1948’s game changers: Land-Rover

| 14 Jul 2023
Classic & Sports Car – 1948’s game changers: Land-Rover

75 years ago, the motoring world changed for ever as a clutch of iconic vehicles made their debuts on a wave of post-war optimism. Here we look at the Land-Rover

Along with Coca-Cola and chocolate, America poured countless Jeeps into WW2’s theatres of war.

With peace, many came to resent these abandoned vehicles as part of the unwelcome litter of conflict, but others were gladly motorised in their efforts to rebuild and reinvigorate communities with post-war trade.

For Maurice Wilks, it was a useful tool for his farm on the isle of Anglesey, and ignited an idea that would give birth to the Land-Rover.

Classic & Sports Car – 1948’s game changers: Land-Rover

‘Number 3’ left the factory gates just three days before its planned arrival at the Amsterdam motor show

What began as a casual conversation between Wilks, Rover’s chief engineer, and his brother Spencer, Rover’s managing director, about a rugged commercial vehicle made of spare parts, quickly broke free from its planned destiny as a stopgap to the new P4 saloon and into a fully fledged product line.

By 1950, it had outsold the P3 saloons by two to one; the following year, some 40,000 had been built and by 1952 production was even being outsourced overseas.

The do-anything vehicle for the new post-war age was proving eminently useful all over the world.

Classic & Sports Car – 1948’s game changers: Land-Rover

The Land-Rover’s 1.6-litre ‘IoE’ four-cylinder engine came from the Rover P3

While Jeeps were very much the inspiration, the Land-Rover project was one of constant experimentation, testing and improvement from the beginning.

The first prototype was built in 1947, using a Jeep chassis shortened to an 80in wheelbase, a 48bhp Rover 10 engine, a bespoke dual-range ’box and rudimentary bodywork made out of the aluminium sheeting so readily available at the time.

From the bomb-hit Solihull works came an inspired sense of scrappy industry: the 48 pre-production Land-Rovers were endlessly toyed with (HUE 166, thought to be the first, resides at Gaydon’s British Motor Museum, complete with its Swiss-cheese chassis used for clearance observation).

Classic & Sports Car – 1948’s game changers: Land-Rover

‘From an upright driving position you immediately have great command of the controls, as well as what lies around you’

Even well into main production, preliminary sketches served as key reference material and floor workers knocked up panels with hammers and simple folding presses.

It was a similar story with its reveal at the Amsterdam motor show, on 30 April 1948.

The two examples on the stand were barely a month old and a third, GWD 431, left the factory gates with just three days to drive there.

When it arrived late, excuses were made relating to the gearbox, and it sat outside.

But it did manage to show off its off-roading abilities at the Barcelona International Trade Fair later that year, before returning into the ownership of Geoffrey Wilks, Maurice’s brother, now road-registered and converted to right-hand drive.

Classic & Sports Car – 1948’s game changers: Land-Rover

The Landie’s canvas tilt can be raised for extra ventilation

Its current owner, Tim Dines, first saw it in 1974, while on a family holiday in Devon: “I was 16, dreaming of owning an 80in Land-Rover and keeping an eye out.

“Then there it was, in a farmer’s barn near Castle Drogo.”

After some haggling and much borrowing, it was brought home to Kent and served as Tim’s first and forever Land-Rover, though not his last.

In ’97, he set about restoring GWD 431 himself, and it continues to be used as thoroughly as it was designed to be: “It tows trailers, goes green-laning and has even been back to Barcelona, 70 years later.”

Classic & Sports Car – 1948’s game changers: Land-Rover

The Land-Rover was tinkered with from the off to perfect its go-anywhere appeal

“Is it a bit blustery in there?” asks XK120 owner Dave Nursey.

“Perfectly fine,” laughs Tim, with the jovial hardiness common to all classic Landie owners. “My wife uses a blanket to cushion the seatback, but otherwise it’s pretty comfortable.”

There is no doubt that ‘number 3’ is a basic and fairly rugged motoring environment, but it’s far from punishing.

A dab of throttle combines with the push starter to bring the Rover ‘four’ to life quite happily, and from an upright position – almost tending towards a vintage commercial – you immediately have great command of the controls as well as what lies around you.

Classic & Sports Car – 1948’s game changers: Land-Rover

Three people can sit in the spartan cabin, with room for more in the back

The floor-hinged pedals are surprisingly light and smooth, and the gutsy engine is keen to chug its way through the gears.

Normally, Tim confirms, you can start in second.

An initial vagueness in the steering and gearbox represents a strength for off-road use rather than an imprecision of build, and, when faced with ruts and rocks, the Series One flows along smoothly, confidently and without any sense of fragility in its driveline.

Around the perimeter track where classic Land-Rovers are regularly used to ferry Goodwood visitors on event days, the 80in displays just how easy going anywhere can be: it almost goads you into searching for the toughest path, which it then traverses with unperturbed nonchalance.

Classic & Sports Car – 1948’s game changers: Land-Rover

The floor-mounted pedals are light and easy to use

It has a surprising turn of speed on the road, thanks to an 80lb ft slug of torque in what is really quite a light vehicle.

It takes a while to build faith in its ability to hold a line, but, once you’ve acclimatised to what at first feels like a slightly wayward nature, you begin to trust that it will hold doggedly and true.

Wherever it is, the Land-Rover radiates confidence in such volumes that you can’t help but match yourself up to the same standard.

The car can do anything, go anywhere, and so can you.

Classic & Sports Car – 1948’s game changers: Land-Rover

The Land-Rover has practical bonnet latches

In a post-war context of renewed industry and bright horizons, it was at the forefront of the new, motorised, global future.

It soon became the recognised face of development on four wheels from the UK to Africa and back – not to mention its countless high-profile expeditions – and as the world built itself into the modern era, the Land-Rover followed with a can-do attitude that has seemingly never lost relevance.

If anything, it has only become more useful.

Images: Luc Lacey

To read about our other game changers from 1948, check out the Morris Minor, the Jaguar XK120, the Porsche 356, the Citroën 2CV and the Ferrari 166MM

Off-road legacy

Classic & Sports Car – 1948’s game changers: Land-Rover

The final Land Rover Defenders represented seven decades of evolution

There were constant revisions to the Land-Rover in seven decades of evolution until the very last Defender.

Longer 86in and 107in wheelbases came in ’51, a diesel in ’55, then the Series II in ’58 added two more inches and David Bache’s famous rounded shoulderline.

Different bodies had always been available, but gained popularity with the 1971 SIII, and the 1982 County station wagon was a sign of the future.

V8 power had arrived in 1979, then the coil-sprung 90 and 110 in ’83, before the turbodiesel era began in ’86.

A final big revision in 1990 brought the Defender name, and the two-millionth car was built before production ended in January 2016.


Classic & Sports Car – 1948’s game changers: Land-Rover

Land-Rover 80in

  • Sold/number built 1948-’51/c18,700
  • Engine all-iron, overhead-inlet/side-exhaust valve 1595cc ‘four’, single Solex carburettor
  • Max power 50bhp @ 4000rpm
  • Max torque 80lb ft @ 2000rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual, 4WD
  • Weight 2780lb (1264kg)
  • Mpg 18
  • 0-60mph n/a
  • Top speed 58mph
  • Price new £450
  • Price now £20-50,000*

*Prices correct at date of original publication

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