Anyone who's visited the streets of London will no doubt be familiar with the circular blue plaques that have been adorning façades of all manner of buildings there since 1876. They tell anyone who's interested that somebody of note was born there, lived there, or worked there. For instance, if you stand and look at No.18 St Leonard's Terrace in the capital's southwest, you'll read: "Stoker, Bram (1847-1912), author of Dracula, lived here," which is probably enough to give the house's occupants the occasional sleepless night.
There are over 800 of these things all over the city, and there's no denying that they serve to enlighten pedestrians and tourists alike. And they've started appearing in other UK cities such as Liverpool and Birmingham, but in north Wales, the authorities don't like to make a fuss. If they did see fit to champion the area's historical importance, there'd be a blue plaque erected at the edge of the beach that's barely a mile from my front door and it would read: "Rover, Land (1947 - ), historic four-wheel drive, conceived here."
I've lived in this remote part of Britain for over 30 years, but it took a complete stranger to point out that it was on the sands of Red Wharf Bay on the island of Anglesey that the Land Rover first took shape. And to commemorate this milestone in British history, I've arranged a day on the beach with Huey. On March 11, 2009 he will have celebrated his 62nd birthday, and to be fair, he does look good for his age. Huey (after his "HUE 166" registration) is the world's oldest Land Rover. A trail blazer if ever there was one.
Today the atmosphere on the cold, blustery coastline is strange. I'm not normally entranced by cars like this, and while Huey's performance could best be described as "lacklustre" and his looks as "chunky," I'm also very aware of just how pivotal this old-timer has proved to be. In his wake has trailed every SUV known to man, and Land Rover has never descended from its lofty perch as purveyor of some of the best four-wheel drive vehicles in the world. To be in the company of the oldest one in existence, in the very place it originated, is enough to raise the hairs on the back of one's neck. So just what is the real story behind the Landy?
In 1947, steel supplies were dire. Britain, along with the rest of the world, was still reeling from the horrific effects of World War II, which had ended only two years before, and rations for almost everything were very much in force. Rover was a troubled carmaker even then, with a range of models that were painfully old-fashioned and had no chance of surviving in an essential overseas marketplace. And, export sales were a government-imposed condition for securing steel supplies. Rover needed an international hit.
Maurice Wilks was Rover's then-technical chief and his brother Spencer was the company's M.D. While work was being carried out on the houses at the farm, which served as their holiday retreat on the south side of Anglesey, they stayed in the tiny hamlet of Wern-y-Wylan, from where a narrow track leads straight onto Red Wharf Bay-a vast, flat area of treacherous sand and one of the most beautiful parts of north Wales.
One summer day, the two brothers walked out towards the ocean, talking about a vehicle that would be a sure fire export success. On the farm, they had been using a war-surplus Jeep and had discovered limitations with its design. It tended to get stuck in the mud and was impractical as an agricultural vehicle because farming equipment couldn't be powered from its engine. (Postwar civilian Jeeps addressed this shortcoming.) They knew they could do better by designing a Rover for the land: a "Land Rover." Maurice sketched a basic outline in the damp sand of the beach, thus setting in motion one of the truly great automotive marques.
Back at the Solihull factory, another Jeep was bought and fitted with a Rover engine and gearbox. It worked. They then commissioned a prototype known as the "Centre Steer" due to its central steering column. They reasoned that having a steering wheel in the middle would facilitate sales anywhere in the world and simplify production, but the engineering required to make it work was far too complex. The idea was shelved and the car eventually dismantled. The drawing in the sand was the design used for the Centre Steer, and it was very reminiscent of the Jeep in its styling, but subtle changes were brought in for the next prototype, and it's the one you see here.
The design is overtly utilitarian, but there's a certain friendliness in its lines. It has changed very little over the decades, and today's Defender models are its obvious descendants. The wheelbase is longer these days, and every time a bigger engine is shoehorned in the bonnet grows another bulge. But as with the different generations of Porsche's 911, it's still recognizable the world over, and that's the hallmark of a truly iconic design.
Heated debate rages about Huey's provenance in certain circles, with some claiming he's actually the first production model built after an initial batch of 48 prototypes, but Land Rover's Technical Communications Manager, Roger Crathorne, knows better. "Huey is the first of the prototypes, of that there is no doubt," he tells me as he attempts to replicate Wilks' sketch in the sand. "His chassis number is LR1, and the comprehensive records we hold tell the whole story. HUE 166 first rolled out of the factory on 11th March 1948." Roger joined Land Rover as an engineer in 1963 and has never left, so if anyone should know . . . .
Chassis number three was the one that wowed visitors to the Amsterdam Motor Show in 1948. It was innovative in that it offered permanent four-wheel drive, a power take-off (PTO) at the rear to run farm equipment, and it had three seats. It was a practical, true all-'rounder, the likes of which hadn't been seen before in Europe.
Production of the £450 model commenced in June, and 86-year-old Bert Gostling was there right at the beginning. He remembers the early days with great fondness: "The only tools we had were those on the shop floor: Hammers, saws, simple folding presses. The designs were all sketched on scraps of paper-they didn't even have measurements on them, and we were told to make what we could but without press tools. We made them up as we went along, and none of those first cars were identical."
Given that the Land Rover was born from a desire to secure supplies of steel, it's ironic that the car was (and still is) mostly made from aluminium-a metal that was bountiful at the time, thanks to its use in aircraft manufacturing during the war. The Land Rover's bulkhead was made from steel for strength, as was its chassis, but the rest was aluminium alloy-no doubt one reason why so many old Land Rovers survive to this day.
Within a month of building the vehicles for paying customers, it was obvious Rover had a major hit on its hands, and production was increased from 100 vehicles a week to 500. Since then, almost two million have been built and sold, with an estimated 65 percent of all examples still in use.
The reason for its success, reckons Crathorne, is obvious: "A Land Rover gives its occupants a sense of adventure. You really do feel as though you could go anywhere. It's a classless vehicle, too," he adds, "and it doesn't look out of place in the urban jungle or in the wilds of Borneo. Land Rovers give their occupants an enormous sense of well-being." And while the brand has diversified with a range of vehicles that range from the humble Defender and Freelander to the ubiquitous Discovery and the mighty, luxury SUV pioneer Range Rover, none has ever been overly compromised when it comes to off-roadability.
Crathorne is right-Land Rovers really are classic. They look equally at home outside the houses on Toxteth council estates, patrolling the streets of Belfast in the hands of the armed forces, or providing transport for our very own monarch as she cruises around the estate at Balmoral. Land Rover vehicles have been used to rescue mountaineers, carry casualties from battlefields, douse fiery infernos, transport rock stars, and take the kids to school. You name it, and a Land Rover has probably done it. But Anglesey beach is where it all began, with a sketch in the sand 62 years ago.
Vehicle: 1948 Land Rover Series 1
Engine: 1.6L I-4
Mfr's rated hp: 50
Transmission: 4-spd manual
Transfer case: Full-time 2-spd
Suspension, f/r: Solid axle, leaf springs/solid axle, leaf springs
Brakes: Hydraulic 9-in drums
Wheelbase (in): 80
Curb weight (lb): 2,980
Top speed (mph): 57