Ever since the recent wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton, chances are more people around the world have heard of Anglesey. It’s a small, bleak, windblown island off the north coast of Wales. Study a map of Britain and Wales looks like the head of a pig. Anglesey is the pig’s ear. “Wills” has been stationed there while doing a stint in the Royal Air Force (not much chance of running into anyone dangerous).
It’s also the birthplace of an icon. On the farm of one Maurice Wilks, to be exact. After the Second World War, Wilks used an army surplus Willys Jeep to get around his land and perform various agricultural tasks. When brother Spencer paid a visit, he asked a perfectly reasonable question: what was Maurice going to do when the Jeep finally stopped working? Maurice realized immediately that he would either have to buy another Jeep, since there were no other all-wheel-drive utility vehicles on the market, or...
It just so happened that the Wilks brothers’ day jobs were working for the Rover company (Maurice as chief engineer, Spencer as chairman), a firm in dire need of new product ideas. And they had just come up with one. It was a perfect plan: the body could be made of aluminum, since steel was being rationed at the time, with the added benefit of being corrosion-resistant. And by virtue of being an agricultural vehicle, export prospects were excellent.
As is often the case with great design, the Land Rover wasn’t really designed at all. Its brutal cubism came about because those shapes were expedient for the factory workers to create. By 1947, 50 pre-production models had been built and the official machine debuted at the Amsterdam Motor Show of April 1948. It set the template for SUV construction by virtue of its box section, ladder frame chassis. The transmission had four high gears, four low gears and a transfer case, and the handbrake was connected to it, so the vehicle could be held on steep inclines. The flooring and panels were actually made of a magnesium/aluminum alloy known by the proprietary name of Birmabright. Also, the wiring was waterproof.
The original engine was a four-cylinder 1.6-liter gasoline unit, propelling what came to be known as the Series I. Larger-displacement petrol and diesel alternatives came later. A straight six was available in the Series IIA, with a V8 offered in the Series III.
Despite being about as comfortable and pleasant to operate as a tractor, the Land Rover was quickly co-opted for intrepid expeditions. In 1949, a certain Colonel LeBlanc drove one from Britain to what was then Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). Famed (and somewhat controversial) explorer Laurens van der Post (coincidentally, Prince William’s godfather) used Land Rover locomotion while negotiating the remote Kalahari Desert in the ’50s.
It just so happened that the Wilks brothers’ day jobs were working for the Rover company, a firm in dire need of new product ideas.
As well as Africa, Land Rovers have proved useful and popular in Australia and the Middle East. And not just with explorers and farmers. It became a mainstay vehicle in many military forces. In hot countries, hungry troops could fry eggs on the flat front fenders without them sliding off. Land Rovers have been used as ambulances and gun carriers, seeing action in the Korean War, the Falklands conflict, the Gulf War and Afghanistan.
Going down the road less traveled, or indeed no road at all, has become a badge of honor for Land Rovers. In more recent times, the Camel Trophy (described as “the Olympics for 4x4s”) and the G4 Challenge has seen them traverse inhospitable terrain from South America to Southeast Asia.
In common with all cars made in Britain, quality took a decidedly wobbly dip during the ’70s, although the “Landie” had essentially changed little over the years. By 1983, there were the 90 and 110 models (the numbers are the measurements of each model’s wheelbase in inches). Because Land Rover had expanded as a brand, introducing the more sophisticated Discovery (aka LR4) in 1989, the old faithful model needed a name as well. And so the Defender came into being.