60 years ago an unusual-looking vehicle made its first ever appearance at the Amsterdam motor show. It was the Rover company’s Land Rover.

Dreamt up by two brothers on the board of the West Midlands’ motor manufacturer – Maurice and Spencer Wilks – the Land Rover was designed to double as a light tractor and off-roader.

Aluminium bodywork was chosen because steel was in short supply in post-war Britain and the aircraft industry had surplus piles of unused alloy.

When it was first introduced, the grand sum of £450 bought you an 80in chassis with 1.6-litre petrol engine and permanent 4wd – like current models. Ptos were an option (hence the trademark hole in the back bumper) and there is even an early publicity shot showing a Land Rover ploughing.

So, from the start Land Rover had a deep association with farming. With the advent of quads and other 4x4s, the image of that iconic off-roader traversing some of the toughest terrain in the UK to deliver feed or check sheep on isolated hillsides may not be as true now as it was 30 or 40 years ago but there is still an inextricable link between Land Rover and British agriculture.

So what’s changed in that time?

That familiar Solihull silhouette hasn’t altered but it’s when you approach the 2008 version that you realise that the scale has changed. You step sideways into the original Series 1 whereas you clamber up into the Defender.

Once seated, there’s not much in it as far as comfort goes. Your right elbow still battles with the door panel, although wind-down – rather than sliding – windows mean there’s a bit more room if you’re prepared to battle the cold.

There’s a good reason for this, of course. From the start Land Rover engineers wanted to ensure maximum ground clearance and designed the chassis so that the gearbox and driveline were located well out of harm’s way.

This meant that there was – and still is – a hefty transmission tunnel running right through the centre of the cabin, shunting the driver and his passenger far apart but at the same time providing a useful perch for a third body up front.

Vehicle safety rules have put a stop to that so you won’t find room for an extra pair of cheeks in the 2008 version.

Land Rover old 1948

One item that hasn’t changed are the doors. Even on the brand-spanking Defender they still flap about like the ears of an African elephant – the only difference being that when a gust of wind gets up the elephant’s ears generally tend to stay attached to their owner.

On the visibility front little has changed either – you still peer out through a pill-box-style opening and when the rain starts to hammer down those pathetic 6in wiper blades struggle to traverse the glass – that’s definitely 1948 technology.

But where it counts there have been some mammoth improvements – latest Defenders have a 2.4-litre common-rail turbocharged diesel engine and six-speed gearbox – borrowed from the Ford Transit – when the 1948 version appeared it had a small petrol engine with four-speed crash box.

Driving the original Land Rover is undeniably fun. Yes, its leaf-springs mean it rolls and pitches like a fairground ride at an seaside resort, but that was what made it so unbeatable as an off-roader when it first made its debut 60 years ago.

Spending £20,000-plus on a new, coil-sprung, anti-roll-bar-equipped Defender doesn’t smooth things that much, but it does mean you still get unbeatable off-road performance.

The engineers haven’t made any concessions to comfort – if you want that, get a Discovery or Range Rover.

Land Rover new 2008

Specs side-by-side

  • 1948 Land Rover 2008 Defender
  • Engine 1.6-litre petrol 2.4-litre turbo-diesel
  • Power 50hp 122hp
  • Gearbox 4-speed manual with high/low ranges 6-speed manual with high/low ranges and diff-lock
  • Driveline Permanent 4wd Permanent 4wd
  • Suspension Leaf-springs Coil-springs, dampers and anti-roll bars
  • Chassis 80in 90in, 110in or 130in
  • Price £450 £18,905

The future?

Land Rover has been showing off its LRX concept vehicle at various shows around the world this year.

It has been confirmed that a version will enter production with a new hybrid drive system that combines conventional diesel power with an electrically-driven rear axle.

Early next year models within the range will start to be fitted with a new ‘Start/Stop’ system that automatically kills the engine while the vehicle is at a standstill.

Book launches

Two excellent new books have been published to commemorate Land Rover’s 60th birthday. One is co-written by motoring journalist Gavin Green and by the man known as Mr Land Rover – Roger Crathorne. Born in the same year and on the same road as the original Land Rover, Roger worked for 45 years as engineer and demonstration driver for the company. ‘Born in Lode Lane‘ – his recollections of travels around the world in various vehicles – make entertaining reading.

The second book is a photographic record of the evolution of Land Rover. Written by freelance photographer Nick Dimbleby, ‘Land Rover – 60 years of Adventure‘ contains some stunning images of Land Rovers, Defenders, Range Rovers, Discoveries, Freelanders and concept vehicles in action all over the world.