Not every collector car comes with killer fins, a rumbling V8, or a sleek and sexy body. This month’s highlighted classic car is actually kind of…boxy. The 1948 Land Rover never tried to be elegant or beautiful or even comfortable.
This small work mobile entered the automotive market with one job in mind: get dirty and stay out of trouble. It exceeded all expectations. As it remained at the top of the charts as a desirable and durable machine, it has earned a spot on the most popular classic cars lists.
These early models now compete with some of the world’s most exclusive sports cars for top dollar at the auction house.
A Small Utility Vehicle Built for the Farm
During the war years, Land Rover designers Maurice and Spencer Wilks enjoyed the functionality of the first Willys Jeep. When life returned to normal in Great Britain, they continued to use a surplus Jeep to get stuff done around the farm–but it wasn’t quite right. It struggled to get out of muddy ruts and could not run equipment off the engine.
They took their ideas and made some sketches on the sand on the beach at Red Wharf Bay. Thus, began the Land Rover. Their new utility vehicle would include a power take-off, full-time four-wheel drive, and leave enough room for a load of feed and three workers.
It wasn’t meant to be pretty. Its boxy shape was easy to produce, and the minimal comforts kept its price down where farmers could afford it. Best of all, there was no need to take your clumsy tractor up the hill to look after livestock.
It simply worked. Today’s Land Rover Defender still has the iconic design cues found on those early concept vehicles, even though it is no longer considered an affordable entry-level ride.
Specs, Finishes, and Sales
The first 1948 Land Rover Series I vehicles sported a compact 80-inch wheelbase, solid front and rear axles, and leaf spring suspension. A 50-horsepower 1.6L inline four-cylinder engine was matched to a four-speed manual transmission. The full-time four-wheel-drive featured low and high gear, enabling the beast to clamber over rocky acres without hesitation.
The body panels and tub used aluminum instead of costly steel. There was plenty of aluminum to be had in the boneyards overflowing with retired WWII planes.
The interior included a bare bench seat for three. No carpets or floor mats. The shift stick poked starkly up from the bare floor. It did come with a removable canvas roof and a folding windscreen.
The Wilks Bros. listed the first Land Rover for just £450–which translates to just £17,000 today.
Customers looking for a no-nonsense vehicle to use for tools and toting light equipment loved it. The first run of 3,000 vehicles flew out of showrooms. By 1950, their small factory sold nearly 16,000 annually.
Instant Success Sends the 1948 Land Rover Around the World
Beyond its appeal to small farmers in the UK, the Land Rover soon expanded its impact across the globe. The low price, simple construction, and durable design made it an attractive choice for explorers everywhere. It was soon seen as the ride of choice in the desert, across open ranch lands, over snow, and when leaving the paved trail behind.
Now more people had easy access to corners of their world that previously took hours or days to reach on foot or by camel and horse.
The Lost Pre-Production 1948 Land Rover Gets a Makeover for the 70th Anniversary
The Land Rover took its first bow at the Amsterdam Auto Show in 1948. Three pre-production vehicles wowed attendees and set the stage for future success. One of these three early SUVs dropped out of sight in the early 60s, only to be unearthed in the mid-80s.
The collector that found it wanted to restore it, but never got around to it. So, in 2018, Land Rover bought the relic and began the lengthy process of bringing it back to life as part of their 70th Anniversary celebration. If it ever comes to the auction block, it can expect to sell for more than a half-million. A 1950 Series 1 sold in 2020 for $240,800.