x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The original Land Rover - where the SUV story really began

With the all new Range Rover hitting the headlines, it's time to look back at where it all started, with the world's first Land Rover.

Immediately recognisable anywhere in the world, the basic design of the original Land Rover has remained unchanged for six decades. It was right the first time around. Photo by Max Earey
Immediately recognisable anywhere in the world, the basic design of the original Land Rover has remained unchanged for six decades. It was right the first time around. Photo by Max Earey

Climbing aboard the Land Rover affectionately known as Huey after having spent a morning cosseted inside a luxurious, supercharged Range Rover V8 is nothing short of a culture shock. With no power assistance for anything, no soundproofing, no leather upholstery, no creature comforts whatsoever, this is motoring from a bygone era and it's not easy.

There are some rudimentary instruments in the centre of what barely passes for a dashboard, a couple of levers protruding from the bare metal floor, a measly, leatherette seat squab between my derrière and the fuel tank and that's about it. It's slow off the mark, as you might expect from a 50hp car that was built in 1948, and it's noisy. I can hear transmission whine and practically every valve, every piston, every lever doing its stuff. Change gear and you can feel the ker-thunk as metal meets metal and the next ratio is brought into play.

It's not ideal transport for that all-important first date and you wouldn't want this four-wheel-drive for the school run either, but Huey positively oozes charisma. History is squeezing its way through every one of his enormous panel gaps. HUE 166 is the world's oldest Land Rover and I'm driving him in the place of, if not his birth, then at least his conception 65 years ago: Red Wharf Bay on the north Wales island of Anglesey in the UK. Which happens to be about five minutes from where I used to live.

For it was here, in the summer of 1947, that Maurice Wilks (then technical chief of Rover) first came up with the idea of a world-conquering vehicle to kick-start exports for the ailing Rover car company. After the Second World War, steel was in short supply and Rover needed it to build cars. However, the government demanded guarantees of overseas sales to boost the country's battered economy before supplies would be forthcoming.

A stopgap model, one that appealed to overseas markets, was required to boost the company coffers and Wilks was the man with a plan. He and his brother Spencer (Rover's then managing director) owned a farm on Anglesey, where their families used to holiday. To get about the land they used a war-surplus American Willys Jeep bought from a neighbour back home in Warwickshire, but they soon found weaknesses in its design as it often managed to get stuck in the muddy soil. Maurice reasoned that Rover could do better.

While some work was going on at the farmhouse, the Wilks family stayed at a tiny hamlet on Anglesey called Wern-y-Wylan, where a single-lane track takes visitors down to the vast sands of Red Wharf Bay. Maurice and Spencer walked towards the ocean, talking about the idea and sketched a basic design for a new vehicle in the damp sand. It would offer the benefits of a tractor with on-road usability. It would be a Rover for the land. A Land Rover.

The Wilks brothers bought another Jeep and fitted it with a Rover engine and gearbox. It worked. Then they commissioned a prototype known as the "Centre Steer", due to its central steering column. This was far too complex for production, so the idea was shelved and the car dismantled. The drawing in the sand was the same basic design used for the Centre Steer, but subtle changes were brought in for the next prototype and it's the one you see here.

Much debate rages about Huey's provenance. Some claim he's actually the first "production" car built after an initial batch of 48 prototypes, but Land Rover's technical communications manager, Roger Crathorne, is here with me and is quite adamant. "Huey is the first of the prototypes, no doubt," he tells me. "His chassis number is LR1 and the comprehensive records we hold tell the whole story. HUE 166 first rolled out of the factory on 11th March, 1948." Crathorne joined Land Rover as an engineer in 1963 and has never left, so if anyone should know, he should.

Series production started in June 1948, with Rover still viewing the £450 (Dh2,670) model as nothing but a short-term fix. Ninety-year-old Bert Gosling was there right at the beginning and remembers the early days with great fondness: "The only tools we had were those on the shop floor: hammers, saws, simple folding presses. The designs were all sketched on scraps of paper. They didn't even have measurements on them and we were told to make what we could but without press tools. We made them up as we went along and none of those first cars were identical."

Ironically, given that the Land Rover was born from a desire to secure supplies of steel, the car was (and still is) mostly made from aluminium, a metal that was bountiful in supply thanks to its use in aircraft manufacture during the war. The Land Rover's bulkhead was made from steel for strength, as was its chassis, but the rest was aluminium alloy - no doubt the reason that so many old Land Rovers survive to this day.

Within a month of building the vehicles for paying customers, it was obvious Rover had a major hit on its hands and production was significantly increased from 100 vehicles a week to 500. Since then well over two million of these stopgap models have been built and sold, with an estimated 65 per cent of all examples still in regular use. Incredible.

The reason for its success, reckons Crathorne, is obvious: "A Land Rover, unlike any other vehicle, gives its occupants a sense of adventure. You really do feel as though you could go anywhere. It's a classless vehicle, too," he adds, "and is equally at home in the urban jungle or in the wilds of Africa. Land Rovers give their occupants an enormous sense of well-being."

Another reason for Land Rover's success is that while the brand has diversified with a range of vehicles that range from the humble Defender and LR2, to the ubiquitous LR4s and the mighty, SUV-inventing Range Rover, as well as the fashionable Evoque, none have ever been compromised when it comes to off-road ability - something that cannot be said for the company's rivals.

And here with Huey, on this sodden, beautiful ground, the sense of occasion is almost overwhelming. I arrived in the palatial luxury of a new Range Rover V8, which simply hammers home to me the point that the old timer is possibly the most important vehicle to ever turn a wheel.

If you think I'm exaggerating, just consider the uses that Land Rovers have been put to over the decades. Quite apart from the original intended agricultural jobs (they can even power ploughs and hay baling machines as they're towing them), Land Rovers have been pressed into service in the armed forces all over the world. They've continue to see active duty in war zones and they're used as ambulances, fire engines, mountain rescue vehicles, trucks (some with caterpillar tracks), as well as simple, everyday cars.

Their simplicity of construction has made them ideal for use in some of the planet's most remote and inhospitable areas, with the majority of problems being fixable in situ with a little technical knowledge and a hammer.

By contrast, the latest Range Rovers are complex beyond words. Loaded to the gunnels with every refinement and luxury imaginable, they're like Bentleys you can drive through fields, rivers, over mountains - wherever you want - and it shows just how far Land Rover has been able to evolve that original idea.

Without this car, without this beach and without that sketch in the sand, which vanished as soon as the tide rolled in on that pivotal day, would we have the SUVs that have become so commonplace today? Possibly, but the original Land Rover's breadth of capabilities set a template for all that followed and the world owes it a debt of gratitude.

Huey is owned and cared for by Jaguar Land Rover and, when I press Crathorne for a valuation, he remains tight-lipped. "We can't really put a price on him," he sighs. "He's priceless and anyway, as a company we'd never let him go. We need to look back on our humble origins and as a marketing tool, Huey has been invaluable."

With its worth far greater than the sum of its green-painted parts, this Land Rover has indeed become something of a celebrity and is frequently wheeled out, especially when Land Rover launches a new model. And its shape, which has become one of the most recognisable in the world, remains fundamentally unaltered in the form of the aptly named Defender. But the winds of change are blowing and soon an all-new design will be decided on and built, replacing the boxy, simple Landie.

Currently code-named DC100, the concept cars have been doing the rounds at motor shows all over the world for more than a year now and, while I think they do look incredibly cool and a lot of fun, when the last Defender rolls off the production line, I will undoubtedly feel a twinge of sadness. Because I miss simplicity enough in my life already, and Huey serves as a poignant reminder that when a basic design is right in the first place, there's little point in changing it. The most important vehicle ever produced? Yep, I reckon so.

khackett@thenational.ae