In 1947, the story goes, Spencer Wilks was visiting his brother Maurice at his vacation farm in Wales. The two men went down to the beach and got to talking about cars – Spencer was managing director of Rover, and Maurice was Rover’s technical director and chief designer.
There was a Jeep on the farm, perhaps one of the civilian models first sold two years earlier but probably an ex-U.S. military model, introduced in 1941. It was great for bashing around fields and dunes and the two brothers saw potential for a British competitor, so Maurice sketched out a concept in the sand.
That original idea had its driver’s seat and steering wheel in the centre, and its chassis was made from off-cuts of steel, still rationed after the war. It was to be a stop-gap vehicle for Rover while the company reorganized its luxury car production.
The first Land Rover debuted at the Amsterdam Motor Show the following spring, 70 years ago, and was an immediate hit. Its driver’s seat and steering wheel were now on one side, like a “regular” vehicle, but there was little regular about it. It was a full 4x4 with a two-speed transfer case, and used the 50-horsepower, 1.6-litre engine found in Rover’s sedans. It was intended for export, to earn foreign currency, and by the end of the year, was available in 70 countries.
Farmers, adventurers and the British Army bought in as the Land Rover was refined into a tougher, larger and more capable vehicle. Over the years, many varieties found their way from drawing board to production. Even Canada’s beloved wildlife artist Robert Bateman took a year off in 1957 with his friend, Canadian biologist Bristol Foster, for the two young men to drive 65,000 kilometres in a modified Series 1 Landie through Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia.
Their vehicle, which they named “the Grizzly Torque,” was fitted with twin rear bunks and a sliding observation hatch in the roof. “It was the most free and perhaps the most peaceful time we’ve ever had in our lives,” Bateman recalled years later. “There were no phones, no meetings, and we could do whatever we wanted – stop for three minutes, three hours or three days.”
It wouldn’t be so peaceful now. Modern Land Rovers and Range Rovers are as connected as they come, with WiFi hotspots, multiple Bluetooth connections and USB ports for every seat. Their dashboards and steering wheels are cutting-edge touch-digital, and Range Rovers are as luxurious as any truly premium vehicle.
It was Range Rover that brought the brand back to North America, in the mid-1980s. Land Rover had stopped selling in the United States and Canada in 1974 because a lack of investment meant it just couldn’t match the 4WD competition from other makers. At the time, it was owned by British Leyland, which went bankrupt the following year and was rescued by the British government.
Even after the brand was sold to BMW in 1994, and then to Ford in 2000, there were tough and challenging times.
“Land Rover Canada is probably a 30-year overnight success,” says Terry Budd, dealer-principal of Budd’s Imported Cars Land Rover in Oakville. Budd’s began as a Rover dealer in 1973 and began selling Range Rovers and Land Rovers in 1988.
“BMW made a big difference when they bought Land Rover and they brought a lot of stuff out, but then they realized the culture between the Germans and the English didn’t particularly work at that time,” Budd says. “They sold it to Ford and those were probably the darkest years. Ford didn’t really have enough money – they just didn’t have the capital.”
Ford already owned Jaguar, and finally, in 2008, sold both the British brands to Indian automaker Tata Motors, which did have the capital to invest in research and development. Tata focused on improving reliability and modernizing technology. In Canada the next year, Land Rover and Range Rover sales barely topped 2,000 vehicles, but they’ve climbed dramatically ever since, peaking last year at 9,145.
The brand’s top seller in Canada is the $78,800 Range Rover Sport, outselling even the less expensive models in the lineup and the new Jaguar F-Pace SUV. This country is the sixth largest market in the world for the brand. Budd says Canadian customers are attracted to the rugged ability of the Sport, knowing it can take on mountains and jungle, even if it never goes much farther than the mall. In Britain, critics call them “Chelsea tractors.”
This was a paradox that the Range Rover’s original designer abhorred. Charles (Spen) King created the first Range Rover in 1970 as a more comfortable and spacious version of the Land Rover; it had a V-8 engine and coil-spring suspension, and was intended as a car to leave London on a Friday night at high-speed on the motorway, then drive its owner through the English countryside on a pheasant hunt.
“Sadly, the 4x4 has become an acceptable alternative to Mercedes or BMW for the pompous, self-important driver,” King told a newspaper reporter in 2004, long after his retirement. “To use them for the school run, or even in cities or towns at all, is completely stupid.”
But times have changed, Budd says: “SUVs have become the standard of the market. People tend to have smaller families and larger SUVs now, and I think he probably didn’t give himself enough credit for the foresight of what he actually invented. People feel more comfortable higher up, and with a little more space.”
In Britain, farmer Graham Bowes is dismissive of Range Rovers that don’t have a trailer hitch, suggesting they’re never used for their potential. He has several Land Rovers that see farm duty, including a 2015 Defender that was not sold in Canada. “There’s not the room in it that there used to be, but there’s still nothing else that will touch it for ruggedness and going everywhere,” he says. “The ride is second to none.”
His neighbour Joanne Powell agrees, and says she’s sold on her Range Rover Sport because of its towing ability for her horses. “It doesn’t matter if I’ve got one or two horses in the trailer – it doesn’t struggle with a trailer at all. It tows so easy you can forget the trailer is there, and I need to know that if I drive onto a muddy field, I can drive out again,” she says.
“There are other cars I could drive, but none of them have the reputation Land Rover has. It’s iconic, and it’s known for its off-road ability.”
Here in Canada, adventurer Gerd Wengler bought his first Range Rover, a Sport, five years ago, and then bought a Range Rover that he and his wife, Dorothy, drove last year to Inuvik, at the end of the Dempster Highway in the Northwest Territories.
“It’s so comfortable on the highway, and then you get to somewhere like the Dempster Highway, where it all turns to mud, and it drives just the same. It’s so solid – it’s no problem.”
Wengler is no mechanic – he’s president of Toronto-based Park Property Management – and took no tools with him for the drive, trusting in the reliability of his car. He says his trust was rewarded: “Absolutely nothing has gone wrong with my car. If you see it, it still looks brand new.”
But does the Land Rover brand still have Spen King’s foresight for the future? Can its rugged 4x4s move ahead into a new automotive world of autonomous and electrified vehicles?
“We will have some form of electrification in all of our cars from 2020,” says Wolfgang Hoffmann, president of Jaguar Land Rover Canada. The company recently introduced plug-in hybrid versions of the Range Rover and Range Rover Sport, but “will there ever be a complete battery-electric Land Rover or Range Rover? We haven’t made a public statement about that yet.”
After all, in Britain and some other parts of the world, the automaker is preparing to introduce a third marque alongside Land Rover and Range Rover: The Defender will be a modern version of the rugged, utilitarian, around-the-world vehicle that established the brand after that sketch in the sand. In Canada, “I think there’d be a market for it,” Budd says. “We certainly get lots of people asking – there’s probably a call every second day.”
Hoffmann won’t comment on plans to bring the Defender to Canada, although he admits he’d love to see it sold here. As a boy, he says he played with a toy Land Rover in his sandbox and used to dream of exploring the world in it. “Land Rovers have always been vehicles for explorers,” he says – people curious about the world, such as Bateman.
“Before Land Rover, it didn’t happen because you couldn’t go to all of these places. Now with Land Rover, you can do it. People know that with this car, you can go anywhere.”