HUE 166 must be the most famous Land Rover
ever, the first and biggest hall of fame Land Rover as it were. Thats
because it was the first production vehicle. A lot has changed in the 60
years since that then.
As Tata Motors takes control of Land
Rover, Kevin Hackett drives the oldest survivor in Anglesey, where the
marque was born
The Sands of Time
year Land Rover
celebrates its 60th anniversary in the hands of its new Indian
owner, Tata. The subject of multi-billion dollar takeovers, employing
many thousands of workers, with agents right across the globe, Land
Rover is an internationally recognised brand now but this is where it
all started, with this very car. HUE 166 (Huey) is the world's oldest
Land Rover and I'm driving it in the place of, if not its birth, then at
least its conception, 60 years ago, at Red Wharf Bay on the north Wales
island of Anglesey. For it was here in the summer of 1947 that Maurice
Wilks (then technical chief of Rover) came up with the idea of a
world-conquering vehicle to kick-start exports for the ailing Rover car
Basic: creature comforts are
non-existent, but it was intended to be a working vehicle
Climbing aboard Huey after having spent a
morning cossetted inside a luxurious, supercharged Range Rover V8 is
nothing short of a culture shock. Without power assisted anything, no
soundproofing, plush upholstery or creature comforts, this is motoring
from a bygone era and it's not easy. There are rudimentary instruments
in the centre of what barely passes for a dashboard, a couple of levers
protruding from the bare metal floor, a measly, leatherette seat cushion
between my bottom and the fuel tank and that's about it. It's slow off
the mark, as you might expect from a 50bhp car built in 1948, and it's
noisy. You can hear the transmission whine and practically every valve,
piston and lever doing its stuff. Change gear and you can feel the
ker-thunk as metal meets metal and the next ratio is engaged.
It's not ideal transport for shopping
trips, romantic assignations or the school run, but Huey positively
oozes charisma. History squeezes its way through every one of his
enormous panel gaps and you have to think back to those austere post-war
years to appreciate the revolution Huey represents.
After the Second World War, steel was in
short supply and Rover needed it to build cars. However, the government
demanded guarantees of overseas sales to boost the country's battered
economy before supplies would be forthcoming. Wilks envisiged a "stopgap
model", one that appealed to foreign markets and would fill the company
coffers. He and his brother Spencer (Rover's managing director) owned a
farm on Anglesey where their families would holiday. Here they used a
war-surplus Willys Jeep, but they soon found weaknesses in its design
and Maurice reasoned they could do better.
While some work was going on at the
farmhouse, the Wilks family stayed in a hamlet called Wern-y-Wylan,
where a single-lane track takes visitors down to the vast sands of Red
Wharf Bay. Maurice and Spencer walked out towards the ocean, talking
about the idea and sketched a basic design for a new vehicle in the damp
sand. It would offer the benefits of a tractor with on-road useability.
It would be a Rover for the land. A Land Rover.
They bought another Jeep
and fitted it with a Rover engine and gearbox. It worked. Then they
commissioned a prototype known as the "Centre Steer" due to its
centrally mounted steering column. This was far too complex so the idea
was shelved and the car dismantled. The drawing in the sand was the
design used for the Centre Steer but subtle changes were brought in for
the next prototype - the car seen here.
Much debate rages about Huey's
provenance. Some claim he's actually the first "production" car, built
after an initial batch of 48 prototypes, but Land Rover's technical
communications manager, Roger Crathorne, is adamant. "Huey is the first
of the prototypes, no doubt," he tells me. "His chassis number is LR1
and the comprehensive records we hold tell the whole story. HUE 166
rolled out of the factory on March 11, 1948." Roger joined Land Rover as
an engineer in 1963 and has never left, so if anyone should know…
Chassis number three was the one that
impressed visitors to the Amsterdam motor show on April 30, 1948. It was
innovative in that it offered permanent four-wheel drive, a power
take-off (PTO) at the rear to run farm equipment and it had three front
seats. It was a practical, genuine all-rounder, the like of which hadn't
been seen before.
Production commenced in June, with Rover
still viewing the £450 model as nothing but a short-term fix. Bert
Gosling, 85, was there at the beginning and recalls the early days with
great fondness: "The only tools we had were those on the shop floor:
hammers, saws, simple folding presses. The designs were all sketched on
scraps of paper - they didn't even have measurements on them and we were
told to make what we could but without press tools. We made them up as
we went along and none of those first cars was identical."
Ironically, given that the Land Rover was
born from a desire to secure supplies of steel, the car was (and still
is) mostly made from aluminium alloy - a metal plentiful in supply
thanks to its use in aircraft manufacture during the war. The Land
Rover's bulkhead was made from steel for strength, as was its chassis,
but the rest was aluminium alloy - no doubt the reason why so many old
Land Rovers have survived to this day.
Within a month of building the vehicles
for paying customers, it was obvious Rover had a major hit on its hands
and production was ramped up from 100 vehicles a week to 500. Since then
almost two million of these "stopgap" models have been built and sold,
with an estimated 65 per cent of all examples still in use.
The reason for its success, reckons
Crathorne, is obvious: "A Land Rover, unlike any other vehicle, gives
its occupants a sense of adventure. You really do feel as though you
could go anywhere. It's a classless vehicle, too," he adds, "and is
equally at home in the urban jungle or in the wilds of Borneo. Land
Rovers give their occupants an enormous sense of well-being."
Another reason for Land Rover's success
is that while the brand has diversified with a range of vehicles from
the humble Defender and Freelander to the ubiquitous Discovery and the
upmarket Range Rover, the marque produced vehicles that defined a class.
None has ever been compromised when it comes to off-road ability -
something that cannot be said for their rivals.
Any Land Rover is now recognised across
the globe and over time the original has proved to be the most versatile
of all vehicles - you name it and a Land Rover has probably done it, but
this Anglesey beach is where it all began, with a drawing in the sand 61
Article taken from
Land Rover Series 1
Land Rover Series 1 Workshop