The first Land Rover prototype
In 1946 he bought two cottages on the island, which he rented out. There followed the most terrible winter for many years – the great freeze of early 1947 – in which families in parts of the UK were stranded for weeks on end by huge snowdrifts. It wasn’t until after the thaw, in April 1947, that Maurice Wilks returned to Anglesey for a family holiday, staying at the Wern y Willan Hotel on the west coast of the island.
And it was one sunny day during that holiday that he relaxed on the beach of the nearby Red Wharf Bay, idly doing what any dedicated designer would do – scratching drawings in the sand. He was focussed on the fact that the previous winter had highlighted the need for a 4x4 vehicle that could cope in extreme conditions – and he was aware that aluminum was in plentiful supply. And thanks to those circumstances, it was there and then on the beach that he suddenly found himself sketching the very first Land-Rover.
Maurice returned to Solihull and fleshed out his ideas with his brother, who agreed to build a civilian 4x4 based on the US Jeep. Several decommissioned Jeeps were duly bought from an ex-military surplus dump. The two brothers worked quickly, within months returning to Red Wharf Bay with the early prototypes to test them in the sand, mud, and rocks. And the rest, as they say, really is history. Circumstances played their part. With steel strictly rationed, Rover decided to create the new vehicle’s bodywork from Birmabright aluminum alloy panels.
The steel box-section chassis was born of necessity, with strips of steel cast-offs hand-welded together to create a ladder frame. As well as being cheaper than installing a heavy press and using expensive sheet steel, it achieved the level of toughness appropriate for an off-road utility vehicle. It also had great export potential. At this time, the sun still didn’t set over the British Empire and there were plenty of colonial outposts in the developing world where the projected new all-terrain vehicle would prove an invaluable mode of transport. So although it was designed with the British farmer in mind, its versatility meant that it would be a brilliant workhorse anywhere on the planet where the going was likely to get tough. Rover’s previous factory at Coventry had been destroyed in the Blitz by the Luftwaffe, so the introduction of the Land Rover coincided with a fresh new start at the company’s Solihull premises. The enthusiasm of the management for the new vehicle was such that it even axed its plans for its projected new ‘mini’ car, the M1 (which had reached prototype stage by 1946) in favor of the newcomer.The first Land Rover prototype was built in the summer of 1947. Its chassis came from a Willys Jeep, as did the axles, wheels and leaf spring shackles. It is believed that other components like the springs, shock absorbers, bearings, brakes, and brake drums were also of Jeep origin, along with transfer box and other transmission parts, including prop shafts, universal joints, and handbrake. The original engine was an underpowered 1389cc unit from a Rover saloon