By Kevin Phillips
The little Rover 'M-Type' was finally killed off in 1947. Everything in the M-type, virtually every part, was brand new. A great deal of capital expenditure would have been required to tool up for a new body, chassis, suspension and engine/transmission units. Cancellation of the project would create a big hole in Rover's medium term plans. Without something to replace it, large areas of the big Solihull factory would stand empty, and there was no way that sales of 3,000 or 4,000 'quality first' Rover cars could sustain the business.
The answer was for Rover to build a vehicle that could be used as a short-term stopgap measure until a new ultra modern luxury saloon could be developed. This might take some time as development work on P3 had only just begun and the new P4 car was a long way off. This meant that the new vehicle would need to be ready for sale as quickly as possible, would employ the readily available labour force, and must cost the absolute minimum in capital tooling.
Maurice Wilks, Rover's technical chief owned a farm estate in Anglesey which consisted of normal farmland, woods and sand dunes totaling 250 acres in North Wales. He was looking for a machine that was extremely versatile - that could pull a plough, haul logs, drive other machinery - but above all a machine that would keep going on any surface and would climb the steepest gradients.
First of all he purchased an ex War Department half-track Ford truck. Later he replaced it with an ex-War Department Willy's Jeep, many of which the American forces had been using in Britain since 1942. By 1947 the battered old Jeep was starting to show its age, and when his brother, Spencer Wilks, asked what he was going to replace it with, the answer was, Buy another one, I suppose, there isn't anything else.'
Suddenly they had the answer to their problem. There was a world-wide shortage of agricultural vehicles, and Standard had already responded by building the cheap and effective Ferguson tractor. Rover could fill a gap by building a better Jeep'. With this in mind the brothers spent a weekend thrashing the long suffering Jeep up hill and down dale, through deep water, across sand dunes and through the rocky woodland surrounding Maurice Wilks' house. Shortly after that fateful weekend work started on the new project, which was christened 'Land Rover' right from day one.
Rover considered that the new Land Rover vehicle would make the ideal stopgap project that they were looking for. They couldn't have been more wrong, the Land Rover, once on the market would become far from a stopgap measure. By 1950 the Land Rover had taken on a definite personality of its own, and quickly became a permanent feature.
A year later Land Rover was outselling Rover cars, and effectively it was really running the company. The truth is that Land Rover became the savior of the company, as without it Rover may not have survived. Because of it Rover was transformed from a small company to a large one, and was placed firmly in the big time, becoming one of the big players in the automotive field.
Once committed to building Land Rovers, development went ahead very rapidly indeed. There was no time for the usual Rover attention to detail or the two to three years that was normally spent taking an idea safely and logically into production.
The first Land Rovers were delivered in July 1948 and owed a great deal to the Jeep. Designer Gordon Bashford, went off to an ex-War Department surplus vehicle dump in the Cotswolds, bought a couple of roadworthy Jeeps and took them back to Solihull for study.
The wheelbase, basic dimensions and a lot of Jeep material, including the entire chassis frame, were used in the very first Land Rover prototype. The basis of the vehicle was a simple box section chassis frame with light alloy bodywork. It was a requirement that capital outlay for tooling should be kept to an absolute minimum, and the use of sheet steel should be avoided wherever possible, due to the nationwide shortage in 1947.
Originally no money was spent on body press tools, and panels were formed simply by bending or folding aluminium panels. Only a few gussets and strengthening brackets were formed from galvanised steel or iron. Although the light alloy bodywork was designed to keep costs down, in effect it became the greatest long-life feature of the Land Rover.
The first models were very basic -without doors or trim and no hood as standard equipment. They featured a centrally mounted steering wheel, coupled by chain drive to a steering box on the appropriate side of the engine bay. Mechanically, car components were used wherever possible, with the first prototype having the 1389 cc Rover 10 engine. As this engine was due to be phased out within months, all subsequent prototypes, and the first production run, were fitted with the 1595 cc P3 Rover 60 type of inlet over exhaust engine unit. The main components of the gearbox and front and rear axles were also supplied from existing post-war car part stocks.
The four-wheel drive transmission, which was permanently engaged, followed the basic Jeep layout, consisting of a drive splitter behind the main gearbox and two-exposed propeller shafts. A Rover car type of Freewheel unit was incorporated to allow for the front wheels overrunning the rear.
The Land Rover was originally thought of as an all-purpose tractor, which was just what Maurice Wilks had been needing. Prototypes were seen working on the farmland surrounding the Solihull factory, pulling ploughs, harrows, harvesting machinery, towing trailers, carrying livestock, arid powering saw benches and threshing machines. Right from the start the transmission had been designed with provision to fit winches and power take-offs, as this would give the versatility required of a vehicle designed for agricultural purposes.
Rover's early intention was to market the Land Rover without doors, side curtains, passenger seat, heater, spare tyre, starting handle and even a hood. This decision was revised before the first deliveries were made, but it was reinforced that luxury was superfluous to the more practical options of a power take-off, winch and a low range of gears.
New prototypes were built, firstly with completely new bodywork having much rounder section front wings, and then a series of 25 pre-production or pilot build Land Rovers for serious proving work.
The new Land Rover looked as if it would do everything that Maurice Wilks had hoped for, and it was committed to production in September 1947. The worldwide launch was at the Amsterdam motor show in April 1948, and it was an immediate sensation. Right from the start it was realised that every Land Rover that could be built would be sold immediately, and within months the Land Rover tradition was established, and the sales potential realised.
The first Land Rovers were delivered in July 1948 with only 48 being released before the end of the financial year. The 1948/49-production year accounted for 5,709 cars, which was nearly twice as many as was produced the previous year. Although a fine achievement, this was eclipsed by the production of 8,000 Land Rovers, which increased to 16,085 the following year, at a time when the stopgap measure might have been expected to start tailing off.
The three month gap between launch and the first deliveries being made allowed Rover to take note of customer reaction -particularly that some of the vehicles 'extras' would have to be made standard, to guarantee sales. Rover, to their credit, accepted this requirement and even sold the first batch so equipped, at the original advertised launch price of 450 pounds.
Building production lines in the partially empty factory buildings at Solihull took several months, while machining facilities for the special transmission parts and box section chassis frame, were established at both Tyseley and Solihull.