Differences from the Jeep included a more cramped driving position, as Rover wanted to provide the largest possible payload in the back and moved the driver’s seat forwards three inches to achieve it. Comfort was extremely rudimentary: just a plain cushion in the middle of the metal seat box, which also covered the fuel tank. With the export market in mind, it had a tractor-like centrally-mounted steering wheel to save building separate left and right-hand drive models. Thus it became known as the Centre-Steer. Today, the Centre-Steer prototype is the Holy Grail to many Land Rover enthusiasts.
That’s because no trace of it apparently exists; although some very respected Land Rover experts are convinced it still exists. In fact, some believe several Centre-Steers are secreted away somewhere. The official line is that this very first Land Rover from 1947 was abandoned to rot in a shed somewhere in the Rover works at Solihull and eventually thrown away during a spring-clean of the works.
It had certainly disappeared completely a few years later. Some say its remains were shoveled ignominiously into a skip and went for scrap. Others believe an employee with a better sense of history than his bosses succeeded in spiriting away the remains for preservation. I’m among the latter. A few years ago, I got a phone call from someone who claimed to have seen the Centre-Steer with his own eyes. He said its keeper had it hidden away in a shed on his farm in the Midlands, afraid of publicity in case of legal action by his former employers.
It certainly sounded plausible to me. After all, the Land Rover had very quickly established itself as a best-seller, and I simply cannot believe that nobody among the thousands of employees at the Land Rover factory at the time didn’t realize the historical importance of that unique prototype.
Of course, somebody took it home with them! My mystery caller promised to have a word with his friend, with a view to allowing me to meet him, photograph it and write an exclusive story about it. It would have been one of the most explosive motoring scoops ever, but sadly I never heard from him again. It could have been a hoax, but I reckon his friend was still wary of getting into trouble for being in possession of the prototype, which was in effect ‘stolen goods’. But that tale brought back memories of a carp fishing trip I’d had in that neck of the woods, about 20 years earlier, when a pal took me to a small pool, deep in rural Warwickshire, and down a very long farm track.
On the way to the fishery, we had passed a ramshackle farm surrounded by literally scores of old Land Rovers in various stages of decay. I wondered whether it was just possible that this Land Rover graveyard could have been the final resting place of the Centre-Steer? Unlikely, I know, but I couldn’t resist returning to that neck of the woods for a bit of amateur detective work, armed only with an Ordnance Survey map of the Rugby-Coventry area and my own rather vague memory.