Its lack of creature comforts and austere lines give it an aesthetic purity unrivaled by any other motor vehicle, before or since. But it is also a brilliantly practical vehicle for travel in the most remote parts of the world.
For example, it is still the vehicle of choice among farmers in the mountainous tea plantations of Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, where battered Series Is are still working hard for a living after more than six decades.
The enduring popularity of the earliest Land Rovers was demonstrated to me early in 2000 when I traveled across the remote southern Africa kingdom of Lesotho in a convoy of three Series Is, which happily ran on paraffin when we found it impossible to find petrol in the barren interior. Makeshift repairs kept those venerable vehicles running when more sophisticated modern 4x4s would have been helplessly stricken.
(You can read the full story of that remarkable trip through the infamous Sani Pass in my ebook Land Rover Adventures Across Africa, available on Amazon Kindle.) Back in the 1950s, Britain still had a controlling interest in much of Africa, where the absence of proper roads made the Station Wagon eminently suitable as a people carrier. Then known as the Dark Continent, Africa was, in fact, a very bright, hot place and, with no air conditioning in those days, Land Rover made its vehicles more comfortable by equipping them with a double-skinned Safari Roof and painting the tops pale cream to deflect the sun’s rays.
Isn’t it ironic that the familiar cream-topped livery of the many Land Rovers that today patrol the English countryside was in fact born of necessity for perspiring passengers in colonial Africa? As British rule ended in so many of those former colonies in the second half of the 1950s, so did the natural lifespan of those first, ever-evolving Land Rovers. In ten years, over 200,000 had been sold, 70 percent of which had gone overseas. But the austerity of the immediate post-war years had gone and change was in the air.
The Series II arrived in April 1958 with the same wheelbases as the old model but equipped with a more powerful 2286cc petrol engine, and what amounted to a radical restyling. The Series I had been a hard act to follow. Although no more than a utilitarian aluminum box on wheels, it was then and still remains undeniably pretty and uncluttered. Serious cosmetic surgery could have wrecked that appeal, but thankfully Rover’s subtle stylists achieved the best of both worlds: retaining the rugged 4x4 look while updating the body lines.
The most obvious differences were modesty skirts to hide the chassis and exhaust pipe, and rounded ‘shoulders’ that allowed a widened wheel track and, consequently, an improved turning circle. That minimalist styling created the classic utility Land Rover look, which has defied the whims of fashion ever since. At the time of writing, in 2012, today’s Defenders retain the same basic lines without ever looking outdated. I hope they stay that way.
The Series II was an immediate success, with Solihull’s production lines working harder than ever before. The quarter-million mark was met just over a year later, yet the company never got complacent. By 1961 it had yet more improvements in the pipeline and heralded them to the world by re-designating the vehicle as the Series IIA