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Land Rover: Series One to Defender

A post-war ‘stop gap’

Launched in 1948, the Land Rover was the brainchild of Maurice and Spencer Wilks who, inspired by the off-road capability of their Willys Jeep, came up with the basic concept of a vehicle that would give a much needed boost to the post-war motor industry in the UK as well as the finances of the Rover Company. Following the production of the unusual ‘centre steer’ prototype where the steering wheel was in the middle of the bulkhead, a run of 48 pre-production models were manufactured – the first being the world famous HUE 166, or ‘Huey’ as it has become known.

Production begins

The aim of the pre-production models was two-fold: to hone the design, but to also see how the Rover Company’s new offering would fare in many different environments and some of these examples were put to work in agriculture, industry and in the harshest terrain the corners of the world had to offer.

At the same time, the first production Land Rover was being assembled: chassis 860001 – later registered as JUE 477 and originally intended for King George VI – would begin the official run of what would become known as the Land Rover Series One.

Unimaginable success

The Wilks brothers could not have been prepared for just how well received the Series One was; its almost instant popularity saw production far exceed initial expectations as their self-styled ‘go anywhere’ off-roader became an essential mode of transport or tool for farmers, explorers, the military and world industry.

The original 80in wheelbase offering was joined by a longer, 107in model and with truck cab (pick-up), station wagon and full-tilt (soft top) options available, as well as a huge range of optional extra equipment, the versatility of the Land Rover was key to its success.

Series II, IIA and III

Ten years after its launch, the Series One received a sensitive redesign at the hands of David Bache and the trademark higher, barrel-sided waistline that would remain until the end of Defender production nearly 60 years later was introduced with the Series II – complete with new wheelbase options of 88 and 110in. This was still a relatively ‘no-frills’ affair that continued to appeal to those looking for a purposeful and capable vehicle, and while further tweaks came through the life of the IIA, perhaps the most noticeable visual change arrived with the launch of the Series III in 1971.

A full-width padded dash replaced its bare metal predecessor and a plastic grille adorned the front end, but it was largely business as usual until, in 1982, the County was introduced in a bid to try and increase appeal to the ‘leisure’ market. Tinted glass, body-length decals and redesigned seats were aimed at antique dealers rather than farmers, but the next major change came just two years later with the launch of two new wheelbase options.

Ninety, One Ten and Defender

New names, new wheelbases and new suspension; 1984 saw the first production models to be fitted with coil springs as opposed to the semi-elliptic leaf springs that had served the Land Rover well since it debuted at the Amsterdam Motor Show in 1948.

This really was a turning point in the off-roader’s history and with the Range Rover now being squarely aimed at serving those in need of something more luxurious, a V8 option was soon introduced to address fears of the Ninety being ‘overtaken’ by emerging competition from Japan and Europe.

With the launch of the Discovery in 1989, it was decided that the ‘traditional’ Land Rover needed a new name and so an unused project code was rejuvenated: Defender was born and with it a moniker that would come to encapsulate an entire history of 4×4 legends.

On the road… and off!

It is fair to say that each incarnation in Land Rover’s model range over the last 75 years offers a unique driving experience. Indeed, no two Series vehicles drive the same, but a good starting point is the Series II.

There is no denying its utilitarian feel; pull out the choke, reach down and push the bulkhead-mounted starter button and the 2286cc petrol engine bursts into life before settling to a low idle. Earlier vehicles lack synchromesh on first and second and so learning how to double declutch is essential to smooth changes, but it all adds to the charm and experience.

Driving a Series Land Rover isn’t about speed, but a well-maintained petrol or diesel example will still get you within spitting distance of most speed limits – just don’t expect to get there without hearing everything that’s going on; the lack of sound deadening, carpets and trim means little is left to the imagination, but this isn’t necessarily a negative as you get to know your transport!

Many people will drive a poorly set-up Land Rover and complain about the handling: “The brakes don’t work… the steering is vague… “, yet as with any classic, a well-maintained example can actually be a real charm to drive as well as inspire confidence at the wheel.

Of course, chances are you won’t be spending every day driving off road, but when you do, the Land Rover will come into its own. The Series II lets you switch from two- to four-wheel drive with the push of the yellow knob and, when you still need more traction, low-range can be selected by pulling the red-topped lever. Naturally, the effectiveness of these options depend on tyres and the conditions, but there is a reason that the Land Rover became the vehicle of choice when in challenging environments and it really does make for a very capable ‘companion’.

The knowledge

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