Author:Smith, Dexter Jerome

Land Rover: 50 Years on 4x4 Wheels

It has been fifty years since the original Land Rover utility four-wheel drive (4x4) vehicle was launched onto international markets being unveiled at the Amsterdam Motor Show in April 1948.

Over five decades the basic Land Rover vehicle, now called the Land Rover Defender, has enjoyed great success throughout the Middle East, as in all parts of the world where off-road driving, poor road quality, difficult terrain and harsh climatic conditions make special demands of drivers on a near daily basis. It is still going strong, with production of the basic model now edging toward the two million mark, and averaging about 25,000 units annually.

Not bad for a post-Second World War British austerity era vehicle designed as a short-term stop-gap. Indeed, the first Land Rovers were built of war-surplus aviation specification aluminium because motor car-grade steel was not in sufficient supply to allow for the launch by Rover of a new quality saloon car.

The no-frills utility load-carrying capabilities of the Defender, and its earlier versions, have made it equally attractive to military and paramilitary customers as to farmers, businesses -- particularly in the infrastructure sector of the economy -- and private individuals who just get a buzz out of the vehicle's naked power and virtual invincibility on any surface. Though it is still slightly disconcerting for the uninitiated to find the handbrake stick invading the driver's leg room and getting in the driver's seat without banging your knee is obviously a bit of an art.

As the 4x4/off-road market has matured and broadened out into more luxurious variants, the name Land Rover has come to mean a product range of four quite distinct vehicle types, but still remains the definitive four-wheel drive brand. Moreover, its type variants -- particularly the Range Rover -- have themselves become benchmarks in the 4x4/off-road international marketplace.

Notwithstanding station-wagon and long wheelbase versions of the original utility Land Rover, few concessions to comfort were made in the first twenty or so years of the Land Rovers' life. Then, in 1970, the Company launched the "civilised" Land Rover concept -- the Range Rover. The leaf springs that formed the original Land Rover's suspension did not give a particularly comfortable on-road ride. The Range Rover adopted long-travel coil spring suspension with a rear ride-levelling unit. The weight and power of the Range Rover, with a new high powered 3.5 litre all-alloy Rover V8 engine and permanent four-wheel drive, required disc brakes on all four wheels -- a novelty at the time.

Despite the relative luxury of the front cockpit, the first Range Rovers only had two doors and a tailgate. The tailgate opened level to the floor of a load-carrying compartment spartan enough to allow -- as was the design criteria then -- for the hosing out of dirt and debris.

The Company was truly taken by surprise by the huge and hitherto untapped demand from a sort-of landed gentry type of driver -- the type that seemingly wanted an out-of-town town car, that could go anywhere and do anything.

The Range Rover soon became a design icon and began out-selling the original Land Rover. It particularly sold well in the Middle East, especially the Gulf States where it seemed to suit the impression of the Sheikh coming into the city from his remote fiefdom, and where, of course, a gas-guzzling engine was no problem at all. There is also the option, with such a big chassis and powerful engine, to have your Range Rover bullet proofed and bomb-blast protected.

After a time it began to have its imitators and the growing competition offered greater luxury and refinement, adopting in the 1980s four doors as standard and a five-speed gearbox plus a diesel engine version. Eventually, the success of the Range Rover, and its increasing perception as a luxury vehicle, even prompted the return of the original Land Rover to the sophisticated and safety-conscious US market, now itself evolved with coil spring suspension...

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