LACar.com Book Review
The Land Rover Story
By Dave Phillips
EVRO Publishing – 2019, 311 pages
Reviewed by: Don Taylor
Photographs courtesy of ERVO Publishing (except top featured image of the 50,000th Land Rover rolls off the assembly line in 1952 courtesy of Jaguar Land Rover)
Try this. Look at the current Porsche vehicle line-up, but with a hand over one eye so that you only see the sports cars. Now, look at the Jeep vehicle line-up. And what do you see? In both cases, you’ll see classic vehicle designs developed in the 1940s or 1950s that have evolved through the years but have kept their basic form, proportion, and layout. Their gestalt.
That’s the first thing I thought of when receiving this new book, The Land Rover Story, by Dave Phillips, and seeing just a drawing of the original Land Rover, the prototype, alone on the cover. That image says “Land Rover” to me. Ah yes, how we so love the classic Land Rovers, as they have starred in at least seven James Bond movies, as well as The Italian Job, Tomb Raider, The DaVinci Code, Vera on PBS, and even a few music videos.
But wait, with such a great heritage, having a vehicle cherished around the world, with such an iconic shape and rugged, functional details…where is that reflected in today’s Land Rover line-up? Somewhere along the way, Land Rover went yuppie, upscale, the Rodeo Drive cruiser route.
How did that happen?
With that question in mind, I began reading The Land Rover Story. Phillips is a most qualified author on the marque, having spent many years as editor of the publication for owners, Land Rover Monthly.
This book mainly covers the business story behind the brand and the changes it went thru. There are of course the politics, both internally, and the politics with the actual politicians in Britain, who off and on had their pounds in the game, and thumb on the product decision scale. Phillips nicely ties in what was happening at LR through the decades, with whom the Prime Minister was at the time, and what was happening in the culture.
The company is traced from the early days when surplus US Army Jeep parts were used to build prototype vehicles. Much is made of the sacred Center Steer prototype, which may or may not has been the first, but it is the most worshiped by the Land Rover faithful. This was a time of shortages after WWII, and vehicle production was highly taxed if not intended for export, to help Britain recover financially. But Rover learned that by aiming their new vehicle at farmers, they were able to score a domestic tax advantage. With the big selling points of simplicity and superb off-road capability, it also became a desirable product in many less developed countries around the world, including many that were still British Ruled Colonies.
This book points out that thru much of their history the engineering group was short on development funds, and often played second fiddle to the Rover car in company priorities.
Credit must go to Land Rover engineering team who developed innovative 4wd technology, as they survived differing levels of commitment from their revolving door of owners including British Aerospace, BMW, and Ford. Owner objectives varied from using Land Rover technology for their own products (BMW), to being pushed for platform sharing with other people’s products (Ford tried, but was talked out of it.), and just plain turning the company for a profit. But now, current owner Tata looks to have a hands-off attitude, and the company is thriving.
Knowing that the LR team had faced all these demands helped me understand how their product evolved over time. Adding a new model, the Range Rover, a luxury 4WD, available with a V8 engine in 1970, helped profitability. New models, Discovery in 1989, and Freelander in 1997 were introduced to fill out the 4WD product range by size. But it was the more popular Range Rover that can now be credited with starting the upscale SUV category of today. Meanwhile, the original Land Rover continued on through Series I, II, III before evolving, with a name change, into the Defender.
The author inserts a number of lengthy, first-hand recollections of former managers, engineers, and production workers to remind us of the spirit and love for the company that kept them going through the tough times.
For me, that all makes for a fascinating story. It’s a fairly quick read, not burdened with heavy technical analysis, or a listing of every LR vehicle ever built, by serial number. Nor is it a pictorial history, a used vehicle buyer’s guide, or restoration advice. Let other books do that.
Today’s Land Rover product line up includes the Range Rover and its variations including Sport, Valor, and Evoke, plus the Discovery and Discovery Sport. The Defender which carried the brand’s torch for much of the original formula from the early Series models, flat windshield and all, went away a few years ago. But in the US it stopped being imported around 1998, as it failed to meet stricter safety and emission demands.
The book concludes before the introduction of the classic Defender’s long-awaited replacement. But now the all-new model Defender is here, often referred to as the New Defender, and currently being reviewed in the magazines. For me, it was the brand’s last chance to have visual continuity with its pioneering, iconic product.
My personal feeling about the New Defender’s appearance? It went too modern, too generic. Gone is the flat windshield, and general robustness…the body panels look vulnerable to off-road rocks and foliage, or helpless to defend themselves against an errant shopping cart in a Trader Joe’s parking lot.
Note that a deal was made with Lego to introduce a $200 Technic kit along with the New Defender’s debut. With its screw-on fender flares and chunky body armor, if scaled up to full size, that’s the one I would want!
Meanwhile, we have also seen the completely new Mercedes G Wagon retain its slab-sided, squared-off funkiness. That design crew felt it needed to keep its flat windscreen, and most other styling queues of the vehicle it replaces, but with the latest technology underneath.
Another example of that approach: I recently wound up with a rental Jeep Gladiator, quasi-pickup-truck, and marveled just how retro and “off-roadsey” it is. I couldn’t stop noticing the exposed door-hinge hardware, flat door panels and windscreen, and the oversize, squared-off, flexible fender extensions. No city slicker, this one.
Comparing those to the Defender replacement makes the latter look pretty gentrified and generic. The term “Cute-Ute” comes to mind, which can be applied to many in that segment.
Note that these comments are strictly about the New Defender’s physical appearance, the styling, and I do not question at all the vehicle’s amazing off-road capability and the modern engineering within, much of which is now electronic.
There are large groups of those loyal to Land Rover vehicles and would have no other. Many are old school, in love with the original formula, and obviously I fall into that camp.
For those fans, Land Rover is still building, actually rebuilding, the Series I Land Rover, as they have taken on a factory program to restore and sell these classic vehicles, and dub them as “Reborn”. A few years ago they went around the world handpicking the best they could find for restoration and brought them to their Classic Works facility in Solihull. I had the opportunity to tour this operation and see them stacked up on the shelf, awaiting a new life, while others were already being tended to by some of the same people who built them the first time. Some original Range Rovers are now also “Reborn”.
Stepping back, I’d have to say that Land Rover does offer the best of both worlds, modern and classic products, all reflecting the advanced engineering for their time, all representing a proud brand, from a proud country, produced by a proud workforce. Phillips does a fine job of relating the journey Land Rover has taken in creating its past and present success. –Don Taylor
And, reporting from Boston: Guest reviewer Don Taylor has a wide range of interests (as well as a good deal of professional experience) in the (deep breath) automotive/design/performance/racing/safety industry. When we asked a few weeks ago if he’d review this book for us, we really didn’t know that he had recently visited the Rover works … as it turns out he was the right guy for the review. –Ed.