A Defender 90 pickup going through the factory’s own test course.
Drive Cars and Bikes

How the Land Rover has carried on with its tradition of toughness

A brief history of the unintended success of one of the most popular off-road vehicles
Iñigo S. Roces | Oct 25 2018

As vehicles take on more surreal and futuristic shapes boasting of the highest luxuries, only a handful of brands dare retain their classic and boxy form. Among them is Land Rover, often associated with supreme off-road ability.

Before becoming one of the most popular off-road vehicles, or achieving its envied status as a luxury vehicle in some countries, early Land Rovers were actually intended to be low-cost, multi-purpose tractors.

It began just after World War II as the United Kingdom was struggling to rebuild itself. Rover, Land Rover’s parent company, could not continue coming out with the luxury vehicles it was accustomed to. Instead, it sought to recover its lost fortunes by creating a more spartan means of transport. The plan was to build a low-cost vehicle that could serve as transport and also be used for light agricultural duties.

A Land Rover prototype

Maurice Wilks, chief designer of Rover at the time, was tasked with producing the new vehicle. While pondering the idea, he had been using an American World War II Jeep to get around his holiday home in Wales. Inspired by its simplicity and durability, he began to build a prototype over a Jeep chassis. But because steel was carefully rationed by the government at the time, he employed aluminum and surplus army green paint that were in abundance. Even at the start, the vehicle already had 4-wheel drive (4WD), using a 2-speed transfer case to provide part-time 4WD. With those materials, the first Land Rover Defender began to take form, featuring a distinct center-mounted steering wheel, similar to that of a tractor. In addition, a power take-off (PTO) was integrated in the back that allowed it to drive farm machinery, exactly as a tractor would.

The Land Rover Series I

Just before production, the steering wheel was mounted off to the side as normal, the bodywork was simplified to reduce production time and costs, and a larger engine was fitted, together with a specially-designed transfer gearbox. The result was a vehicle that didn’t use a single Jeep component and was slightly shorter than its American inspiration, but wider, heavier, faster, and still retaining the PTO drives. It was a pretty basic vehicle with tops for the doors and a canvas or metal roof offered as optional extras. Enthusiasts and historians would later identify this model as the Series I.

Originally intended as just a stop-gap vehicle until regular Rover car production could restart, the Land Rover continued to outsell road cars, which eventually developed into its own brand.

Over the years, customers began asking for more options for their Land Rovers. This prompted the company to produce the vehicle in a variety of body styles, configurations, and with a wide array of options. 

A fleet of Series IIA Land Rovers being delivered to the British Marines.
Land Rover Series II

In 1958, what would be called the Series II was introduced. It featured the new “barrel side” waistline to cover the vehicle’s wider track. The design of the truck cab variant was also introduced with the curved side windows and rounded roof that are still used on current Land Rovers. The Series III, launched in 1971, would see the grill moved forward and the headlights relocated from the grill to the wings. The successor, the Defender (initially called the Land Rover Ninety and Land Rover One Ten) featured wider wheelbases—90 inches for the 3-door and 110 inches for the 5-door. Coil springs, a permanent 4-wheel drive system borrowed from the Range Rover, a modernized interior, and a taller one-piece windscreen were among its notable improvements.

Land Rover Series III
The sparse, modular interior has changed little over the years.
Land Rover 2008 Model.

Today, Land Rover is widely recognized and still running strong. It’s estimated that 70 percent of all Land Rovers built since its inception are still in use today. The aluminum alloy bodywork, which resists corrosion, remains one of its trademarks. This has allowed the vehicle to reach some of the harshest and remotest parts of the world, and still keep on going.