By David Mullen
The winter of 1947 brought heavy snows and bitter cold to Ireland and Britain. There were coal, food and electricity shortages as the two countries ground to a standstill with temperatures as low as -21°C in England and huge snow-drifts that halted trucks and trains.
One place where things kept moving, however, was on Maurice Wilks’ farm in Britain’s West Midlands. Wilks’ neighbour, a Colonel Nash, acquired a military-surplus Willys Jeep, one of the machines that had been instrumental in the Allies winning the Second World War.
He loaned it to Wilks to allow him to get up his driveway which was blocked with the snow. Wilks was impressed with how well the four-wheel-drive handled the slippery conditions.
After a sudden rise in temperatures in March led to storms and catastrophic flooding, Wilks bought himself a gun-carrier, a sort of tracked vehicle, like a tank, to pull fallen trees out of the way around the farm.
Whilst the gun-carrier did the job well, Wilks couldn’t help thinking that it was considerably less practical than his neighbour’s Jeep. You couldn’t take it into town, for instance.
So impressed was he with the Jeep that himself and the colonel swapped vehicles. He had an idea.
When he wasn’t moving fallen trees around, Maurice Wilks was the chief designer at the Rover Company. The post-war period wasn’t kind to Rover as few in Britain could buy its big, luxury cars and not many abroad wanted them either.
Americans had their own big cars and what they wanted from Britain were sports-cars, not staid old saloons. Wilks knew that Rover needed a stop-gap until the luxury car market got back on its feet and the company could produce something new and attractive.
He felt that a utilitarian car, similar to a Willys Jeep, would do the trick and on a family holiday to Wales with his brother Spencer, the head of the company, Wilks drew a diagram in the sand on an Anglesey beach explaining how a 4×4 Rover would look and work.
Whereas the Jeep had been aimed at the military, this new ‘Land Rover’ would be aimed at farmers.
It would have the four-wheel-drive capability but, like a tractor, it would also have a Power Take Off (PTO) to run farm machinery off the engine. For farmers, the Land Rover would fit somewhere between a little truck and a tractor and the prototypes were even tested (and proven capable of) ploughing fields and towing big trailers.
Those prototypes quickly showed themselves to be brilliantly adept off-road when they were tested in the sand dunes of Wales.
Steel shortages meant that the bodies had to be built from an alloy of magnesium and aluminium called Birmabright and early Land Rovers all came in a light-green colour as they used leftover aircraft paint from the war. The engine and gearbox were out of Rover’s P3 saloon.