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Wrecks to Riches – The Series 1 Land Rover

Utilitarian. Built for work. Lacking in every conceivable creature comfort. The early Land Rover was tough, rugged and dependable. But it was not what you’ll call refined or comfy. But that’s fine, so it seems, as the Series 1 Land Rover is now a big money classic.

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By Chris Pollitt

The Americans had the Willys Jeep and here in Britain we looked at it and decided we wanted a slice of the action. The Willys had proven itself to be a formidable vehicle throughout World War 2 and that tough ruggedness seemed to be exactly what post-war Britain needed. But more importantly, it was all we could really aim for.

During the war, Britain suffered heavy losses to its industry and infrastructure, and while we wanted to maintain our stiffest of upper lips and get back to making cars, the reality was that we couldn’t. Steel was heavily rationed, production resources were limited, and most fundamentally of all, post-war Britain was focused on rebuilding, not buying new cars. We needed something different, something that would help us during this testing time, not something that would be seen as an unnecessary nicety. Enter stage left the Land Rover.

The man behind the Land Rover was Maurice Wilks. He was Rover’s chief designer in the late 1940s but tasked himself with coming up with a new vehicle in the wake of the war. Cars, as mentioned, were off the table. But what about a rugged, agricultural vehicle that could not only provide Rover with much needed cash flow, but that could also contribute to the post-war effort? That would be perfect.

The initial Land Rover concept was a mishmash of parts. The chassis was from a Jeep, the bodywork was made from an aluminium/magnesium alloy called ‘Birmabright’ and the engine was from a Rover P3. It was a prototype built from what was available rather than what was desired. It was also a vehicle that bucked the trend of steering wheel location, or at least it tried to. These early prototypes actually had the steering wheel in the centre, a bit like a muddy McLaren F1 then, kind of. Finally, the paint was military surplus and was originally destined to line the cockpits of fighter planes.

Land Rover, Land Rover Series 1, Series 1, 4x4, Willys Jeep, Land Rover interior

The simplicity belied the Land Rover’s genius. It was basic, and so was easy to drive and easy to maintain. The PTO (power take off) feature made it into a mobile generator for farm equipment and the no nonsense approach to the final finish (paint, two seats and a couple of dials – that was your lot) meant there was very little to break. It was so basic that when it rolled into production in 1947, door tops and a roof were optional extras.

Land Rover, Land Rover Series 1, Series 1, 4x4, Willys Jeep

The production model was a little more evolved than the prototypes. The steering was moved back to the conventional side position, Rover crafted a new but very simple ladder chassis rather than use the Jeep’s and the body panels were made from aluminium and were designed to feature nothing more complicated than a compound curve. That way, everything could be made on inexpensive jigs. This was key, as Rover simply didn’t have the money to create new tooling, especially as its Coventry factory had been heavily bombed.

The Land Rover, which we now refer to as the series 1, was only meant to be a stopgap for Rover. The company simply needed to generate some revenue, and this seemed like a good way to do it. Little did the company know just how popular the plucky 4×4 would become. So popular in fact, that it would go on to launch its own brand – Land Rover.

The Series 1 was a sales hit from the off, and this was despite the fact that, as a commercial vehicle, it was limited to a glacial 30mph on the road. Rover successfully campaigned for that to be lifted though, and soon it was officially recognised as a multi-purpose vehicle. With that, it became an attractive option to not only the trade and the agricultural markets, but also to private buyers. With a seating capacity of seven, it made a perfect, if not entirely comfortable family car.

Land Rover, Land Rover Series 1, Series 1, 4x4, Willys Jeep, Land Rover front

In 1958 the Series 1 was superseded by the Series 2, and this meant the series 1 fell into the same trap as any car that gets replaced – it became a run of the mill used vehicle. Of course, there were still users, but for the most part, customers jumped to the slightly more refined new model. The series 1 was left to languish as nothing more than an old car, and as the years moved on and newer versions of the Land Rover were released, the price of the series 1 went further and further downward.

For many vehicles of a working ilk, a newer version is often a sign of end times for the old. For a while, that looked to be the case for the Series 1 Land Rover. Certainly, in the ‘70s and ‘80s they were a pretty common sight in scrapyards or the overgrown corner of a farmer’s field. But then, in the ‘90s things changed.

Land Rover, Land Rover Series 1, Series 1, 4x4, Willys Jeep, Land Rover rear

As Brits, we never forget, and we never miss an opportunity to reminisce. Looking at the ever-blossoming Land Rover brand and how it had shifted to the luxury rather than the utilitarian, we looked back on the Series 1 and fell in love all over again. It was simple, it was pure and it was honest. Being a nation that loves a classic car, we started buying them up.

This trend came to full fruition in the last five years or so. We had been so dismissive of the series 1 back in the ‘70s etc that we are left with very few today. Day one of any business class will tell you that high prices are more often than not the result of demand outstripping supply. So, prices for the Series 1, even in barn find/scrap condition went skywards. Today you’ll get little change out of five grand for a rough one with a rotten chassis. Do you want a working one? That’ll be about £10,000 if you want something tough enough to be used as intended.

Then TV got involved. When Philip Glenister and Ant Anstead from TV’s ‘For the Love of Cars’ aired in 2014 and featured them restoring a Series 1, we all watched as the incredible transformation took place. And then we all gasped when the same Series 1 sold for a record-breaking £41,000 at auction. Okay, so yes, theirs was very much the best of the best. But still, it goes to show that the Series 1 Land Rover has most definitely made the leap to riches from being a wreck.

Credit to Silverstone Auctions for the Images of the Series 1, available on Car & Classic

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