Where it all began

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By Mark Dixon

01 June 2018

Pre-production prototype 1948 Series I Lost and found: Land Rover R07 first appeared at the Amsterdam Motor Show in 1948 : credit: © Nick Dimbleby

Lost for decades, this pre-production Series I has resurfaced – and what a story it tells

Yes, it looks a wreck. But this long-lost and sorry-looking Series I is one of the most important Land Rovers to have surfaced in recent years. In fact, after HUE 166 – the first pre-production Land Rover to have been built after the fabled Centre Steer – it is possibly the most important vehicle in Jaguar Land Rover’s own collection.

How come? Because this example, chassis R07, is believed to have been exhibited outside the 1948 Amsterdam motor show, the first event at which a Land Rover appeared in public. It’s one of three vehicles that are thought to have been displayed there. L05, a mobile welding unit, was on the Land Rover stand indoors; L03 and R07 (which at that time was left-hand drive and numbered L07) were outdoors, giving demonstrations to visitors. As such, L07/R07 was one of the first Land Rovers that anyone outside the Solihull factory actually saw.

As found, R07 had non-original 86in front wings and a later radiator panel, now replaced

The other significant fact about R07 is that she is remarkably original. Her chassis has survived intact because it was galvanised – only the 48 pre-pros had galvanised chassis. What’s more, the engine, gearbox, both axles, bulkhead, seat box and rear tub are original, even though R07 started life with left-hand drive as L07 and was converted (like nearly all the LHD pre-pros) to right-hand drive, probably in the autumn of 1948. 

But perhaps the most remarkable part of R07’s story is that she has spent the last quarter-century lying in a Birmingham garden, sunk up to her axles in soil. In the autumn of 2015, her owner walked into a garage owned by Land Rover restorer Reg Mason and asked if Reg was interested in buying a pair of derelict Series Is. “He said that if I didn’t want them, he was going to scrap them,” recalls Reg. 

One of the Series Is was an 88-inch, and it was in much better condition than the other, an 80-inch – which Reg didn’t realise at the time was R07. “I thought I might make one good vehicle out of the two!” Reg admits. But, by incredible good luck, he happened to meet another Series I enthusiast in a pub and showed him some pictures of the two old Land Rovers. His new friend recognised that the 80-inch had some distinctive pre-pro features – and Reg suddenly realised just what he had stumbled across.

JLR's Mike Bishop, right, with writer Mark Dixon admiring R07

Before long, word reached JLR’s Mike Bishop, a specialist at its Classic Works facility. He persuaded the company that it simply had to acquire R07 for its collection, and the deal was done during March/April 2016.

At the time, JLR was just setting up Classic Works so R07 was temporarily kept under wraps. Now she’s been revealed in all her garden find glory. The front wings and radiator panel have been changed, because they were non-original 86-inch parts, and a missing passenger door replaced, but otherwise R07 has received nothing more than a light clean.

The good news for enthusiasts who feared that R07 might end up as just another shiny concours vehicle is that she will be sympathetically conserved rather than restored. And that’s important because, for a pre-production vehicle that has been off the radar for more than 60 years, R07 has survived incredibly well.

The reason that R07 simply dropped out of sight is that she was never given a registration number when she was owned by Land Rover. Allocated to Rover’s chief engine man, Jack Swaine, she seems to have been run on trade plates for several years; a practice that wasn’t unusual back then. It wasn’t until 1955 that the company decided to sell her off, and her first private owner registered her on June 25 as SNX 910. All we know about the buyer is that he was called Smith, but SNX was a Solihull prefix sometimes found on factory vehicles – so it’s tempting to assume that he may have been a Rover employee.

Like any old vehicle, R07 then passed through a number of subsequent owners’ hands in the 1950s and 60s. Given the fact that pre-pros ended up all over the world, what’s surprising is that R07 has never ventured out of the Midlands in all her 70 years – “the furthest she got was Worcester,” says Mike Bishop. 

Reg Mason was told by the owner he bought her from that she’d spent time powering a saw bench on a Warwickshire farm, but rumours that she spent time in Wales are incorrect: it seems that this last, long-term owner did indeed own a cottage in Wales, and bought R07 to use as a workhorse during the renovations, but then found an 88-inch that was in better condition. Both vehicles eventually ended up in the back garden of the chap’s house in Tyseley, Birmingham, awaiting restorations that never came. For R07, that was probably a blessing in disguise.

Original light green paint showing through on the door – and phosphor-bronze pedals of a type only fitted to pre-pros

Some time during the 1970s, R07 was owned by a dairy called Madisons in Stratford-upon-Avon, and she may have been repainted blue while in their ownership – the sequence of paint layers starts with 1948’s Light Green, followed by standard Bronze Green, and then blue, followed by another coat of green. Excitingly, the original Light Green paint can still be seen on the inside of the driver’s door, and on the dash panel where later layers have flaked away.

Mike Bishop – himself the owner and restorer of a pre-pro, chassis R16 – has conducted a forensic examination of R07. Land Rover had a tendency to upgrade pre-pro vehicles with production-spec parts while they were owned by the company, and R07 is no exception. However, despite having been converted from left- to right-hand drive very early in its career, possibly in September 1948 (which is the date stamped on the radiator’s brass tag) R07 has retained plenty of original features, and evidence of others that were removed just months into her life. If you know what to look for, she is a microcosm of early Land Rover development.

Engine has a crack in no.2 cylinder - but it's the original 1600ccRover P3 unit

Key among the original features are the high-compression 1600cc engine, as fitted to Rover P3 saloons, the gearbox and both long-nose type axles. “To have the original drivetrain basically intact is incredible,” says Mike. “And everywhere you look you can see where things have been handmade – the brake-pedal levers have been shaped by hand out of big lumps of iron. They also still have the phosphor-bronze pedals that were only fitted to pre-pros.”

Tow hitch probably dates to use by a Dairy in the 1970s, but that rear tub is pure 1948

Crucially, the rear tub is also original; it’s separate from the seat-box, unlike on production vehicles, with a narrow gap between them. Mike thinks this could have been because the original plan was to equip Land Rover with demountable bodies. “You can tell that, to start with, R07 also had the very early ‘kidney killer’ backrests bolted to the top of the tub, rather than full seat backs,” he continues. “They were very draughty and there were only two of them rather than three. Seats for anyone but the driver were an option on the very early Land Rovers, like everything else!”

Just as significantly, the bulkhead has survived from day one, too. “Pre-pro bulkheads weren’t drilled for both left- and right-hand drive, so we can be certain that R07’s started life as left-hand drive and has been converted,” explains Mike. “And there are holes that show where the ‘organ stop’ transmission controls and their linkage were mounted.”

More light green paint - this time showing through on the dash panel

The what? Most of us are familiar with levers sticking up from the floor and transmission tunnel, but the original design had three push-pull knobs projecting from under the dash. The left-hand one was to engage high or low ratio; the middle knob operated a freewheel device (necessary to avoid axle wind-up on hard surfaces in four-wheel drive); and the right-hand knob was to select two- or four-wheel drive. “That last one was cancelled for production, because it was considered an unnecessary complication – with a PTO control as well, the driver would have needed a flowchart to get their head around it,” says Mike. “But the system as a whole was very sophisticated. You can even think of the lockable freewheel, which put the front wheels into direct drive, as an ancestor of today’s Hill Descent Control.”

Sadly, the organ-stop controls are long gone. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that they may be recreated for R07, however. JLR Classic Works still has the blueprints and could remake them. The same would be necessary for the Lockheed brakes that were only fitted to the first 25 pre-pros, before a Girling system was standardised; new/old-stock Lockheed parts seem to be non-existent.

R07 at JLR's Classic Works facility 

These considerations bring us to what you might call the elephant in the room: whether to conserve R07 as she is now, complete with all her later modifications, or make her look the way she did on April 30 1948, the date of the Amsterdam show. The big problem with the second option is that it would be difficult to reconcile that with the patina that has since been acquired over 70 years.

It’s a question that is causing a few sleepless nights for the person in charge of managing R07’s revitalisation at Classic Works. Susan Tonks has been a JLR employee for 17 years but freely admits that joining Classic Works has led to a steep learning curve when it comes to Series Is. “It’s a massive honour to be project manager for R07,” she confirms, “and yes, not a little scary. I’ve been project leader for the Series I Reborns for the last six months, but a pre-production vehicle is obviously very different.

“R07 won’t be treated like a Reborn, because of her unique patina. We will conserve and protect the bodywork, only repairing it where necessary for safety reasons – where there are sharp edges, for example. The bulkhead is what you might describe as a little light of metal in places, so any rusted metal will be replaced but the repairs will then be aged so that they match the rest of the vehicle. The same goes for the rotted-out floor sections.

“To assess the state of the chassis, we’ll have to remove the bodywork, and then we’ll make a judgement call on whether  or not we have to strip all the old galvanising off before making any repairs that are needed – regalvanising a chassis  as old as this one isn’t a straightforward operation. As for the engine, we know there’s a crack in number two cylinder, but otherwise it looks OK and we will fit new internals while keeping the exterior untouched; the gearbox also looks promising but we’ll have to dismantle it to be sure. R07 will definitely be a running vehicle and that means she has to be safe to use, even if that requires making new Lockheed brakes from scratch.”

That last sentence says a lot about JLR’s commitment to R07. She will be sympathetically restored in a way that doesn’t lose her amazing patina, and yet she will also be driven and demonstrated – just as she was 70 years ago, when she and her companion pre-production vehicles introduced Land Rover to the world.