Land Rover: the world’s most versatile vehicle
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Land Rover: the world’s most versatile vehicle

By MarkOastler - 21 December 2020

If necessity is the mother of invention, Land Rover owes its proud heritage to the economic devastation of early post-war Britain. Crippling material shortages combined with government incentives inspired car maker Rover to invent a new category of vehicle which, although intended only as a stopgap, became a global phenomenon.

The original Land Rover was launched in 1948 (the same year GM unveiled Australia’s first Holden) and remained in continuous production until 2016, with more than two million produced and sold in more than 140 countries. And during those 68 years, under numerous owners, it evolved through several generations from the original Series to the definitive Defender.

Through it all the Land Rover was resolute in adhering to its core principles of a rugged ladder-frame chassis, live axles front and rear, a lightweight and rust-free aluminium body (although some steel panels were used in later model Defenders) and an upright driving position offering a commanding view of the toughest terrain.

The first pre-production Land Rover with famous HUE-166 British rego.
Image: Jaguar Land Rover

Although Rover was known for producing dignified cars for a respectable clientele, such indulgences were not a priority in the immediate post-war period. Scant raw materials were prioritised for production of commercial vehicles, which could not only assist in the nation’s rebuilding but also earn crucial foreign exchange through exports.

Given a global shortage of modern agricultural machinery, Rover’s managing director Spencer Wilks and his brother, chief designer Maurice, envisaged something similar in design to the ubiquitous war-time Willys Jeep but with a farming focus. A cross between a light truck and a tractor. A Rover for the man on the land, which probably inspired the name.

The Jeep certainly planted the seed (excuse the pun) given Wilks’ hands-on experience with his own war surplus Jeep on his farm in North Wales. Rover forecast production of only two to three years for the Land Rover, primarily to generate enough export earnings to restart car production. Ironically, within two years this stopgap vehicle would be the company’s mainstay!

Early sales brochures highlighted the enormous versatility of this new Rover for the man on the land.
Image: Land Rover

The first prototype, built from an amalgam of Jeep and Rover parts, showed its farming focus with the steering wheel located in the centre just like a tractor and with PTO (power take-off) drives to operate a capstan-style winch and a variety of farm machinery like circular saws, posthole diggers etc.

It was also tested towing ploughs, slashers, feeders, heavily-loaded trailers and other implements and proved capable and versatile. As the project moved rapidly towards production, the central steering wheel proved impractical and was mounted to one side and the bodywork simplified.

Although sharing the same 80-inch wheelbase and similar external dimensions with the Jeep, the Land Rover’s defining and successful features grew from a need to simplify production tooling and use a minimum of raw materials during manufacture.

Immensely strong fully-boxed chassis and numerous PTOs were major Series I selling points.

For example, the fully-boxed chassis rails were fabricated from four strips of the most readily available flat steel, braced in a simple jig and seam-welded together. This design not only avoided the complexities of manufacturing conventional U-section beams but the box-section design resulted in a chassis with immense strength and durability.

Aluminium-alloy sheet, stockpiled from military aircraft production during the war, prompted Wilks to construct the body panels using this material which had several benefits; it was much lighter than steel, corrosion-resistant and easier to work with using basic tooling.

The initial limited choice of body colours was also dictated by war surplus supplies of aircraft cockpit paint, which is why early production Land Rovers were only available in various shades of green. Necessity really was the mother of this wonderful invention!

Charming advertising artwork showcased the new 107-inch wheelbase Series I pick-ups in 1954. 
Image: Land Rover

Series I (1948-1958)

The Land Rover was launched at the 1948 Amsterdam Motor Show and marketed as an all-terrain light truck designed for farming and light industrial use. It was not only capable of climbing gradients of up to 45 degrees but also driving across them at the same angle without capsizing.

Less than 3.5 metres in length and with a kerb weight of just under 1200kg, the production version built in the company’s large factory at Solihull near Birmingham was pure Rover; its 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with a meagre 50bhp (37kW), four-speed gearbox with non-synchro first and second gears and live front and rear axles were all shared with the P3 sedan.

The 4x4 transfer case with 2.52:1 low-range reduction was designed and manufactured in-house and initially utilised Rover’s free-wheel unit which allowed a form of semi-permanent AWD. Brakes were drums all-round, there was a two-piece windscreen and the instrument panel was located in the centre of the dash.

To peg the UK price at £450 (about $25,000 today) the Land Rover buyer had to pay more for a canvas roof, door top sections with sliding-glass panes and a heater; even a spare wheel/tyre (which could be carried on the bonnet to optimise load space), crank-handle and passenger seat cushion were optional extras! However, it was also categorised as a commercial vehicle, so was exempt from punitive UK sales tax.

Rover anticipated demand for a more comfortable version and in 1949 launched a station wagon variant, with a three-door body built by upmarket coachbuilder Tickford. It could seat up to seven on leather seats but its high price combined with ‘private car’ status (which attracted UK sales tax) resulted in poor sales and a premature demise.

First five-door station wagon in 1955 was a big hit with both commercial and private buyers. Land Rover's fine artwork in those early days was suitable for gallery display!
Image: Land Rover

By 1950 the semi-permanent free-wheel 4x4 system had been replaced by a conventional part-time, dual-range design, with front axle engagement controlled by a floor-mounted lever. The headlights were moved from behind the mesh grille to new positions that protruded through it.

Customer requests for more power and load space saw the 1.6 litre petrol engine replaced with a larger 2.0 litre unit in 1952 and two years later the stumpy 80-inch (2030mm) wheelbase was stretched to 86 inches (2180mm). A new 107-inch (2720mm) extended wheelbase pick-up was also launched.

Land Rover’s first five-door station wagon arrived the following year, built on the 107-inch wheelbase. With seating for up to 10, it was designed primarily as a commercial vehicle for transporting crews to remote locations but also proved popular with private buyers.

The new wagon also introduced Land Rover’s famous ‘safari roof’ which consisted of a second roof skin. This simple but effective design exploited the insulative air space between the two skins to keep the interior cooler in hot weather and reduce condensation in cold weather.

In 1956 the wheelbases were extended again, this time by 2.0 inches to 88 inches (2240mm) and 109 inches (2770mm). These remained unchanged for 25 years and resulted in them being referred to as SWB and LWB models from then on.

Land Rover’s first diesel engine was added to the line-up in 1957. Although this new 2.0 litre four-cylinder oil-burner shared a similar displacement to the overhead inlet/side exhaust valve petrol engine, it was a more modern full OHV design developed for more efficient road use.

Series II/IIA styling brought a more refined look without diminishing its tough workhorse persona. Bonnet-mounted spare tyre was a signature Land Rover feature for decades.
Image: Land Rover

Series II (1958-1961)

The Series II had a relatively short production life but was significant in being the first Land Rover to receive input from Rover’s car styling department, as it was gaining popularity with a broad spectrum of private buyers.

The SII’s wider track dimensions resulted in a wider body to cover it, with a waistline defined by a neat 90-degree curve that ran the full length of the vehicle. There were also new sill panels under the doors to hide the chassis rails, a revised grille, new manually-operated ventilation flaps under the windscreen and the pick-up’s truck-cab had a more rounded roof and curved side windows.

The SII was also the first Land Rover to be fitted with Rover’s latest 2.3 litre (2286cc) OHV four-cylinder petrol engine. It was closely related to the 2.0 litre diesel unit and assembled on the same production lines, becoming Land Rover’s standard engine from the late 1950s until the mid-1980s when diesels started to dominate.

The 109-inch station wagon introduced a new 12-seat option to again exploit UK tax laws,
which classed any vehicle with 12 seats or more as a bus. This not only earned generous sales tax exemptions but also allowed the use of bus lanes in busy London! It remained popular for decades, being retained on later Series and Defender variants until production ceased in 2002.

Forward Control derivative had a large payload rating but needed more grunt to move it. Shown here is the rare SIIB export model which was the first equipped with six cylinder power.
Image: Land Rover

Series IIA (1961-1971)

The SII and SIIA were hard to distinguish, visually at least, as the most significant change was an increase in diesel engine displacement from 2052cc to the same 2286cc as its petrol sibling.

However, there was no mistaking the all-new Forward Control launched in 1962. Based on the 109-inch chassis, it featured a short-nose version of the pick-up cab positioned over the 2.3 litre petrol engine, resulting in unprecedented load space and a hefty 30cwt (1.5-tonne) payload rating.

Although equipped with heavy-duty axles and larger 9.00 x 16 tyres on deep-dish rims, its four-cylinder engine felt under-powered when subjected to such heavy loads and most of the small number produced suffered hard working lives.

The improved SIIB version released in 1966 added the torquey new 2.3 litre diesel engine as an option and in 1967 export models were first to receive a new 2.6 litre petrol inline six, both of which later became available in regular models.

The Forward Control’s wheelbase was extended from 109 to 110 inches (2794mm) which with wider-track axles, a front anti-roll bar and rear springs mounted above rather than below the axle improved stability. Production ended in 1974 but many of its heavy-duty components lived on in the One-Ton pick-up (see SIII).

In 1968 Land Rover celebrated its 20th birthday having produced almost 600,000 units, of which more than 70 per cent had been exported. It dominated many world markets during the 1960s, at one stage commanding more than 90 per cent of Australian 4x4 sales with similar percentages in Africa and the Middle East.

Land Rover was one of the British motor industry’s greatest success stories, yet under considerable political pressure at that time the Rover Company merged with several other famous British marques into a new conglomerate called British Leyland. This would have a debilitating effect on Land Rover’s fortunes, particular in those valuable export markets.

A significant styling change came in 1969 when the headlights were moved to the outer panels to comply with new lighting rules. The sill panels were also slightly trimmed to provide extra underbody clearance.

The 109-inch wheelbase Series III was available in a variety of body styles. Note the prominence of the Leyland name and logo under British Leyland ownership. Image: Leyland Australia

Series III (1971-1985)

The SIII was the final Series model and the most popular with 440,000 units sold. It was also during SIII production that the one millionth Land Rover rolled off the production line in 1976. The SIII saw numerous updates as British Leyland tried to respond to formidable competition from Japan, particularly in export markets where powerful six-cylinder rivals like the Toyota Land Cruiser and Nissan Patrol were rapidly eating into Land Rover’s market share.

Limited supplies of new Land Rovers, which had to be shipped in CKD form and locally assembled, created long waiting lists for commercial fleet and private buyers alike, who increasingly opted for Japanese rivals that could be supplied quickly and in large numbers. By the mid-1970s the Land Rover was also considered slow and under-powered with questionable build quality compared to Japanese rivals.

Even so, among many SIII upgrades were replacement of the traditional metal grille with a lighter plastic design, stronger engines and axles, full-synchro gearbox with optional Fairy overdrive unit, redesigned dashboard with full-width plastic moulding and driver’s side instrument cluster, plus new interior trim options.

Leyland Australia’s feature-loaded Series III with a ‘big game hunter’ image was created during the 1970s recreational 4x4 boom - but few Aussies were interested.
Image: Leyland Australia

In 1978 Land Rover became a stand-alone BL division and in response to criticisms of being under-powered, Land Rover launched the Stage One V8 in 1979, which referred to the first stage of direct investment by the British government in assisting the company to increase export sales.

The Stage One V8 shared the Range Rover’s permanent AWD system and 3.5 litre aluminium petrol V8 but detuned in deference to the contemporary Rangie. Although it retained its traditional leaf springs, the Stage One V8 was a considerable advance on previous offerings and in retrospect a transitional vehicle on the way to the coil-spring models that followed.

Australian Land Rovers at this time also offered a globally unique engine in the form of Isuzu’s rugged 4BD1 3.9 litre four-cylinder diesel, which from 1981 to 1990 was the only diesel engine available.

Clever advertising gave new meaning to ‘doing the ton’ if you were driving a Land Rover.
Image: Land Rover

Another variant produced during the 1960s and '70s was the One Ton, which as the name suggests could carry a one-ton-plus payload. Although aimed at commercial fleets, total production was less than 1000 units making the One Ton one of rarest Series variants.

1982 saw introduction of the County station wagon option, available in either SWB or LWB with numerous luxury options aimed at the recreational user. By contrast, Land Rover also launched the High Capacity Pick-Up (HCPU) based on the LWB chassis with heavy-duty suspension and an enlarged load tub that offered 25 per cent more load volume than the standard pick-up.

It should be noted that the Series I, II, IIA and III Land Rovers were also widely used in a variety of specialised military configurations, not only in the UK but also Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. They were also built under licence by Minerva in Belgium and Santana in Spain.

New Ninety and One Ten models exploited their Range Rover connections with good effect.
Image: Land Rover

Land Rover Ninety, One Ten and 127 (1983-1990)

The first of the coil-spring models launched in 1983 was called the One Ten in reference to its new 110-inch (2800mm) wheelbase which was one inch (25mm) longer than the previous LWB model.

1983 also saw the launch of an even longer model with a definitive 127-inch (3226mm) wheelbase. This four-door six-seater was effectively the front half of a 110 station wagon mated to the rear half of a 110 High Capacity Pick-Up, built on a special production line which cut the chassis in two and added 17 inches (432mm) of chassis length.

The 127, with its big one-tonne-plus payload rating, was designed primarily for military and utility companies but also proved a popular starting point for numerous conversions into ambulances, fire engines, mobile workshops, adventurer motorhomes and more.

In 1984 came the SWB Ninety, which like its LWB stablemate had seen an increase in wheelbase; stretched to 93 inches (2362mm) but for ease of description rounded down to 90 inches. Interestingly, the new wheelbase dimensions were spelled out in full (Ninety and One Ten) in all advertising and service literature, but the vehicles were badged numerically as 90 and 110. 

These new models were distinguished by a number of firsts including a flush-fitting grille with matching full-length bonnet, prominent wheel arch flares to shroud wider-track axles, a one-piece windscreen, wind-up windows (from 1984) and revised interior design.

The new Range Rover-inspired coil-spring suspension provided improved axle articulation and a more supple and comfortable ride, which was becoming increasingly important in appealing to recreational buyers.

The new models also adopted a permanent AWD system derived from the Range Rover, as previously trialled in the SIII Stage One V8, featuring a dual-range transfer case and centre diff that could be manually locked for serious off-roading.

The expansive 127-inch wheelbase variant evolved into the popular Defender 130.

The engine line-up carried over from the Series III but in 1984 a new generation 2.5 litre four-cylinder diesel was introduced. The following year the four-cylinder and V8 petrol engines were also upgraded, with for the first time a V8 option available in a SWB model. The V8 was backed by a new five-speed manual gearbox.

The 1986 collapse of British Leyland and subsequent sell-off/privatisation of its embattled divisions saw Land Rover became part of the Rover Group under British Aerospace ownership.

The same year, again in response to relentless Japanese competition, Land Rover launched its first forced-induction engine. The Diesel Turbo was a lightly turbocharged version of the existing 2.5 litre four-cylinder diesel with a 13 per cent power increase and substantial 32 per cent boost in torque.

Although early versions gained a reputation for poor reliability, within two years Land Rover’s extensive revisions had largely solved these teething troubles. The petrol V8 was also upgraded with more power.

Land Rover continued to service commercial fleets (including military) and private recreational buyers who wanted many different versions of the same models. The 90, 110 and 127 were available in basic workhorse specification, but for those wanting a better-equipped lifestyle choice the County (90 and 110 only) continued to appeal, even more so with the switch to coil-spring suspension.

In 1987 the Australian Army introduced a locally-developed military version of the 110 called the Perentie, named after Australia’s largest goanna. 4x4 models were powered by Isuzu’s well-proven 3.9 litre 4BD1 diesel while 6x6 variants used the more powerful 4BD1-T turbocharged version.

Eye-catching advertising during the Defender era was one of Land Rover’s greatest strengths.
Image: Land Rover

Defender (1990-2016)

The 1989 launch of the all-new Discovery, which filled a niche between Land Rover and Range Rover, had the potential to cause confusion over traditional model names. So, from 1990 the Ninety was renamed Defender 90, the One Ten became Defender 110 and the Land Rover 127 was rounded-up to Defender 130, even though its wheelbase remained unchanged.

Significant engineering and mechanical changes continued, with the Defender 130 moving to its own dedicated chassis in preference to the previous cut-and-stretch method performed on a production line.

The Defender also shared the Discovery’s new turbo-diesel engine called the 200TDi, which was a greatly improved version of the original 2.5 litre Diesel Turbo. Defender buyers could still choose from existing diesel and petrol options, but the new 200TDi’s unique blend of performance and economy claimed the majority of sales.

In 1994, when the Rover Group was amalgamated with BMW, came the 300TDi which was an all-new engine compared to the 200TDi which had been an upgrade of the original Diesel Turbo. Even so, the new 300 TDi had the same 2.5 litre displacement and both the Defender and Discovery shared the same state of tune.

Throughout the 1990s the Defender remained true to its workhorse roots yet continued to entice more upmarket lifestyle/recreational buyers, epitomised by the release of numerous limited-edition models with special equipment. Land Rover also released a new variant of the Defender 110 dual cab with an open pick-up body.

In 1998 the Defender was fitted with an all-new 2.5 litre five-cylinder inline turbodiesel engine badged Td5, which replaced the 300TDi as it could not meet tougher Euro 3 emissions rules. It also became the only engine available, as the others had been dropped.

Defender marketers challenged the imaginations of even the most daring adventurers!
Image: Land Rover

With its advanced electronic control systems and refinement, the Td5 produced significant gains in power and torque. Even so, traditionalists were critical of the growing use of electronic systems, should they fail in remote locations where Defenders often ventured.

During this period, Land Rover South Africa produced a unique Defender for its domestic market powered by BMW’s M52 2.8 litre 24-valve petrol inline six. This silky smooth and powerful engine shared with numerous BMW sedans reportedly performed better than the discontinued V8 it replaced.

In 2000 Land Rover again had a new owner, this time Ford’s Premier Automotive Group. Two years later the Td5 engine was further refined to meet increasingly stringent European emissions rules and Defender upgrades included a centre console, improved instrumentation, power windows and a new one-piece rear door with improved weather sealing.

In catering for booming demand from recreational buyers, a new XS premium model grade was launched with many luxury appointments and the popular County option was also now available in every model in the Defender line-up.

A significant change under Ford’s PAG ownership in 2007 was replacement of the Td5 with the Transit van’s Duratorq 2.4 litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel, ensuring the Td5 was the last Land Rover engine designed and built in-house.

Specially adapted for harsh climates and extreme angles experienced in off-road use, the Duratorq’s power levels remained the same but torque increased due to the latest variable-vane turbocharger technology.

The Defender’s bonnet was reshaped to provide extra clearance for the taller Duratorq engine and there was also a new six-speed manual gearbox with an extra-long top gear that reduced noise and fuel consumption at highway speeds.

The Defender offered enough body styles to suit just about every requirement.
Image: Land Rover

Inside was a new dashboard fascia, instrumentation and heating/ventilation system; the latter requiring removal of the crude but effective pair of air-vent flaps under the windscreen that had been a design feature since the late 1950s.

Tougher European passenger safety rules for 2007 also outlawed the inward-facing crew seats which had been in use since the Land Rover’s inception. This switch to forward-facing seats brought Defender in line with its competitors in both seating design and capacity.

The same year saw a new Defender body style introduced on the 110 chassis called the Utility, which was a five-door wagon body with the third row of seats and rear side windows removed, resulting in a five-seater with a van-style load space.

2008 brought yet another ownership change, this time from Ford to the newly created Jaguar Land Rover division formed under India’s giant Tata Group.

The last production Defender in 2016 paid homage to the 1948 original with its H166-HUE rego.

Even so, Ford continued to supply its 2.4 litre Duratorq turbo-diesel engine until 2012, when it was replaced by a slightly smaller but equally powerful 2.2 litre derivative to meet the latest Euro 5 emissions. Customer demand also saw the nostalgic return of a soft-top roof option.

However, by then the Defender was living on borrowed time. It had long since been withdrawn from North American sales in 1997 as it could no longer meet US safety standards. And impending 2015 European legislation covering pedestrian safety and compulsory fitment of airbags in commercial vehicles led Land Rover to conclude that an all-new design was needed.

So, on January 29, 2016, production ceased after more than two million Series and Defenders had been built. The last Defender, a soft-top 90, rolled off the line with UK registration plate H166-HUE in a tribute to the HUE-166 plate displayed by the first production Land Rover. Both vehicles are owned by JLR and effectively book-end the 1948-2016 era.

The all-new Defender is linked only by name to its famous ancestor. Motoring TV presenter Richard Hammond describes it as the best 'Discovery' Land Rover has ever built - they just put the wrong name on it!
Image: Jaguar Land Rover

Defender (2020)

The reimagined Defender is designed with the need to meet increasingly tough emissions, safety standards and customer demands many years into the future. However, achieving that goal has required a total redesign of the classic Land Rover.

There are still the signature 90 and 110 model designations, but the new generation's much longer wheelbases have no correlation with these numbers. Gone too is the rugged steel ladder-frame chassis, replaced by a unitary body-chassis unit made from high-strength aluminium claimed to be tougher yet lighter.

The front and rear live axles have been replaced by independent suspension, along with advanced mild hybrid-electric diesel and petrol engines, eight-speed automatic transmissions and more electronics than a NASA control centre.

Only time will tell if it meets the lofty expectations of Land Rover traditionalists (many protest that it should never have been called Defender) along with those new to the model. Either way, it will at least ensure that one of the most famous and revered names in automotive history will survive and hopefully thrive in the new millennium.