Land-Rover: The First Seven Years.

Anthony Maeder


The Land-Rover is currently in its 45th year of continuous production, an amazing timespan even for Rover and a close rival to the longevity record of the Volkswagen Beetle. During this time over 2 million vehicles have been built and the present rate of construction hovers around 50,000 units per annum (not counting Range Rovers and Discoveries).

Superficially the Land-Rover appears to have changed very little, due to a deliberate policy to maintain the shape similarity. Over the years the design has undergone slow changes, usually of a minor nature but cumulatively resulting in a product in which virtually every part differs from the original model. As well as these differences, a large number of variants on the basic vehicle have been offered from time to time, with an ever-increasing range of optional extras which the purchaser may specify for his vehicle. The first models marketed offered doors and spare wheel as options!

Right from the start the Land-Rover has suffered from a confusing succession of minor internal and external changes which were largely irrelevant to its functioning but must be recognised in the interests of authenticity. Not only were certain components fitted only in rare cases but sometimes whole vehicles never saw the production line, or at best were made in severly limited numbers. Changes and variations to the 80-inch wheelbase models built in those first seven years provide more than enough scope for ernest study and cataloguing; trying to document every possibility to date is undoubtedly impossible!

The first steps towards building the Land-Rover were taken when three ex-WWII Willys Jeeps were acquired by the Rover Company and dissembled for inspection. Using some parts from these (including chassis and axles) together with a customised body and Rover power train, a prototype vehicle was constructed early in 1947. Following this experiment, the detailed design for the new vehicle was completed and 50 full sets of parts produced. From these, 48 pre-production units (of which at least 15 still exist) were built to be used for testing, evaluation, trial modifications and final adjustments to the design.

The Land-Rover was conceived primarily as an agricultural machine and many of the pilot and early production run vehicles were well-equipped for this purpose with mechanical power take-off pulleys and shafts. They were rigorously put through the paces of threshing, pumping, sawing, towing, ploughing and similar tasks. The resulting publicity encouraged widespread sales amongst the farming community and associated rural services. Consequently early vehicles were often purchased equipped with belt drives, capstan winches, engine governors or hydraulic fittings which have since diminished in popularity.

When the Land-Rover was first marketed in 1948, special models with factory-fitted Lincoln arc welder or Bullows air compressor units were also offered. A few welders have turned up (4 in Australia) but there is scant evidence that any compressors have survived. The fire tender variation, complete with live reel, suction hose, pumps and ladder, proved a little more popular: many photographs exist of vehicles in service and several are known to have come here for the Snowy Mountains Scheme! For the landed gentry on the other hand, an estate vehicle Land-Rover station wagon was produced, with a rounded steel body reminiscent of the similar Willys model. The vehicle suffered heavy sales and registration tax overheads and only 641 were sold before the line was discontinued in 1951: very few remain.

As far as the `ordinary' version of the Land-Rover was concerned, some important changes were made from pre-production to early production vehicles. Seating was increased from two to three persons, springs uprated all round and galvanising of the chassis frame dispensed with to avoid twisting. Some cosmetic improvements were made, such as safer door handles (the originals were gate latches) and a rerouted exhaust system to aid passenger comfort! Nevertheless, some bad weaknesses surfaced and after the first 1500 production vehicles had rolled out of Solihull some more changes were made. Amongst these was a rounded-off bulkhead shape (easier to press) with interior body panel reshaping. The gearstick was moved from its floorboard mounting position to bolt directly onto the gearbox, giving far more positive selecting action. By now the axle ratio had been lowered from 4.88 to 4.7 to give a better top speed for the vehicle in road use. Another essential change was the provision of snail adjustors for the leading-and-trailing brake shoes, previously self-compensating with an inbuilt spring system and most unreliable - though some say that the improvement is barely noticeable!

The 1948-49 Land-Rover possessed many distinctive features setting it apart from later models. The most obvious was the well-protected front lighting layout, with inset headlights hidden behind an unbroken mesh grille and sidelights mounted on the bulkhead below the windscreen rather than on the front wings. These characteristics lasted until mid-1950 and mid-1951 respectively, after which time the headlights were remodelled to protrude through the grille. Seat backrests were rigid, spade-shaped and thinly padded aluminium sheets offering little comfort, to be superseded by folding versions in late 1949.

The prize component of this model was undoubtedly the freewheel system attached to the gearbox front output shaft, allowing for windup in the permanent four wheel drive system during road use. This delightful feature was regrettably dropped in mid-1951 as it was inclined to wear badly, shorten tire life and was no doubt expensive to fabricate. A definite improvement was made in mid-1950 when the front springs were widened (1 3/4" to 2 1/2") and shackled behind instead of in front. This move improved handling but the rear springs remained comparatively weak and the 80" was never able to carry heavy loads without incurring damage or disfigurement.

New changes were made for the 1952-53 models, many of them weakening features for the sake of style and selling points, like outside door handles or further remodelled seats and grille. The philosophy of improved styling was carried through in the release of the 86" successor of 1954, which in one swoop corrected almost all the faults of the 80" and looked quite presentable too! The one significant mechanical change during the last two years of the 80" was the boring out of the engine from 1595cc to 1997cc, giving a minor increase from 50 to 52 bhp but improving the maximum torque from 80 to 101 lb ft.

By this stage many unpopular, expensive and inessential options had dwindled away to obscurity (such as power take-offs, split wheel rims and canvas cab roofs) and remaining special fittings were supplied in profusion. These included bonnet spare wheel mounting bracket, passenger-side windscreen wiper, solid doortops and a removable aluminium hardtop in full length or cab form, to complement the full length canvas tilt. An equilibrium state had been reached with a set of basic features desired by every Land-Rover purchaser and most of these were now fitted as standard. The Land-Rover had begun to make its name and unimportant details like these could no longer be allowed to interfere with the vigorous production rate of over 25,000 vehicles per annum. The 80" certainly set the scene and the pace for its legendary Series I successors.

During those first seven years over 80,000 vehicles were built: it is doubtful whether more than 5% of those are still in one piece. Some estimates put the proportion closer to 2%! The Land Rover Register, formed in England in 1976 with the efforts of Tony Hutchings, and more recently the Series One Club also, has taken some trouble to track down early 80" models. Contacts have been established with Land-Rover enthusiasts in many European countries as well as Canada, USA, South Africa and Australia.

A Register of details of all vehicles of interest is maintained by both these organisations. Not only is this of historical importance but a large number of fascinating facts and stories have been brought to light. Even more important, a good number of original restoration projects have been inspired, unusual treatment indeed for vehicles often expected to work long and hard, without rest or comfort. At last the Land-Rover is beginning to receive its share of acclaim in the world of old motor cars and many years of unquestioning service will be fittingly rewarded.

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