The years immediately following World War II were a period of austerity for the British automobile industry. One company struggling to survive the difficult economic climate of the day was Rover Company, Limited, which was seeking to resume peacetime motor vehicle production. In 1947, Rover started work on a 4-wheel drive utility vehicle that it hoped would help the firm to get back on its feet. The end result of Rover’s labors was Britain’s effective answer to America’s 4-wheel drive Jeep: the Land Rover Series I.
The Land Rover Series I (originally dubbed simply as the Land Rover) was the brainchild of Maurice Wilks, Rover Company’s chief engineer. He derived its concept directly from his war-surplus Willys Jeep, which he operated on his farm in Wales. Wilkes was impressed with his Jeep, but was disturbed that nothing like it was built in Britain. With the help of his brother Spencer (Rover’s managing director), Wilks set about developing a 4-wheel drive utility vehicle that met the following criteria:
1. Simple and cheap to build.
2. Make use of as many existing Rover components as possible.
3. Appeal to British farmers.
4. Appeal to customers in export markets.
In terms of design, the Land Rover Series I was simple and functional. It was built on a steel box-section chassis and rode on an 80-inch wheel base. The Series I was initially powered by an already existing engine, Rover’s 1.6 litre (97 cubic-inch) inline-four, which was good for 50 horsepower. The engine was mated to a four-speed manual transmission. Of particular note was the Series I’s 4-wheel drive system, which featured a two-speed transfer case fitted with a freewheel unit. This system allowed the driver to switch between 2-wheel and 4-wheel drive. Outwardly the Series I was clothed with a spartan, yet distinctive-looking body shell. Because steel was in short supply in Britain, the body was fabricated from an aluminum alloy called “Birmalight,” which was notably light weight and highly resistant to corrosion.
But it was the Series I’s performance attributes that truly made it an exceptional vehicle for its time. Its 4-wheel drive system gave it excellent traction and allowed it to safely traverse all kinds of terrain, including mud, ice, snow, and sand. Because of its stout construction, the Series I was extraordinarily durable and could take a lot of abuse. When it did break down, its mechanical simplicity made it easy to service, whether it be at a garage or in the field.
The Land Rover Series I made its debut at the 1948 Amsterdam Auto Show. It was immediate hit and demand for this vehicle soon exceeded supply. Just as Rover hoped, it quickly found favor with British farmers, who appreciated its off-road abilities and used it to operate farm machinery. Also as intended, the Land Rover proved immediately popular in export markets, especially in developing countries where roads were bad and service facilities were few and far between. The Series I received a number of upgrades over the course of its production run (1948-1958), most notably larger engines and longer wheel bases. But its basic design remained remarkably unchanged.
The Land Rover Series I was replaced by the Land Rover Series II in 1958. Around 200,000 Land Rover Series I’s were built.
Covello, Mike, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2002, p. 470-471.
Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 870-871.
Hacket, Kevin, “Land Rover: The Sands of Time,” London Daily Telegraph, March 28, 2008.
The Land Rover, The “Go Anywhere Vehicle” (1950), Land Rover (UK): Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: Land Rover, 1950-1974, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
The Land Rover, The “Go Anywhere Vehicle” (1951), Land Rover (UK): Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: Land Rover, 1950-1974, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.