History of a Legend: Series I

Originally intended as a temporary solution to slow post-war sales, the Series I quickly became a market favourite. Here's the story of how the first Land Rover went from stop-gap to must-have.

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In 2015, we're celebrating 67 years of our beloved, iconic Defender

Our in-depth 'History of a Legend' series will be tracing the rich and unique lineage of our original 4x4. We start with the first Land Rover model, the Series I, launched on 30 April 1948.

Rover needed a stop-gap solution to the slow post-war sales of its pre-war designs. Chief Engineer Maurice Wilks' 'Land-Rover' seemed to be the answer. His design was as much a tractor as a car. The 'centre-steer' concept, built in the summer of 1947, had the steering wheel in the middle, mainly because Maurice had the farming community in mind when we was designing it. The car was put to work ploughing, and Maurice designed front and rear power take-offs to run belt-driven machinery.

Rover quickly approved it for production, albeit without the central driving position, which would have been impractical and costly to engineer. The steel box-section chassis with its aluminium body was actually designed to get around the post-war scarcity of steel and make use of the plentiful, war-surplus Birmabright aluminium. But it was also lightweight and rust-resistant, and the pioneering use of aluminium remains a Land Rover trait to this day. A single paint colour was offered - light green.

A Series I lineup

The 1595cc, 50bhp four- cylinder Rover engine might seem under-powered today, but its 80lb-ft of torque was impressive. There was permanent four-wheel drive, leaf-sprung suspension and not much else for your £450 when it was launched at the Amsterdam Motor Show in April 1948. Any kind of extra equipment came at an additional cost.

But the orders started to come in. The very first Land Rover registered was one of the Amsterdam Show cars on 21 May 1948, and full production began at Solihull shortly after. It hasn’t stopped since.

Neither has the desire to develop and improve. In 1950, selectable four-wheel drive was added, and in 1952 the engine increased to 2.0 litres: power only increased by 2bhp, but torque leapt to 101lb-ft. In 1953 the wheelbase increased from 80in to 86, and a new 107-inch long version arrived. In 1956 they were again stretched to 88 and 109 inches to facilitate the diesel engine options, staying that length for over 25 years.

The Series I assembly line at Solihull and first appearance at Amsterdam Motor Show

The Station Wagon was also reintroduced, showing the Land Rover’s ability to carry people. An earlier, trimmed version by coachbuilders Tickford arrived in 1949, let down only by its timber frame. In 1953 a short- wheelbase, three-door carrying seven was launched, and in 1956 a five-door hosting 10 arrived, with ‘Alpine’ lights above the rear doors and an optional ‘tropical’ double-skinned roof. Both would become Land Rover hallmarks. And in 1957 the first diesel arrived, an advanced overhead-valve design that was among the few to be sufficient for passenger car use.

Rover soon saw that the vehicle’s appeal went beyond expectations. In 1949 the British Army placed its first order. It wanted so many – 1,878 – that all Land Rovers were painted in the Army’s dark Green and they saw their first action the following year, in the Korean War. The Red Cross ordered its first Land Rovers in 1954, and its relationship with the marque endures to this day. In 1954, Solihull made its 100,000th Land Rover and by the time the Series I was replaced in 1958, nearly 200,000 had been produced. With 70 per cent exported, the principles that Maurice Wilks first sketched in the sand at Red Wharf Bay in Anglesey had been put into practice across the world.