31 March 2022
It may have been made as a short-term stopgap, but the Series I created a legend. Here’s why it's the one to have
AT A GLANCE
Ease of servicing: *****
Red Wharf Bay: Birthplace of the Land Rover
As drawing boards for new vehicles go, the sand of a Welsh beach probably isn’t the first choice for many. But if we believe the legend, it was the perfect medium for brothers Maurice and Spencer Wilks, engineering director and managing director respectively of Rover, who, in the late 1940s, sketched out an idea for a rugged four-wheel drive in the sand of Red Wharf Bay.
That idea was incentivised by a need to export products after World War II. The brothers had used an ex-US army Jeep on their 250 acre Welsh farm. Enjoying farming and off-roading, rumour has it the car and Maurice were never apart. Spencer’s innocent question of what would replace the ageing US workhorse set in motion a plan to produce such a car themselves as a post-war stopgap – hence the legendary sand drawing. The idea was to make a rugged, working vehicle, with power take-offs everywhere, able to do anything, similar to a Jeep, but not like one.
Prototypes were up and running in summer 1947. With steel still under post-war ration, they chose Birmabright aluminium alloy for the body, cast-off steel hand-welded for the box-section ladder chassis. A central tractor-style driving position was chosen, to save production changes for left- or right-hand drive dictated by each export market. This is the fabled Centre Steer prototype, powered by a 1398cc engine, with an 80 inch wheelbase identical to the Jeep it was aping.
Loads of photos of the Centre Steer prototype exist, simply because the works photographer turned up when there was nothing else for him to photograph
It was quickly replaced by further prototypes, finessing the design and the central driving position was ditched. The 80-inch wheelbase carried over, but with a more powerful 1595cc engine, four gears and a high/low ratio transfer box, now in left- or right-hand drive. Prototypes weren’t just exploring standard cars, they explored the potential uses for the vehicle, including a fire engine.
Development cars weren’t ready for the big motor show that year, Geneva in March, so instead the Land Rover was launched to the world at the Amsterdam Motor Show on April 30, 1948. Priced at £450, the 50 bhp engined rugged workhorse was a runaway success. Named the Land-Rover, made by The Rover Company, the inherent toughness and sheer engineering honesty meant the ‘Go Anywhere’ vehicle was in demand.
As intended, export markets loved the product, but so, too did the buyer in the home market. Power take-off points allowed users to power machinery off the Land Rover, and many did, from saws, mowers, farm machinery – you name it, the Series I did it, in all corners of the globe. Though the export agricultural market was the initial market in mind, such was the capability of the vehicle that military orders started in 1949; indeed that same year they even trialled Rolls-Royce engines in a batch of 80-inch models, seeking more torque and power. Today, any of these early cars are prized by the most avid enthusiasts.
Some prefer their restorations pristine
The first major production changes came in 1951, after 50,000 cars had been built. Moans from customers about the lack of apparent torque saw the introduction of a 2.0-litre engine in the car. The 1.6 was bored out to 1997cc increasing torque by 26 per cent, along with chassis strengthening and wider springs. Visually, the headlights grew to 7 inches and came through the grille instead of being hidden behind it.
By 1953, wheelbase increased to 86 inches for extra loadspace and a 107 inch long wheelbase came to market.
Factory station wagons appeared in 1954 – they’d been tried in 1948, but due to excessive cost were canned after 641 had been made. Those first station wagons were wooden-bodied affairs from coachbuilder Tickford, but the 1954 factory cars were a much neater execution in alloy, seating seven in the 86-inch models and ten in the rather patchwork-looking 107.
The same year also saw an improvement to the engine for cooling purposes, with the 2.0 spread bore engine replacing the earlier siamese bore original unit.
Original is best
In October 1956, the wheelbase grew by two inches, to 88 and 109. That increase, between front axle and bulkhead, was to accommodate the new, longer, 2052cc 2.0-litre diesel, launched in June 1957. It was based on the existing petrol unit design, and despite being down on torque, but equal on power to the petrol engine, its selling point was the reduced fuel consumption – typically 30 mpg compared to the 20 of the petrol unit. At the time, the car met a need for markets where diesel fuel was much cheaper than petrol, but today, only a collector would prefer a diesel over the characterful petrol most associated with the little Land Rover.
What started as a short-term need to fill a gap in the market for the Rover company quickly grew into a world-leading British success story.
Today, interest in the Series I has never been greater. It’s a great Land Rover to have if you want to be hands-on, in the garage or on the road. You simply won’t find a more engaging Land Rover to own.
What to look for
Consider engine transplants carefully. They may be a great engine, but do they make a great Series I?
All Series Is are at least 63 years old now. They may have alloy outer panels, but anything steel does rust. Rear crossmembers, chassis rails, outriggers, spring hangars, dumb irons and bulkheads all corrode.
Remember these cars had years of simply being kept going as working vehicles. Check for non-standard modifications, or poor repair workmanship. So-called ‘bitsas’ abound: original, aged vehicles are in demand over non-standard creations.
• The engine should start promptly with choke from cold. Smoke on start-up should clear. Tickover will sound mechanical, but free from bangs and knocking. Black smoke is fuel-related, blue suggests engine problems needing investigation – anything from valve stem seals to more serious bore issues.
• It may be the original wiring, but think is it safe? If in doubt, replace it. Old wiring can cause fires.
• There’s no such thing as a matching-number Series I. Chassis, engine, gearbox and axles are numbered, and should be in close sequence, but not identical. Parts are date-stamped, so look for parity between radiator, starter, dynamo, carb, wheels, diff cases.
• Check steering system: swivels, looking for pitting or leaks; and the inside edge of wheel rims for staining (leaking brake cylinders).
• Brakes should have relatively small pedal travel, and good braking effect.
• Thoroughly inspect every corner of the chassis for corrosion. Repairs are okay, but should be to a high standard. If in doubt, take the potential purchase for an MoT test. They don’t need one, but should still pass if roadworthy.
• After a drive, park it up, wait half an hour and look for oil leaks. They all leak, but shouldn’t drop much fluid, nor quickly.
Buying and Values
Originality is becoming increasingly important for any Series I
The earliest 80 inchers are bona fide classic car collectibles, but all SIs are valuable, as interest grows. The earlier the car and shorter the wheelbase, the more you’ll pay. Regardless of budget, originality is increasingly key.
Cheapest is a project, starting around £6000. Incomplete cars, or wrong engines, can mean headaches sourcing correctly-dated parts. A project is great fun, but be fully aware of the work – and cost – involved. It may be cheaper to buy a complete car.
Most valuable are the rarest cars, around the £50-70,000 mark: 1948 Pre-production models, chassis numbers in the first 1500, Tickford Station Wagons, or recognised restorations, such as Ken Wheelwright, Dunsfold and Land Rover Reborn cars. Reborn Car Zero sold for £174,000 at auction last year. It was probably an anomaly, but it demonstrates the interest in very early Series Is.
Rare long wheelbase 107"
Outside those extremes are the majority of production cars that draw the enthusiasts – the 1951-58 2.0 cars. More numerous, here you’ll find plenty of choice, but you’ll need £15-20,000. That gets a correct car that you can tinker, show and enjoy. Don’t discount 107 or 109 long wheelbase models, nor Belgian-built Minerva models, either, but budget more for a genuine factory station wagon.
Many general classic car garages have jumped on the restoration bandwagon. Be wary of convoluted back stories on fresh-paint restorations, erasing originality. Take ‘Barn Find’ or ‘patina’ with a pinch of salt. Look for provenance in both car and seller.
LRM’s pick would be a 2.0 petrol 86 or 88, with canvas, in original condition (including original registration) and traceable history. We’d expect to pay £17,000 or so for one, and more next year. Prices are only going up.
Owning and Driving
Restorations can be of incredible quality, but think carefully. Are you better off with a car you’re not afraid to use?
Driving a Series I is a step back into the origins of Land Rover. You do everything for the car, all via big, mechanical devices, so you feel the effects of those inputs, too. On the move, no Land Rover has more character.
With no synchromesh on first and second, the art of double declutching is needed for smooth gear changes. Expect steering to wander, but 88 inch models are better, having a recirculating ball instead of the earlier worm and nut affair. The shorter the wheelbase, the choppier the ride.
Low gearing means they’re happiest under 50 mph as standard, but fitting larger tyres and overdrive will allow a 65 mph cruise. Heating is lack lustre (if fitted), so in heavy rain, expect moisture inside the car as well as out.
They’ll go everywhere a modern one will, but only value will temper your enthusiasm
Off-road they will go almost everywhere a modern Land Rover will. Awareness of market value may limit your exuberance, but the car really will ‘Go Anywhere’, even 60 plus years later.
On a hot day, with the canvas rolled up as you tootle around quiet county lanes, everyone smiles and waves as you pass. You may not want to drive one on exceptionally long distances, but you’ll certainly enjoy pedalling these classics around. You’ll be equally happy bringing a project to fruition, or rattling the spanners over one in the garage for fun.
Servicing and mods
A restoration is immense fun, but be fully aware of all work involved. Don’t underestimate difficulty nor costs
The simplicity of the Series I makes it perfect for DIY attention. With the smallest selection of tools you can service and fettle it quite happily, once you learn what you need to do and look for. For many enthusiasts, this holds huge appeal.
For larger jobs, there are well-known specialists who can rebuild engines, carburettors, steering boxes and gearboxes, should you not want to do that work yourself. A diesel engine is best left to an expert in Series I units.
Parts are generally available, but can take effort to hunt down. Period accuracy has never been more important, rather than simply keeping them going somehow. Limited factory original parts are still around, in splendid brown boxes, smelling richly of the past. Supplies are dwindling though and prices never higher. There’s a reproduction parts market, too, making everything from bulkheads, fuel tanks, seating to rear tubs – all at a price. Some early electrical parts can be hard to find.
Beyond taller tyres and overdrive, the days of modifying the cars has probably passed. Originality rules: bodges on the cheap, aren’t.
Every engine you can think of will have been transplanted into Series Is, and not all of them well. The market favours original cars, so consider modifications carefully. That said, an 80 inch modified as a period trailer is definitely worthy preserving, and using as such.
• An engine that chuffs blue smoke needs work. Diagnose the cause carefully, as full rebuilds are increasingly expensive affairs.
• Doors should close well, with even (but large) panel gaps.
• In second gear, accelerate and back off the throttle whilst looking at the passenger door. If it moves much compared to the body, suspect structural corrosion issues.
• Wiper motors often benefit from a stripdown and re-grease. Old grease often hardens, setting like concrete and causing the motor to burn out.
• Electronic ignition is worth fitting, giving total reliability over the points and condenser set-up.
• Join the Land Rover Series One club if you need advice, information or help inspecting a potential car.
A popular Land Rover isn’t just popular with enthusiasts. Somewhat lesser characters also want the cars, if not to take whole, then strip for hard to get (but easy to sell) rare parts. There are a few methods of securing the cars to some extent, most typically a handbrake lock. At heart they are basic vehicles, with no door locks and good access to mechanicals, so don’t forget.
As ever, the best way to protect your car, is to keep it securely locked away.
Series I Timeline
1948: Land-Rover launched at Amsterdam Motor show on April 30. 50 bhp 1.6 80 inch model available, priced at £450.
1949: Tickford-bodied station wagon offered.
1950: Headlights emerge from behind the radiator grille, semi-permanent 4WD introduced.
1951: 1.6 engine bored out to 2.0 litres.
1954: Wheelbase stretched to 86 inches for extra loadspace; LWB 107 and 2.0 spread bore engine introduced.
1955: Station Wagon introduced.
1956: 88in and 109in wheelbases introduced.
1957: 2.0 diesel engine introduced.
1958: End of production.
• Length 3353-3569 mm
• Width 1549 mm
• Height 1867 mm
• 80”(2032 mm)
• 86” (2184 mm)
• 107” (2720 mm)
• 88” (2235 mm)
• 109” (2787 mm)
• Maximum gross vehicle weight
• Max trailer towing weight
• 1948-1951: 1.6 petrol 1595cc 50 bhp; 80 lb-ft
• 1952-1954: 2.0 (siamese bore) petrol 1997cc 52 bhp; 101 lb-ft
• 1955-1958: 2.0 ( spread bore) petrol 1997cc 52 bhp; 101l b-ft
• 1957: 2.0 diesel 55 bhp; 87 lb-ft
Budget Digital Subscription
Get access to over 7 years of Land Rover Monthly – that’s almost 100 issues plus the latest digital issue. The issues are fully searchable so you can easily find what you are looking for and what’s more it’s less than 10p a day to subscribe. Click here and start enjoying all the benefits now.