Our in-depth 'History of a Legend' series will be tracing the rich and unique lineage of our original Land Rover. We start with the first Land Rover model, the Series I, launched on 30 April 1948.
Rover needed a stop-gap solution to the slow post-war sales of its pre-war designs. Chief Engineer Maurice Wilks' 'Land Rover' seemed to be the answer. His design was as much a tractor as a car. The centre-steer concept, built in the summer of 1947, had the steering wheel in the middle, mainly because Maurice had the farming community in mind when he was designing it. The car was put to work ploughing, and Maurice designed front and rear power take-offs to run belt-driven machinery.
Rover quickly approved it for production, albeit without the central driving position, which proved impractical and costly to engineer. The steel box-section chassis with its aluminium body was actually designed to get around the post-war scarcity of steel and make use of the plentiful, war-surplus Birmabright aluminium. But it was also lightweight and rust-resistant, and the pioneering use of aluminium remains a feature of Land Rover vehicles to this day. A single paint colour was offered: light green.
A Series I lineup
The 1595cc, 50BHP four-cylinder Rover engine might seem under-powered today, but its 80lb-ft of torque was impressive. There was permanent four-wheel drive, leaf-sprung suspension and not much else for your £450 when it was launched at the Amsterdam Motor Show in April 1948. Any kind of extra equipment came at an additional cost.
But the orders started to come in. The very first Land Rover registered was one of the Amsterdam Motor Show cars on 21 May 1948, and full production began at Solihull shortly after.
The very first Land Rover registered was one of the Amsterdam Motor Show cars on 21 May 1948, and full production began at Solihull shortly after.
In 1950, selectable four-wheel drive was added, and in 1952 the engine increased to 2.0 litres; power only increased by 2BHP, but torque leapt to 101lb-ft. In 1953 the wheelbase increased from 80 to 86 inches, and a new 107-inch wheelbase derivative arrived. In 1956 the wheelbases were again extended to 88 and 109 inches to facilitate the diesel engine options, staying that length for more than 25 years.
- The Series I assembly line at Solihull
- The first appearance of Series I at the Amsterdam Motor Show
The Station Wagon was also reintroduced, showing the Land Rover’s ability to carry people. An earlier, trimmed version by coachbuilders Tickford arrived in 1949, let down only by its timber frame. In 1953 a short wheelbase, three-door seven seater was launched, and in 1956 a five-door hosting 10 seats arrived, with ‘Alpine’ lights above the rear doors and an optional ‘tropical’ double-skinned roof. Both would become Land Rover hallmarks. And in 1957 the first diesel arrived, an advanced overhead-valve design that was among the few to be sufficient for passenger car use.
The vehicle’s appeal went beyond expectations. In 1949 the British Army ordered so many, that the decision was made to paint all Land Rovers in the Army’s dark green.
Rover soon saw that the vehicle’s appeal went beyond expectations. In 1949 the British Army placed its first order. It wanted 1,878, so many, that the decision was made to paint all Land Rovers in the Army’s dark green and they saw their first action the following year, in the Korean War. The Red Cross ordered its first Land Rovers in 1954, and its relationship with the marque endures to this day.
In 1954, Solihull made its 100,000th Land Rover and by the time the Series I was replaced in 1958, nearly 200,000 had been produced. With 70 per cent exported, the principles that Maurice Wilks first sketched in the sand at Red Wharf Bay in Anglesey had been put into practice across the world.