The Greatest Land Rovers of All Time
We Drive the Vehicles That Made the Company Legendary
For most people, a 65th birthday is seldom cause for celebration. But for Land Rover, it was a chance to wheel out some old favorites that have made company history over the years.
Gathered together on the impossibly posh Packington Estate (an original testing ground just a few miles from Land Rover HQ) were more than 200 Land Rovers, from Queen Elizabeth II's bespoke waving wagon to a Camel Trophy survivor.
These were our favorites:
1949 Land Rover
Legend has it that Maurice Wilks, Rover's technical director, drew the concept of a Land Rover with a stick on a Welsh beach. He'd been inspired by his experience of riding in a wartime Willys Jeep. The first Land Rover prototype, the J-model, was essentially a Rover-engined Jeep. It had a central steering position but this idea was scrapped when the early production cars arrived just a year later.
Our test car dates from 1949 and is comically basic. The pedals are floor-mounted and underfoot, which is downright painful. The gearbox only has synchromesh on 3rd and 4th so you have to double-clutch when changing down to 2nd and 1st. The 1,595cc engine produced just 55 horsepower and barely musters the enthusiasm to tug around a 4,000-pound vehicle. That's probably just as well given that the drum brakes make only a token attempt at retardation.
The ride quality is, by any standards, unbelievably awful. On the road it's bouncy and uncomfortable; off-road it's downright painful. Early Land Rover buyers had just endured the Second World War so they were used to hardship, but never let anyone tell you that the original Landie was anything other than an agricultural workhorse.
1971 Range Rover Drivable Demonstration Chassis
Nowadays manufacturers spend a fortune producing bespoke, intricate cutaways of their new toys. Back in the early '70s, Land Rover simply removed the body and bolted in a seat to let people experience a drivable chassis. Two were built as a marketing tool to showcase this brave new vehicle.
It's not hard to fathom Land Rover's passion for "getting nake'." Compared with the original Land Rover, the Range Rover was a quantum leap into the future. Even the earliest cars were powered by a 3.5-liter V8 with twin Zenith-Stromberg carbs and 135 horsepower. Here was a 100-mph off-roader with all-round disc brakes, permanent four-wheel drive and a transfer box offering eight forward gears.
With so much of the weight removed, the drivable chassis feels genuinely rapid and hugely entertaining. Being able to watch the suspension doing its thing, not to mention the too-close-for-comfort propshaft, also offers a neat insight into '70s engineering. Today's Range Rover has a monocoque construction: It might be better in the real world, but it'll never be this much fun.
1971 Range Rover
Debate rages about who really invented the luxury SUV (Jeep claims the Wagoneer as the pioneer) but there can be no denying that the Range Rover set the tone for things to come.
It was launched in 1970 as a two-door. Land Rover's management, showing a level of incompetence in keeping with the era, mothballed the four-door version (crucial for the chauffeur market) until 1981. This was still six years, though, before the Range Rover debuted in the U.S. The world's largest SUV market was originally deemed to be of insufficient importance to justify the additional development costs.
The ineptitude didn't end there. The early cars were deliberately Spartan: This 1971 edition even has rubber floors so that owners could hose out the cabin. The only carpet was attached to the center console and that was to subdue whine from the transmission.
Driving it today, it's not hard to understand why it proved such an instant hit. The raw ingredients of the Range Rover's appeal (pace, civility, comfort, stature) were already present and correct. There really was nothing else like it, and if you transport your mind back to 1970 the whole experience feels positively regal. Little wonder that the Queen was an early customer.
1975 1-Ton 101-inch Forward Control
The Forward Control was a direct response to a British Army request for a vehicle that would be no more than 109 inches long but capable of towing a 105mm field howitzer and carrying six troops.
Land Rover's mounted the driver on top of the engine — forward control — in a vehicle with a wheelbase of 101 inches. It was a success and 2,500 were built for the British army between 1974 and '78, with some even being turned into ambulances.
Dating from 1975 and belonging to Land Rover's Heritage Collection, our example has a 3.5-liter V8 from a Range Rover, delivering the torque needed to pull a gun and six soldiers. Without the cargo, the Forward Control feels surprisingly rapid to the point where you're even more wary of driving a vehicle in which the only crashbox is your feet.
1988 The Floating 90
There's something spectacularly stupid about the Floating 90. Rather than build a proper amphibious vehicle, Land Rover simply bolted some giant floats on to a Defender 90 and took to the waves. The company had originally intended to build 40 of them to celebrate Rover's 40th birthday in 1988 but that idea had to be ditched when the workers went on strike. Just two ended up being built.
Down we plunge into the lake on the Packington Estate. Once submerged, the Landie breathes through its snorkel and motors forth by means of a propeller connected to the transmission. Steering is by a large outboard rudder. We chug along, not very quickly, sitting in a Land Rover that's making only a token attempt at being a boat. It's a ridiculous, gloriously impractical concept but charmingly eccentric.
Camel Trophy 110 — the 1989 Winner
It's impressive to think just how spectacularly un-politically correct the early Camel Trophy competitions really were. Here was an event dubbed as the ultimate adventure race that was sponsored by a cigarette brand and featured 4x4s hacking their way through the jungle. It was proper alpha male stuff and it's little wonder that the event became so iconic.
Land Rover was involved from 1981-'98, during which time competitors drove a mix of Range Rovers, Defenders and Discoverys. In 1998 they even got to play in Freelanders (LR2) but by that time the Trophy had gotten a bit namby-pamby. For the 65th anniversary Land Rover laid on a special Camel Trophy display, topped by the winning car from 1989. It was driven through the Amazon by Brits Bob and Joe Ives, the only brothers ever to win the Camel Trophy, and now they own the car.
Powered by a 2.5-liter turbodiesel, it still bears the scars of battle, which is exactly how things should be. Bruised and battered but defiant, the Camel Trophy 110 is the epitome of why the original Land Rover is still in production and why the new version is so eagerly awaited.