I thought I knew roughly where it was, but not exactly and to make matters more difficult, I had lost touch with my old fishing friend, who had emigrated a few years earlier. After two hours of fruitless searching down farm tracks, I realized I hadn’t got a clue. Even inquiries at the local pubs drew a blank.
Eventually, by chance, I arrived at Stretton Wharf on the Coventry Canal and, more in hope than expectation, made inquiries at a boatyard. By a lucky coincidence, the owner, Rex Wain, knew exactly what I was seeking. Sadly, though, it didn’t involve the Centre-Steer. It turned out the place I recalled was about ten miles from where I thought it was.
It belonged to a farmer who made a bit of money reclaiming bits and pieces from old Land Rovers. Rex knew the place well because he was a huge Series Land Rover fan himself (and like all Series owners he was always on the lookout for secondhand bits). “I’ve always driven Land Rovers mainly Series IIs and IIIs,” he told me. “I’ve just sold an old 1952 Series I, which I bitterly regret,” Rex said he liked the solid workmanship of old Land Rovers. It was a passion rivaled only by his love of old boats.
He specialized in restoring canal craft from the 1920s and 30s a job that involved joinery, metalwork and engine restoration skills a bit like working on a Series I Tickford Station Wagon, in fact! But despite living in this part of the Midlands all his life, he’d never seen the Centre-Steer, nor even heard the rumors of its existence. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, of course. Very well-known Land Rover authorities have informed me in the past that more than one Centre-Steer existed – perhaps as many as six or seven, in fact.
It is even thought in some quarters that one or two were exported to the tiny Mediterranean island of Gozo, off the coast of Malta. If you’re ever holidaying in that neck of the woods, don’t pass any ramshackle old barn within having a peek inside. After all, you never know... As it happened, Rover’s engineers eventually realized that the Centre-Steer wasn’t a viable proposition and opted instead for the conventional wisdom of separate right and left-hand drive vehicles.
Work continued through 1947 and it wasn’t until February 1948 that work began on building the first pilot prototypes. The new vehicle, which the Wilks brothers, while on a grouse-shooting trip to Scotland, decided to christen the Land-Rover (note the hyphen between “Land” and “Rover”, which wasn’t lost until a decade later) was penciled in to be launched at the Geneva Motor Show in early March, but it soon became clear the prototypes wouldn’t be completed in time, so it was decided that it would launch at the Amsterdam Motor Show, instead. Thus it was in the Dutch capital, on April 30th, 1948, that the Land Rover legend was born. Two prototypes left and right-hand drive variants were on public display.
One was a standard model, the other equipped by PTO-driven welding equipment, to demonstrate the versatility of the strange-looking little vehicle. The initial 80-inch wheelbase Land Rovers sold to the general public remained very agricultural in every respect. Heaters were non-existent, as were passenger seats, door tops, and roofs, but that hardly mattered because cabs and hardtops were yet to be introduced and Solihull’s new arrival was intended to be very much open plan, with the driver exposed to the elements.