Since the beginning of 2013, Land Rover has proudly boasted that this year marks its 65th anniversary – but technically, today marks exactly 65 years since the off-road icon made its public debut at the 1948 Amsterdam Motor Show.
Initially, the Land Rover was something of a pet project of Maurice Wilks, Rover’s chief designer, who used a surplus military Jeep on his own estate. Although the Land Rover was originally viewed as a stop-gap product for Rover immediately after World War II, its future quickly grew promising as Rover recognized the British Army’s interest in such a four-wheel drive vehicle, along with its extensive export potential.
The earliest prototypes, built in 1947, were little more than aluminum bodywork draped over a salvaged Jeep chassis, albeit with a Rover engine in place. The idea evolved slightly before the first two pre-production Series 1 Land Rovers were built in March 1948. Although their 80-inch wheelbase, aluminum bodywork, and a Rover-sourced engine (a 1.6-liter I-4 borrowed from the P3 sedan), these Land Rovers were built upon a boxed ladder frame designed and built in house.
The reception after the Land Rover’s launch at the Amsterdam show took Rover by surprise. By July of 1948, Rover had 8000 orders for the Land Rover. Early internal estimates suggested Rover would be building 50 units a week, but the company soon found itself scrambling to build ten times that figure. To meet this demand, Rover quickly abandoned its early hand assembly methods and established a permanent production line in Solihull, England.
A Tickford-bodied station wagon joined the lineup in 1949, as did a cut-down pickup designed for use as a mobile welding station. Left-hand-drive export models were added to the lineup in 1950, and 1951, the 1.6-liter I-4 was replaced with a larger 2.0-liter I-4. The 80-inch wheelbase was stretched to 86 inches in late 1953 per the request of the British Army; that model’s strengthened frame also allowed Land Rover to create a long, 107-inch wheelbase model, which was offered as a pickup and four-door station wagon. Those dimensions were cranked up to 88- and 109 inches, respectively, in 1956 to make room for a diesel engine option.
The basic Land Rover design was updated slightly in 1958 to become the Series II, which got a larger 2.3-liter I-4. By 1959, the 250,000th Land Rover rolled off the line in Solihull. Similar milestones would occur again in 1971 and 1976, when the 750,000th and 1 millionth Land Rovers were assembled. Series III models, which launched in 1971, boasted a more car-like dashboard, but were again mild evolutions of the late Series IIa models.
With the exception of forward-control and lightweight models designed primarily for military use, Land Rover didn’t branch out into other model fields or stray far from its original design principles. That all changed in 1970 with the introduction of the Range Rover. Although Rover toyed with a car-like Land Rover variant in the mid 50s, it never reached fruition until the early 1970s. Designed as a country/ farm vehicle that was stylish and comfortable enough to be occasionally used in town, the stylish Range Rover essentially took a 100-inch wheelbase variant of the Land Rover frame, wrapped it in stylish bodywork, and stuffed a V-8 into its engine compartment. The model ultimately spawned a second pair of doors in 1981, was made over into a luxury-oriented vehicle in 1984, and was launched in North America in 1987, where it quickly became a hallmark of yuppie suburbandom. It also helped Land Rover re-enter the U.S. market, where it had been absent since 1974.
The next step in bolstering a civilian-friendly product range was the Discovery. Designed to counter large Japanese off-roaders like the Toyota Land Cruiser, Isuzu Trooper, and Mitsubishi Montero, the Discovery shared its underpinnings and powertrain with the Range Rover, but was designed to be a lower-cost, high-volume model. Launched in Europe in 1989, the Discovery debuted in North America in 1994, making it one of the first Land Rover models to be sold in America in nearly twenty years. (The updated Defender was technically the first.) The Discovery was updated slightly in late 1998 and replaced with an all-new model in 2004, which was in turn updated in 2011 to become the LR4.
Many thought the Freelander, which launched in 1997, was also in response to Japanese competitors, but since the early 1990s, Land Rover was contemplating a car-based “entry-level” model for buyers aspiring to step into the Land Rover brand. The Freelander's successor – today’s LR2 – looks much like the original, but rides upon a platform developed when Ford’s still owned the Land Rover brand. That same platform is also used by the Range Rover Evoque, which launched in 2012 to both critical and commercial acclaim.
Despite some rocky years under the stewardship of both BMW (1994-2000) and Ford, Land Rover continued to grow in the 2000s. The 3 millionth Land Rover was built in 2001, while the 500,000th Range Rover rolled off the assembly line in 2002 and the 500,000th Freelander/LR2 was built in 2005. The 4 millionth Land Rover was built in 2007, a year before Ford sold both Land Rover and Jaguar to Indian automaker Tata Motors. An all-new 2013 Range Rover is launching this summer, a new 2014 Range Rover Sport debuted earlier this year, and Land Rover itself continues to mull exactly how to replace its venerable Defender – a vehicle whose shape, structure, and purpose have changed very little since the original Series I debuted 65 years ago today. The DC100 concept – shown above alongside an original Series I – is one potential direction, but only time will tell exactly how the “purest” Land Rover model takes a bold step forward for the 2015 model year.