In the latter half of the 1940s, a post-war Britain was struggling. Burdened with massive loans needed to rebuild its industry, infrastructure and housing, the domestic market had to be sacrificed to concentrate on exports with vital foreign exchange earnings potential.
Following the destruction of its factory in Coventry, the Rover Company moved into the Solihull site, where it had been managing the building of aircraft engines. In record time it was converted into a vehicle manufacturing plant.
Despite restrictions placed on scarce materials, especially steel, the forward thinking Rover board aimed to expand production with a new small car. A change in legislation affected its market segment and it was cancelled, leaving a gap on the Solihull production lines.
Rover’s technical director, Maurice Wilks, had been using war surplus vehicles on his Welsh farm and was impressed by their capabilities. He believed small, four-wheel-drive utility vehicles would have enormous export potential.
Overseas sales would mean an increase in the company’s steel quota, so that it could make more of its trademark large saloons.
A war-surplus chassis was fitted with a Rover engine and gearbox. Compared with steel, aluminium was in plentiful supply and so was used to craft a simple body. The new project was named Land Rover.
This sole prototype was used to evaluate a number of features, including a central steering position which was not adopted. Targeted at the agricultural sector, it was equipped with a number of power take offs and was regularly seen towing ploughs and other equipment over the farmland that made up part of the Solihull site.
The now-familiar Land Rover shape evolved with a batch of 48 pre-production vehicles.
Split equally between left and right hand drive, they had a permanent four wheel drive system with a freewheel device to prevent transmission wind up. This was locked when low range was engaged on the two-speed transfer box.
Power came from a 1.6-litre Rover engine, while the axles were modified from those fitted to a Rover car. The aluminium body was more sophisticated than the prototype, with lift-off doors but still mainly comprised flat panels, avoiding the need for expensive tooling.
The chassis was a steel box section, fabricated from material left over from other pressings. The chassis was galvanised for corrosion resistance.
The Land Rover debuted at the Amsterdam Motor Show on 30 April 1948 to acclaim from customers and motoring journalists. By the end of the year, the Rover board was told the Land Rover was so successful that its output was likely to exceed that of the company’s cars.
While the utility vehicle was making its mark at home and abroad, the Land Rover was also making inroads into the luxury market in the shape of the Station Wagon, with a body by coachbuilders, Tickford.
The wooden framed body was panelled in aluminium and the vehicle had many advanced features. Thanks to a hefty price tag, sales in the home market were small but many went overseas, serving with organisations such as UNICEF.
Two years after its launch, predictions came true with the Land Rover becoming Solihull’s major product. It was upgraded to receive a more powerful engine and the driveline was altered to selectable four-wheel-drive.
This automatically engaged the front axle when the low ratio was selected but could also be used in high range when conditions demanded.
A major change in 1951 was the increase in wheelbase from 80 to 86 inches, giving 25 percent more payload area. A new station wagon was also introduced, this time with a Solihull-developed all-metal body.
This introduced a ‘tropical roof’ which was spaced away from the inner skin to provide an insulating layer of air to cool the vehicle in hot climates and ‘alpine lights’ which would become an iconic styling feature of the brand.
For the first time, the Land-Rover had a bigger brother in the shape of the Long Wheelbase version, available in both truck cab and station wagon variants. Optional extras included ‘De Luxe’ trim for the cab, as well as a radio and a heater.
The introduction of a 2.0-litre diesel engine in 1957 required a further extension of the wheelbase to 88 inches for the regular model and 109 inches for the long wheelbase version. Dubbed Series II, its wider track axles were accommodated by barrelling the body sides – the first time that the Rover design team had been involved with the Land Rover.
The biggest beneficiary of the styling exercise was the long wheelbase station wagon, which lost its former clumsy appearance.
The original diesel engine had been the first power unit specifically designed for Land Rover, rather than being a modified car engine.
It was soon replaced by a new Land Rover engine family that kept the overhead valve arrangement but dispensed with the separate, wet cylinder liners. The petrol derivative was introduced first and was also installed in the Rover 80 car.
The diesel powerplant that followed had a Rover-designed hot plug to improve combustion. On its introduction in 1961, the Land Rover became the Series IIA.
Always on the look out for new markets, a year later Rover introduced a new, forward control variant of the Land Rover. Using the standard chassis with a separate mounting frame, the Forward Control was heavy and underpowered, but appreciated for its load carrying capacity.
Later versions had wider track axles and modified spring mountings to improve stability. To provide extra power, a 2.6-litre, six-cylinder petrol Rover car engine was specified. This option was later extended to long-wheelbase models.
Contracts from military and other government organisations have always been an important contributor to Land Rover sales.
Among the specialised variants made to the requirements of British and foreign armies was the ‘Lightweight’ or half-tonne which went into production in 1968. Based on the short wheelbase Land Rover, it had many modifications, including a new body with detachable panels, to suit its military role.
The Land Rover 101 inch Forward Control or One tonne, which entered service in 1975, was also unique to the military but featured a permanent four wheel drive transmission based on that developed for the Range Rover.
A major change came in 1971 with the introduction of the Series III. The exterior included a revised lighting layout introduced earlier, but also introduced a new plastic radiator grille.
A major change was made to the fascia, with crash padding, a new instrument binnacle and improved heater controls. The gearbox now had synchromesh on all forward gears and the change was further improved by a larger clutch.
Significant investment aimed at increasing production led to the Land Rover V8, which was launched in 1979. This used a de-tuned version of the low compression 3.5-litre V8 engine used in the Range Rover, as well as its integrated gear and transfer box, re-introducing permanent four wheel drive.
To accommodate the new engine, it had a larger bonnet and a new grille. The Land Rover V8 was distinguished by a new, brighter colour range and was intended for the long-wheelbase versions only, although a few short wheelbase versions were made.
Further expansion of the model range came three years later with the introduction of the High Capacity Pick Up. Featuring a two-metre load bed, an increase in width and localised wheel arches, it was of all-aluminium construction and pioneered the use of thin-wall castings.
Appearing at the same time was the new, up-market ‘County’ range of station wagons. With newly styled seats, superior interior trim and tinted glass, County versions were identified externally by unique colours and styling stripes.
The Land Rover One Ten, launched in 1983, was developed using vehicles based on modified Range Rover chassis with Land Rover bodywork.
While based on Range Rover architecture, the One Ten had a much stronger chassis, with deeper side members and larger long travel coil springs. County station wagon models also had an upgraded version of the Range Rover’s ride levelling unit.
The body retained the distinctive Land Rover appearance, but had a new, deeper, one-piece windscreen, new sliding door top windows and moulded wheel arch extensions to accommodate the wider track of the new axles.
Launched simultaneously was an extended wheelbase version, the Land Rover 127, its Crew Cab body requiring few new parts, thanks to the Land Rover’s modular construction. Its carrying capacity and versatility led to many specialist derivatives, notably for utility companies.
The One Ten was followed a year later by its short wheelbase counterpart, the Land Rover Ninety. While essentially similar in concept to the larger vehicle, the Ninety had a smaller, side-mounted fuel tank and was offered in pick up, full hood, hard top and 7-seat station wagon variants.
New, one-piece side doors with wind-up windows were introduced onto all Land Rover vehicles, significantly upgrading comfort and convenience levels.
In order to remain competitive in the European market, Land Rover developed a turbocharged version of its well-established four-cylinder diesel engine which boosted power by 30 percent.
Launched in 1986, other improvements introduced at the same time included new door trims and push-button door locks to improve comfort and security.
Land Rover conducted a major branding exercise in preparation for the launch of its new sports utility vehicle, the Discovery. The iconic utility vehicle that had given its name to the company now needed an identity of its own.
‘Defender’ was chosen as representing the products’ strength and status and a suitable opportunity to name the vehicle came in 1990 with the introduction of the 2.5-litre, direct injection 200 Tdi diesel engine.
First seen in the Discovery, this power unit offered significant improvements in power and torque and its greater efficiency reduced fuel consumption. New badging emphasised the new Defender identity, its variants now being known as the Defender 90, 110 and 130.
With the new name came a boost to the product’s success. In the home market, the County range was extended, offering improved seating, trim and equipment levels – even metallic paintwork.
A limited edition of the Defender 110 Station Wagon was produced for the USA, heralding the launch of Land Rover North America in 1992. Powered by a fuel-injected version of the 3.5-litre V8 petrol engine, it also featured a distinctive external roll cage.
This was followed a year later by a North American version of the Defender 90, which had detachable door tops, a hinged rear tailgate with spare wheel carrier, tailored soft top and alloy wheels. A limited edition for the UK – the Defender SV90 – had many of the American features but was diesel powered.
While the Tdi engine received some significant upgrades with the introduction of the definitive 300 Tdi version, a major change came in 1998 with the introduction of a completely new power unit – the Td5.
With five-cylinders and Electronic Unit Injectors, this 2.5-litre engine again offered more power and torque and introduced the versatility of electronic engine management.
Improvements in braking and traction came from a new ABS braking system and four-wheel Electronic Traction Control. Originally a special conversion, the Double Cab version of the Defender 110 was added to the range.
To celebrate its 50th anniversary, a limited-edition Defender 90 station wagon was produced, featuring the V8 petrol engine.
A major upgrade in 2002 introduced new, pressed steel doors with improved sealing and more positive operation. They also enabled the fitment of electric window lifts and central door locking.
A revised fascia featured a new console housing switches for the new equipment, while other changes improved the suspension and brakes.
The New 2007 Defender’s arrival marks the latest chapter in an ever expanding book of Defender variants. And it looks set to be acknowledged as the best chapter of all.