Necessity Was The Mother Of The Very First Land Rover Ever Built
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.