Climbing aboard the Land Rover affectionately known as Huey, after being cosseted inside a luxurious, supercharged Range Rover V8, is nothing short of a culture shock. With no power assistance for anything, no soundproofing, no leather upholstery, no creature comforts whatsoever, this is motoring from a bygone era-and it's not easy.
There are some rudimentary instruments in the center of what barely passes for a dashboard, a couple of levers protruding from the bare metal floor, a measly leatherette seat squab between my butt and the fuel tank. It's slow off the mark, as one might expect from a 50-hp car built in 1948. It's noisy too. I can hear transmission whine and practically every valve, every piston, every lever doing its stuff. Changing gear elicits a thunk as metal meets metal and the next ratio is brought into play.
It's hardly ideal transport for that all-important first date and few would want this four-wheel-drive for the school run either, but Huey positively oozes charisma. History is squeezing its way through every one of its enormous panel gaps. HUE 166 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: Red Wharf Bay on the north Wales island of Anglesey.
It was here in the summer of 1947 that Maurice Wilks (then technical chief of Rover) first came up with the idea of a worldconquering vehicle to kick-start exports for the ailing Rover car company. After World War II, steel was hard to come by 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.
A stopgap model, one that appealed to foreign markets, was required to fill the company coffers and Wilks was the man with a plan. He and his brother Spencer (Rover's managing director) owned a farm on Anglesey where their families would take vacations. To get about the land, they used a war-surplus Willys Jeep bought from a neighbor back home in Warwickshire (Shakespeare country), but they soon found weaknesses in its design. The Wilks boys reasoned they could do better.
While some work was going on at the farmhouse, the family stayed at a tiny hamlet on Anglesey 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 toward the ocean, talking about the idea and sketching a basic design for a new vehicle in the damp sand. It would offer the benefits of a tractor with on-road usability. 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 central steering column. This was far too complex, so the idea was shelved and the car dismantled. The legendary drawing in the sand was the design used for the Centre Steer, but subtle changes were brought in for the next prototype-the one seen here.