It was 1947 and the whole of Britain was trying to return to normal life, sifting through the debris left by World War II. The Economy was as battered as the streets of London but times were changing and there was optimism in the air for the first time since the late 30’s
The immediate post-war period saw raw materials strictly rationed to companies building construction or industrial equipment, or products that could be widely exported to earn crucial foreign exchange for the country.
The Rover factory in Coventry, which had produced luxury cars prior to WWII, had been bombed extensively, forcing the company to move into a huge “shadow factory” it had built during the war near Birmingham to construct aircraft. This factory was now empty but starting car production there from scratch would not be financially viable. Plans for a small, economical car known as the M Type were drawn up, and a few prototypes made, but proved to be too expensive to produce.
Rover’s then chief designer Maurice Wilkes, came up with a plan to produce a light agricultural and utility vehicle. So, here’s the part where the US Army Jeep comes into play. Due to the lend-lease program and the large amount of US military units once station and still in England at the time, there was an abundance of left over Ford GPW’s and Willy’s MB’s. So many Jeeps were built during WWII that in America the “$50 Jeep in a crate” was a real thing for a short time.
Maurice purchased a surplus Willy’s MB and used it on his farm in Anglesey in North Wales. During this time, he became quite familiar with the American work horse now dubbed the “Jeep”. He saw it as something that had many uses and purposes. But mostly he saw an economically viable opportunity to provide the UK with a utility vehicle of it’s own design similar in concept to the Willys Jeep but with an emphasis on agricultural use.
So, slide rule, tea cup and cigar in hand, Maurice set to work on designing. With the assistance of Rover’s engineering team led by Arthur Goddard, the first pre-production Land Rovers were being developed by late 1947.
The first prototype had one rather odd yet distinctive feature whereas the steering wheel was mounted in the middle of the vehicle. This vehicle was dubbed the “Center Steer”.
It was built on the Jeep chassis and used the engine and gearbox out of a Rover P3 saloon car. The bodywork was handmade out of an aluminium/magnesium alloy called “Birmabright” since steel was still very closely rationed. Early in pre-production the chassis was used straight from the Jeep and and wasn’t even repainted and the olive green axles shone quite contrastly through the centers of the grey wheels. After all, paint was in still in very short supply and manufacturers had to make use of surplus paints.
Early tests showed this quirky little vehicle to be a very capable yet versatile machine. And much like the first American “civilian” Jeeps, PTO drives from the front of the engine and from the gearbox to the centre and rear of the vehicle allowed it to drive farm machinery, just like a tractor.
Testing included ploughing and several other agricultural tasks. However, as the vehicle was being readied for production, this emphasis on tractor-like usage decreased and the tractor like center steering proved impractical for road use.
Subsequently, the steering wheel was mounted off to the side as normal, the bodywork was simplified to reduce production time and costs and a larger engine was fitted along with a specially designed transfer gearbox to replace the original Jeep unit. The resulting vehicle ended up NOT using a single Jeep component. It became slightly shorter than its American inspiration, but wider, heavier, and faster and then progressed into the very versatile utility vehicle which is still in production today, known as the “Defender”.
So, forged in the crucible of war and honed into an everlasting Icon of everything that truly “British” the Land Rover can trace it roots back to the very vehicle that carried troops and Generals alike into battle, the very American iconic Jeep.