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The Land Rover story began with the Land-Rover 80 inch wheelbase model.
The first production Land-Rover was smaller than all later models, but it was so adaptable and durable, that it quickly became popular with it's intended markets. The Land Rover was originally designed for farm and light industrial use, and had a steel box-section chassis, and an aluminium body.

This capable vehicle was created as a 'stop-gap' to match the Rover Company's post-war production requirements. In common with many British industrial companies during World War II, Rover's factories had been turned over to the war effort and produced engines for tanks and aircraft. By 1945 and the end of war in Europe, Rover found itself with two excellent factories and a highly skilled workforce, but no real product. Plans to produce 15,000 vehicles per year were quickly quashed by the Government which refused to allocate steel for more than 1,100 cars per year, unless the vehicles were made for export. This led Rover to decide that an exportable stop-gap solution was required until sufficient steel was available for UK sales. However, Rover had no previous experience with the export market.

In the 1940s, Rover's Managing Director was Spencer Wilks, and his brother Maurice was the Chief Designer. Maurice Wilks owned a farm in Anglesey where he used a war surplus Willys Jeep to get around. Although very beaten up, the Jeep proved to be a very useful machine for small jobs around the farm. Seriously in need of replacing, Maurice Wilks had a problem. Although further war surplus jeeps were readily available, they were in a similar poor condition. Spare parts could only be purchased in bulk, and new Jeeps were not being exported from the US to the UK. A solution to this conundrum was needed.

This was the beginning of the project to build a Rover for the Land, i.e.. a Land-Rover. The idea formed in early 1947, and early prototypes were running during the summer of 1947. At a board meeting in September 1947, this new vehicle was described as an 'all-purpose vehicle on the lines of the Willys-Overland Jeep'. Although similar to the Jeep, it was designed to be more useful to the farmer. It had greater utility as a power source - being able to drive things, have lots of bolt-on accessories, and "to have power take offs everywhere". Tooling was also minimised by using existing Rover car parts where possible, and using body panels that could be made with simple folds. The existing Rover P3 car engine, gearbox, and back axle were used. Design and planning were rapid, with a concept that did not exist before 1947 being exhibited to the public by April 1948.

The severe shortage of steel, even for export, meant the body panels had to be made of 'Birmabright' aluminium alloy - a distinctive feature that would be repeated in many later Land Rover products. Early prototypes used the 1.4 litre Rover 10 engine, but this quickly demonstrated a lack of power, and a new higher torque 1.6 litre engine was fitted. The gearbox was fitted with a transfer case and four wheel drive unit, as well as the ability for a variety of power take-offs to be fitted.

Series I tip angle
Land Rover tilt test - Rover Company picture

Ready for sale, the Land-Rover was a single model offering, with an 80 inch (2032mm) wheelbase chassis, and the 1.6 litre petrol engine. It featured full-time four wheel drive with a front free-wheel mechanism which could be locked by a "ring-pull" control. The headlights were mounted behind the radiator grille, which made them hard to clean. The side lights were mounted on the bulkhead. This was a very basic vehicle, tops for the doors and a roof (canvas or metal) were optional extras. Rover did not know what to expect at the Amsterdam Show in 1948, but they need not have worried. The order books quickly filled as uses for this new machine were found. The new vehicle could be used as a car, but also as a power source and even as a small tractor. It had excellent off-road abilities - perfect for the farmer. Demand for this 'stop-gap' measure was amazing. In the first full year of sales, 8000 Land-Rovers were sold compared to a target of 5000. By 1951, Land Rovers were out-selling Rover's road cars by a factor of two to one. Something that was not fully anticipated, was the fact that the Land Rover was adaptable to a huge range of markets other than farmers. Quickly it was being used by police forces, armed services, building contractors, rescue services, electricity boards, and expeditions.

From the beginning it was realised that some buyers would want a Land-Rover's abilities without the spartan interiors. In 1949 Land Rover launched a second body option called the 'Station Wagon', fitted with a body built by Tickford, a coachbuilder known for their work with Rolls-Royce and Lagonda. The bodywork was wooden-framed and had seating for 7 people. Tickford station wagons were very well equipped in comparison with the standard Land-Rover, having leather seats, a heater, a one-piece laminated windscreen, a tin-plate spare wheel cover, some interior trim and other options. The wooden construction made them expensive to build and tax laws made this worse - unlike the original Land-Rover, the Tickford was taxed as a private car, which attracted high levels of Purchase Tax. As a result, less than 650 Tickford built vehicles were sold, and all but 50 were exported. Today these early Station Wagons are highly sought after.

Tickford Station Wagon Advert
Tickford Station Wagon Advert.

In 1949, the standard 80 inch model had it's first update, the headlights moved from a position behind the grille to protruding through the grille, allowing easier maintenance.

Series I - Lights through grille

Series I with lights through the grille

In 1950, it was decided to have the four wheel drive engage automatically when the low gear range is selected. This was performed with a simple dog clutch mechanism that would be used on all later Series Land Rovers.

In 1951, the gearbox was also slightly re-designed to handle the more powerful 2 litre IoE petrol engine that was introduced at the same time. This engine was "Siamese bore", meaning that there were no water passages between the pistons.

In 1952 the Land-Rover was finally given exterior door handles, plus a new inverted-T radiator grille and the side lights moved from the bulkhead to the wings.

Although a very popular and useful vehicle, the early Land-Rovers were criticised for having a small load space. This was addressed in the autumn of 1953, when the 80 inch (2032 mm) Land-Rover was replaced with an 86 inch (2184 mm) wheelbase version. A 'long wheelbase' 107 inch (2718 mm) Land-Rover was also introduced.

In 1954 Rover also introduced their own 86 inch, 3 door, 7-seater station wagon version. These new models proved expensive to manufacture, with a surprising number of new parts including new prop-shafts, springs, exhaust, and body panelling. They would be made for only two years.

 Series I 86 inch station wagon

Series I 86 inch Station Wagon at Dunsfold 2009 - Pic by Dave Neeson


In the autumn of 1954, Rover celebrated making their 100,000th Land-Rover

1955 saw the introduction of the first 5 door model. The 107 inch long wheelbase Station Wagon had seating for up to 10 people,. The new Station Wagons were very different to the previous 'Tickford' model, being built with simple metal panels and bolt-together construction instead of the complex 'coach built' wooden structure of the older Station Wagon. They were intended to be used both as commercial vehicles and as people-carriers for transporting workmen to remote locations, as well as by private users. Like the Tickford version, they came with basic interior trim and equipment such as heaters and interior lights. Station Wagons were fitted with a 'Safari Roof' which consisted of a second roof skin fitted on top of the vehicle. This kept the interior cool in hot weather and reduced condensation in cold weather. Vents fitted in the roof allowed added ventilation to the interior. While they were based on the same chassis and drivetrains as the standard vehicles, Station Wagons carried different chassis numbers, special badging and were advertised in separate brochures. Unlike the original 'Tickford' Station Wagon, the new 'in-house' versions were highly popular.

Series I 107 inch Station Wagon

Series I 107 inch Station Wagon - Pic by Trey Crowther

The standard 86 inch and 107 inch wheelbase models would last only to 1956, the reason for this was simple: Demand had grown for a diesel engine option, and another two inches had to be inserted into the chassis to allow space in the engine compartment for the new diesel engine. This space was inserted between the front axle and the bulkhead, adding to the wheelbase. In the event, the new wheelbases of 88 inch and 109 inch were launched in 1956 but the diesel engine option would not be launched until 1957. Due to production line capacity constraints, the 107 inch Station Wagon would remain in production until 1959 when the 109 inch Series II Station Wagon was launched. So, with the exception of the 107 inch station wagon, wheelbases moved to 88 inches (2235 mm) and 109 inches (2769 mm) for the pickup.

In 1957, the "spread bore" petrol engine was introduced, followed quickly by a brand new 2 litre diesel engine that, despite the similar capacity, was not related to the petrol engines used. The petrol engines of the time used the 'Inlet over Exhaust' (IoE) valve arrangement- the diesel used the Over-Head Valve (OHV) layout. This diesel engine was one of the first high-speed diesels developed for road use, producing 52 horsepower at 4,000 rpm. As well as the advent of a diesel option, 1957 saw the arrival of fully floating half-shafts on the long wheelbase 109" vehicle.

Marilyn Monroe at a 1957 photo shoot

Marilyn Monroe and Land-Rover in a 1957 Long Island fashion shoot.

The Land Rover had a very successful first ten years, but by the late 1950s it was clear that changes would have to be made if this was to remain the case. With larger engines and improved body styling, the Land Rover was re-launched as the Series II in 1958. What had previously been known simply as the "Land-Rover" was forever renamed as the "Series I Land-Rover".

Many Series I vehicles still survive.

Manual Download: Land-Rover Series I workshop manual

Club Link: Land-Rover Series One Club

If you can help out with more information about Series I Land-Rovers, please contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..