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.
Much debate rages about Huey's provenance. Some claim it's the first 'production' car built after an initial batch of 48 prototypes, but Land Rover's technical communications manager, Roger Crathorne, is adamant. "Huey is the first of the prototypes, no doubt," he says. "The chassis number is LR1 and the comprehensive records we hold tell the whole story. HUE 166 first rolled out of the factory on March 11, 1948." Roger joined Land Rover as an engineer in 1963 and has never left, so if anyone should know...
Production commenced in June 1948, with Rover still viewing the model (costing 450 pounds Sterling) as nothing but a short-term fix. Eighty-five-year-old Bert Gosling was there right at the beginning and remembers the early days with great fondness: "The only tools we had were those on the shop floor; hammers, saws, simple folding presses. The designs were all sketched on scraps of paper-they didn't even have measurements on them and we were told to make what we could, but without press tools. We made them up as we went along and none of those first cars were identical."
Ironically, given that the Land Rover was born from a desire to secure supplies of steel, the car was (and still is) mostly made from aluminum, a metal in bountiful supply thanks to its use in aircraft manufacture during the war. The Land Rover's bulkhead was made from steel for strength, as was its chassis, but the rest was aluminum alloy-no doubt the reason for so many old Land Rovers surviving to this day.
Within a month of building the vehicles for paying customers, it was obvious Rover had a major hit on its hands. Production was ramped up from 100 vehicles a week to 500. Since then, almost two million of these 'stopgap' models have been built and sold, with an estimated 65 percent of all examples still in use.
The reason for its success, reckons Crathorne, is obvious: "A Land Rover, unlike any other vehicle, gives its occupants a sense of adventure. You really do feel as though you could go anywhere. It's a classless vehicle too... equally at home in the urban jungle or in the wilds of Borneo. Land Rovers give their occupants an enormous sense of well-being."
Another reason for Land Rover's success is that while the brand has diversified with a range of vehicles that spans from the humble Defender and Freelander to the ubiquitous Discovery and the mighty, SUV-inventing Range Rover, none have ever been compromised when it comes to off-road ability-something that cannot be said for their rivals.
And here with Huey, on this sodden, hallowed ground, we have a brand-new supercharged Range Rover V8. Loaded to the gunnels with every refinement and luxury imaginable, it's like a Bentley you can drive through fields and rivers, over mountains, anywhere. It shows how far Land Rover has been able to evolve that original idea. When I write that the Range Rover invented the SUV, I wasn't exaggerating: it was the first vehicle to combine comfort with proper off-road ability and it still reigns supreme 38 years after the first one emerged.
Its design stayed pretty much unchanged until September 1994, when a replacement model was launched on a public that, it has to be said, was underwhelmed. The distinctive chunky looks had given way to ordinariness and a true icon had, in one swift stroke, been diluted. But the looks were the least of Land Rover's problems, because quality was a word seldom mentioned in the Solihull factory. Quality was something the Germans did; the Range Rover, despite being one of the best-designed cars in the world, remained one of the worst built.
It's been a long haul, but finally things seem to have come right. The one true indicator of this is the amount of warranty claims received, which are at an all-time low. If the current Range Rover and Range Rover Sport models are anything to go by, it shouldn't be a surprise. They are truly superb cars. Granted, they're unlikely to be Al Gore's choice of daily runabout, but Land Rover takes the whole green issue seriously and operates an extensive carbon-offset program for its new vehicles.
In recent times, real advances have been made not only in how the cars are bolted together, but the way in which they are powered. The car here has a supercharged gasoline V8. It's truly rapid, but it makes little sense in the UK, where gas costs the equivalent of about $10 a gallon. Here, the new twin-turbo V8 diesel comes into its own. It's quiet, refined and fabulously responsive, yet costs a lot less to run. Some respected British journalists have even championed the diesel Rangie as being the best car on sale today anywhere in the world.
The looks were well and truly addressed, when the BMW-developed, third-generation Range Rover launched in early 2002. The influence of the classic original is easy to see and it's a handsome, distinctive vehicle once again. On tarmac the performance is quite sensational, helped by the lofty driving position. Air suspension keeps the car firmly planted through tight bends and the massive brakes work wonders in stopping the colossus. Yet off-road the basic Land Rover principles are still very much to the fore. They are simply incredible in the most extreme situations imaginable. You feel invincible in one of these.
You also feel pampered by the finest luxuries available in any car: TV, DVD, listen to an iPod, keep a couple of adult beverages in the centrally situated refrigerator-who needs a house? And the dashboard architecture is still the most exquisite anywhere in the world. Looking at Huey, the ancestor of this fantastic silver Range Rover, it's almost impossible to see the lineage, yet it's there-in the purity of purpose and engineering ingenuity. It makes me realize just how important Huey is. This is one of the world's most important, most influential vehicles and it's been a privilege to spend time with it.
Land Rover vehicles have been used to rescue mountaineers, carry casualties from battlefields, put out fires, transport royalty and take the kids to school-you name it and a Land Rover has probably done it. But this Anglesey beach is where it all began, with a drawing in the sand six decades ago.
Ten Things You (Probably) Didn't Know About Range Rovers
1. The first few prototypes were tested all over the world without disguise, but were given the name 'Velar' to hide their identities from nosey onlookers. It means to keep a secret in Spanish.
2. In 1970, a Range Rover was exhibited at the Louvre in Paris as 'an outstanding piece of modern sculpture.'
3. The luxurious Vogue models were so named after the famous fashion magazine used a Range Rover as a prop in a high-profile photo shoot in 1983.
4. UK traffic police used to drive Range Rovers, but often ended up in serious accidents during high-speed pursuits, due to the car's high center of gravity. When cornering hard, they'd simply flip over. Adjustable air suspension has since made them much safer.
5. The twin tailgates were badly designed, with the top half being made from glass and steel, the bottom section from aluminum. When they touched, a chemical reaction kicked off and both sections would rust rather rapidly.
6. One of Pope John Paul II's Popemobiles was a modified Range Rover. It was said to be both bomb- and bulletproof and weighed an almost unbelievable 24 tons.
7. The first generation of Range Rover came to be known as the 'Classic.' Production carried on even after the second generation was launched, but ended two years later in 1996 after 317,615 had been built.
8. By January 2004, 100,000 Range Rovers had been sold in North America.
9. A number of early Range Rovers were converted into emergency vehicles with drive to six wheels. They still serve as fire tenders at many airports around the world.
10. Almost one million Land Rovers and Range Rovers were powered by a V8 engine that was first destined for Buick in the 1950s. Land Rover bought the rights to it from GM and built this legendary engine between 1970 and 2001.