Beloved beast frozen in time

ROB MAETZIG
Last updated 09:38 23/10/2012
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ANDY JACKSON
The 2012 Land Rover looks a lot like the prototype made 65 years ago.
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ANDY JACKSON
The 2012 Land Rover look a lot like the prototype made 65 years ago.

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Nothing much has changed since Maurice Wilks launched his Land Rover prototype 65 years ago.

In fact it's likely the engineer in the late Mr Wilks (he died in 1962) would be horrified to know some motorists live so much in the past they will shell out good money - $71,000 in fact - to own a vehicle that has hardly progressed from the one he created immediately after World War II.

Wilks was a member of a profession that prides itself on always being forward-looking as it strives to make the world a more comfortable and technologically superior place.

Then again he might be pleased his Land Rover is such a worldwide icon enthusiasts continue to love it in its almost- original form.

The latest "remake", the the Land Rover Defender, is a big, slab-sided lump of a four-wheel drive that looks like it should be out hunting rhino somewhere rather than beetling around urban areas in countries such as New Zealand.

While it is considered virtually unbreakable off the road, it has also become an uncomfortable darling of the city set.

Defender is an appropriate name for this big SUV, because the vehicle's conception was a direct result of the austerity suffered by Great Britain immediately after WWII.

Wilks was born in 1904 and worked for General Motors in the United States and the Hillman Motor Company in Britain before joining the Rover Car Company in 1930 as chief engineer alongside his brother Spencer, who was managing director.

During the war he led Rover's team that developed the gas turbine jet engine invented by fellow Briton Frank Whittle.

By the war's end Great Britain was in a rough condition. Factories had been bombed, raw materials were in short supply and the nation had huge overseas debts to repay. The government responded by creating the slogan "Export Or Die", which meant that steel was supplied only to those car manufacturers that could guarantee a high percentage of exports.

Rover wasn't a major exporter and its main factory at Coventry had been so badly damaged by bombing the company's post-war future wasn't bright.

Then Maurice Wilks stepped up. He owned a farm in Newborough, Anglesey, where he used a US-built war surplus Willys Jeep for his farm work.

One day brother Spencer asked him what he would do when the beat-up old Jeep finally broke down for good. Maurice said he'd have to buy another, because there wasn't any other such model on the market.

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The proverbial penny dropped - Rover should build an equivalent vehicle. So Wilks formed a design team at Rover and got stuck into creating a new, go-anywhere, four-wheel drive utility model that he decided would be called Land Rover.

The chassis and running gear were pure Willys Jeep. The engine was a 1.6-litre petrol motor from the Rover P3 60 sedan. The body panels were fashioned from sheets of aluminium that were plentiful because they had been used as the skins of aircraft during the war - and they were used to create a slab-sided bodyshell because it was simpler not to bend or fold the sheets too much.

There are all sorts of yarns about those original Land Rovers, including one that the vehicle proved so robust that during testing the drivers suffered more damage than the vehicles.

Other yarns tell of the decision to keep the front wings flat because they were perfect to rest cups of tea on. The front grille was soon found to be perfect for use as a barbecue grill.

Whether these stories are true or not, what is beyond doubt is that the Land Rover proved an instant success, with production doubling each of those early years and ended up being produced in greater numbers than Rover cars.

They were exported, too, all over the world. Sixty years later there remain an enormous number of those original late- 1940s Land Rovers still in use, including in New Zealand.

And you can still buy such a model brand-new.

Well, not exactly, but the latest Defender is a near-facsimile of the early model, complete with the the slab-sided alloy bodyshell.

And dare I say that it drives just like the old models?

Compared to every other heavy-duty SUV on the market today, the Defender is difficult to operate. It's hard to clamber into, cramped, and not particularly easy to drive. At one stage I felt like a tyro teenager again kangaroo-hopping down the road when I failed to match the Defender's revs to the job at hand when moving off from a stop.

These days the Defender doesn't have the painted dashboard that was such an early feature and it isn't only painted aircraft green any more. But everything still feels basic and utilitarian.

The steering wheel is very big, the ignition is on the 'wrong' side of the steering column, you have to reach way down to disengage the park brake, and the manual gearshift is very long in the throw.

It doesn't even have modern- day airbags.

At least the visibility is superb as you sit in what is known as a "command" position.

The front windows are electric these days which means a bugbear of the old "Landie" - belting your leg on the window winder - has gone. And the front seats are heated too, which is certainly something that wouldn't have featured in 1948.

The latest model is powered by a new 2.2-litre turbodiesel engine which has to labour a bit at the lower speeds, but cruises along quite nicely at pace. That's if "pace" is an appropriate word with this vehicle, because if it lined itself up against just about every other SUV on the market today in a race to 100 kmh, it would finish last by at least 15 seconds.

Maybe it doesn't matter.

During the few days I had a bright white Defender 110 wagon to drive around Taranaki, I was fascinated by the number of people who smiled as I drove past. Others told me they loved the Landie and were surprised when I told them I didn't like it.

I can understand why some people do genuinely love Land Rover Defenders though. If they weren't so big and expensive, I suppose they could be described as cute. And they sure have plenty of ability off the road.

But on the road, and around town? As far as I'm concerned, that's just being silly.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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