplus Willys Jeep. He found this Jeep useful for a variety of practical farm uses. Nearing the end of its life, Maurice was considering a replacement. No British alternative existed, and parts for a Willys Jeep were hard to get at that time. What spares were available, had to be purchased as bulk war surplus stock. This problem identified a gap in the market for a farm vehicle that was smaller than a tractor; but was more versatile, and was rugged without being cumbersome. He approached the Rover Company with his ideas to see if they would consider producing such a vehicle. After World War II, Rover desperately needed to get car production going again. Steel was in terribly short supply and exports got first preference for all raw materials. The 'Land Rover' project was made official. Board Meeting minutes describe it as "the all-purpose vehicle on the lines of the Willys-Overland post-war Jeep was the most desirable" using the Rover P3 engine, gearbox, and back axle. In reality the first prototypes were already running, with design work starting in spring 1947. The first prototype Land Rovers were actually built on Jeep chassis. The bodywork was made of an aluminium alloy called Birmabright.

Using similar dimensions to the Jeep the first Land Rovers had an 80" wheelbase. This 80" wheel base, `Land Rover' was unveiled at the Amsterdam Motor Show, 30 April 1948 and was produced from 1948 to 1953. It used a 1.6 litre, 4-cylinder Rover engine from the P3 Rover car range. Permanent four wheel drive was featured, with a freewheel in the front driveline, and a high-low transfer gearbox in addition to the normal four speed gearbox. Power take-offs were fitted to enable the Land Rover to be used as a stationary power source. The engine was upgraded to a 2-litre version for the 1952 season. For 1954 the Land Rover was given a complete upgrade and in addition to many changes which included the wheel base being extended by 6 inches in the rear to make the wheelbase 86”, another model was introduced being the long wheel base Land Rover on a wheel base of 107”. The 1948 to 1953 models where identified, once the new models had been announced, as the 80" models.

The 86" and 107" Land Rovers as they are known were only short lived as for 1957 there was another wheel base extension of 2 inches in the front of the chassis to make way for the new 2-litre diesel engine. The Land Rover then became the 88” and 109" models. The 107" stayed in production to 1958 as the 5-door station wagon because it was not available with the diesel engine.

This "stop-gap" vehicle was much more successful than Rover could ever have expected. For 25 years they could sell more Land Rover, and later Range Rovers, than they could make. The aluminium bodywork became a characteristic and explains why so many series ones are trundling around today.

In 1958 the Land Rover underwent a major redesign to become the Series II. It kept the 88" and 109" wheelbases that had come in with the later Series Is; the most visible changes were to the bodywork which was wider with a "waist" and had "modesty panels" on its lower edge to hide the chassis. The (Series I) 107" station wagon continued in production until a Series II 109" 10-seat station wagon was introduced in 1959.

Some early Land Rover Series IIs had the 2-litre engine from the Series Is fitted, but the new 2286cc (nominally 2.25L) petrol engine was standard. The diesel engine continued at 2-litres until the Series IIA Land Rover was introduced in 1961. There is little that is obvious to distinguish a Series II from a Series IIA, changes to the steering being the biggest alteration. This Series IIA underwent many changes and redesigns throughout its production life. The more notable changes were: those to the engine range, the Headlamps being moved onto the wings, Stronger ‘Salisbury’ type axles fitted to 109” models.

By the start of the 1970’s The Rover Company wanted to give a ‘face lift’ to the Land Rover, so the Series III was introduced in 1971. The series III Land Rover can be identified by the plastic radiator grille, neater door hinges and simpler (possibly weaker) bonnet hinges. Inside, the dashboard is plastic with a degree of padding. Again the Series III evolved during the production life. By June 1976 the 1,000,000th Land Rover rolled off the production line, in Solihull.

In 1979 a new development programme begins to bear fruit with a V8-engined 109". Essentially the V8 petrol engine and 4WD transmission from of the early Range Rover was fitted to a Series III; this variant moved the grille level with the wings, to allow room for the larger engine. Land Rover dubbed this development the "Stage One". The "Stage One" was is so-called because it was the result of stage-1 of a major investment plan at Land Rover which eventually led to the 90, 110 and 130 models, (later `Defender' range). The "Stage One" lasted until 1985 and was the last of the “Series” Land Rover

It is estimated that over 70% of all Land Rovers ever made are still running around somewhere in the world. A drive around any town, village or city in Great Britain confirms that there are plenty of old Land Rovers still alive and well. These days anyone driving a ‘Series’ Land Rover will undoubtedly be an enthusiast. They tend to be owned for different reasons. For many owners, the appeal is the same as the original idea Maurice Wilks had, for a rugged, versatile vehicle. Some owners are trying to preserve a part of motoring history, and regularly take them to classic car shows. Other owners like to ‘play’ with them; by taking them ‘off road’ (a good day is seen to be one where the vehicle gets coated in mud). The ‘play’ aspect is taken a step further by a few owners, who enter their Land Rovers into competitive trials involving driving skill and off roading ability. These trials are friendly events, and relatively inexpensive, owing to the fact that any ‘standard’ Land Rover enter these events. The final competitive steps a Land Rover owner would undertake are competitive rallies, this is however an expensive hobby, and as such is limited to the few.

As with any old vehicle there are things that should be remembered about owning a 'Series' Land Rover. Fuel economy is not good, but fitting an overdrive can help, as can a more efficient carburettor. Conversion to unleaded fuel is fully possible, by fitting an unleaded cylinder head. Another way to make any 'Series' Land Rover cheaper to run, is conversion to run on LRP, which is a popular upgrade. It must be remembered that they are old vehicles designed in a time when fuel efficiency was not too important. Another worry is corrosion, although the bodies are an aluminium alloy, the chassis and front bulkhead are made from steel, and consequently prone to corrosion. Proper maintenance can get around this problem quite readily; in severe cases new parts are available for all models.

In the U.K most 'Series' Land Rovers are classed as classic vehicles, which entitles owners to a reduced rate of insurance premium. And vehicles built before 1973 are classed as 'Historic' vehicles for taxation purposes, which means there is no road tax to pay on them. These two facts alone mean they can make a cheap car to run, for anyone looking for something a bit 'Different.'

Today even the newest ‘Series’ Land Rovers are around 20 years old. However most parts and spares are still widely available from the many Land Rover specialists. The mechanical simplicity of Land Rovers is often described as being 'like a big mechano set.' The 2.25 petrol engine is tolerant of poor fuel quality, and infrequent oil changes. One of the main reasons they sold well in third world countries; was that most repairs can be effected with simple tools and a limited knowledge of things mechanical. This means that they are a true ‘practical classic,’ and for many years to come will be running around somewhere in the world.

The Land Rover is a truly classless vehicle, anyone from Kings, oil sheikhs and Prime Ministers to farmers, foresters and builders have all owned Land Rovers. 1.8 million cars have been built; it was the saviour of Rover. It spawned the Range Rover and in doing so created the concept of the sports utility vehicle. They have taken pregnant mothers through snowstorms to hospital, carried rescuers up remote mountains, and supported the livelihoods of millions of family’s. The Land Rover has contributed to all of our lives, through peacetime and war. It’s crossed deserts to bring food to starving people, explored inaccessible territories to help map the world, helped build telecommunications networks, and assisted to help preserve the rarest of animals from extinction. It has been claimed that the first car seen by 60% of the developing world’s population is a Land Rover. They’re classless, clever and virtually indestructible; for these reasons they were voted the greatest car of all time.

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