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The Wild Rover - 75 years old, but stuck in the mud?

by Stoker



In 1947 Maurice Wilkes invited his brother Spencer to spend a weekend on his farm on Anglesey, an island off the Welsh coast. During the weekend the brothers went for a walk to the beach that bordered the farm, and Maurice drew a sketch in the flat sand. Spencer looked at it, approved, and they spent the weekend discussing Maurice’s drawing, washed away at high tide by the Irish Sea. Then they went back to their factory in the Midlands and began the construction of what Maurice had drawn.


The factory was that of the Rover Car Company of which Spencer was the managing director and Maurice the chief designer. And what they started building based on that sandy sketch was the Land Rover, which celebrated its 75th anniversary at the beginning of this month.


Land Rover is perhaps best known now as maker of some of the most powerful, expensive, and luxurious vehicles on the road. That indeed is what the Rover Car Company had been famous for in the early 1920’s, but car production more or less ceased during the Second World War, and after the war it was almost impossible to get raw materials, especially steel. The Wilkes brothers looked around for a new market and realised that if they built vehicles for export or for key users, then they could obtain steel and, more easily, aluminium. Maurice had an American jeep which he used on his farm; he realised how useful a jeep type vehicle would be for farmers, and also in many parts of the world without smooth roads.

Lead times in the 1940’s for new products seen as key to Britain’s export drive and for improving UK farms productivity were remarkably short. Within nine months the new Land Rovers were rolling off the production line at the Rover factory at Solihull. The vehicle was an immediate success, a success which continued with no changes to the fundamental concept almost until the last vehicle, now called the Land Rover Defender, appeared from Solihull in 2015. It is estimated that 70% of all the series Land Rovers and Defenders ever built are still in existence (not always on the road; there are many hidden in sheds and barns). Your correspondent indeed has in regular use his own (a “Series 3”), now about to celebrate its 42nd birthday.


Many were exported and were especially popular for military uses as being simple and robust and able to go across the most hostile terrain carrying large loads of material and men. Indeed, Land Rover developed for the military, a stripped-down version known as the Lightweight which could be carried by helicopter and even parachuted into remote areas. It seemed that almost every farmer in Britain had one, every forester, Duke, gamekeeper, and utility servicer, and many still have. Although it is eight years since the last one was built, owners and users go to considerable trouble, and expense, to keep them on the road, and there is a large network of specialist servicers and repairers to assist that aim.


But the very success of the Land Rover contained the seeds of its own destruction. So successful was it, such a cult did it become, that nothing much changed over the 67 years of production. There were new variants, new versions – the series models, 1, 2, and 3; then the Defenders, also numbered. Most of the stuff under the bonnet changed, as were the gearboxes and drive trains. But the last one that drove off the production line was quite recognisably from the same stable as the first, an aluminium body on a steel chassis, heavy, prone to rust, uneconomic to run, uncomfortable to sit in for anybody over 1.9metres. Though reliable and wonderful and always somehow stylish in a very British country way.


But you can’t make a living selling cars to eccentric enthusiasts; the Japanese car makers long ago saw that and brought out a whole range of trucks which would do anything a Land Rover would do, and more cheaply and comfortably. Land Rover gradually lost its market. That was to an extent deliberate; Rover were luxury car makers and went back to that as soon as they could. The Land Rover provided the cash to invest into the luxury car business and in 1970 that all came to together with Spen King (nephew of the Wilkes brothers) designing the Range Rover, initially a comfortable version of the Land Rover – so, King is rumoured to have said, that the farmer could take his wife out in comfort. That rapidly also became a major success and continues to be so, with a number of variants such as the Discovery and the Evoque.


But the old original Land Rover, Defender as it now was, suffered no investment and slowly declining sales. When production ended in 2015, I went round the Solihull factory. In the Defender part 500 men were producing 10 or so Defenders a day, all hand built. In the other half 14 men and 200 robots were building around 50 Discovery Sports a day. The lesson was clear.


In 2019 Jaguar Land Rover, owned by the hugely successful Indian conglomerate Tata, repented and introduced a new Defender, a £80,000-plus beast built not at Solihull but in Slovakia, that kept some of the style of the original but is much larger and underneath basically a Range Rover. It has sold very well and the streets of Chelsea are crowded with them. But as any enthusiast will tell you, it is not really a Land Rover, not a proper one. Indeed, it has given an opening to the billionaire businessman Jim Ratcliffe to build a “proper” Land Rover lookalike and performalike, the Grenadier.


Commerce is about making money of course, not about sentiment and tradition. But one can’t help feeling that Jaguar Land Rover has left the road to an extent, or more accurately, has failed to see the potential of leaving the road. It is Britain’s largest car maker, an extraordinary achievement for a small specialist maker from the West Midlands. Indeed it can be argued that it is true to its Rover (and Jaguar) heritage by building luxury and expensive cars. But it has abandoned that other leg of its business making tough go- anywhere utilitarian vehicles that can be sold in big numbers all over the world.


The Defender heritage always seemed to underpin the Range Rover luxury: astonishing flexibility and ruggedness, a luxury car for putting sheep and dogs in, for getting mud up to the wing mirrors, for carrying half a ton of concrete slabs for the barn floor – and then going to the posh party in the evening. Now that is to be left in the (electronic, heated, leather-cased) rear-view mirror.


Almost as if to spite the seventy-fifth anniversary of the brand, Jaguar Land Rover announced a month ago that they would drop the Land Rover name from general use; concentrating on the model names – Range Rover, Discovery, and Jaguar, also renaming the business as JLR. That seems an extraordinary decision, abolishing the very history and special selling point of vehicles that will go anywhere, that are as happy climbing a mountain track as on a motorway, that are robust and tough and reliable – though the latter has become a bit of an issue as the very complex electronics of the modern fleet are not at their best when wading or at speed on a stony track.


The British army are rumoured to be talking to Jim Ratcliffe about Grenadiers; farmers and foresters are likely to continue with Toyota Hilux’s; and even our new King, a traditionalist and conservationist, may well follow his mother and father by keeping the Royal family's Defenders and Series 3s running.


It all seems like one of those corporate mess-ups brought about by an over-enthusiastic PR department, bounced through the board without much discussion or reflection. Indeed, there are mutterings coming out of JLR in the UK that this decision may yet be for review. Let us hope so; Land Rover is a true example of that much overused label ‘iconic’. It is something known and loved worldwide; long may it so continue.

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