Sometimes before we can plan our future, we need to take a look at our past. Patrick Cruywagen takes one of the final Defenders to Red Wharf Bay
As Land Rover enthusiasts, we take an avid interest in where we have come from and where we are going. My love of Land Rovers began in 2003 when I attended the African leg of the inaugural Land Rover G4 Challenge. For a week I cruised along South Africa’s Garden Route in a bright orange G4 Defender, observing as competitors from all around the world battled it out for glory. I was hooked.
Not long after this I bought my first Land Rover, a Defender 90, of course. This was followed by an insatiable thirst for Land Rover knowledge. I read several books such as Born in Lode Lane by Roger Crathorne and First Overland by Tim Slessor. I religiously attended various Land Rover shows and events but there was still something missing. I felt this urgent need to go back to where it all began, in Red Wharf Bay, Anglesey. Something rather significant happened there during the Easter weekend of 1947. Whilst on holiday there, the then Rover technical director Maurice Wilks, sketched in the sands of the bay what he thought the company's new utility 4x4 should look like. At the time he was driving a pretty battered army surplus Willys Jeep and it would be fair to say that this definitely influenced that now legendary sketch in the sand. The company needed something to improve post-war sales and this sketch was going to be it: a simple, inexpensive, go-anywhere working vehicle aimed at the local and global markets. Incredibly this was only supposed to be a stop gap measure for the company. We all know what happened next, a legend was born and today the company continues to go from strength to strength.
With the end of the Solihull production of the Defender as we know it, only weeks away, I’ve decided to at last get myself down to Red Wharf Bay. I needed to pay my respects to the visionary Maurice Wilks. I know that I’m not the first Land Rover fan to do this and I certainly won’t be the last. I required decent wheels for the trip and Land Rover UK kindly loaned me one of their trio of Limited Edition Defender models. These very special (and expensive) Defenders were launched to mark the last year of Defender production at Solihull. Part of the launch event involved drawing a giant 1 km wide Defender in the sand at Red Wharf Bay. This was done using the three new Limited Edition models with some help from a few older models. Now before you get too excited reading this, all of these Limited Edition Defenders have already been sold. Though a little birdie recently told me that there is a few Autobiography Limited Edition Defenders still floating about, this is probably because they are the most expensive of the three; a 90 will cost you £61,845. The Adventure edition was almost £20,000 cheaper while the Heritage Edition 110 that I was in costs £34,200. The fact that it was Grasmere Green in colour, with a heritage grille and HUE166 graphics, made it the perfect choice for my road trip down Land Rover memory lane.
The 276 sq mile isle of Anglesey is not only the biggest island in Wales, it’s also bigger than any island in England. The fact that most of the island’s coastline has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty probably explains why the Wilks family had a holiday home here. I’ve arranged to meet David Mitchell from Landcraft 4x4 on the Red Wharf Bay beach. The one thing I learnt from a decade of remote travel in Africa is that you must use a local guide whenever possible as it will save you heaps of time. David is already on the beach when we arrive at the predetermined time. He is in his 1998 Camel Trophy Defender 110, the year the competitors used Freelanders while Dave’s Defender 110 was used as a support vehicle for the Russian team. There is a trailer hitched to his Defender and on it is his 1952 Series I 80-inch. He has owned it for over three decades and it has never been restored though Dave did give it a lick of paint in 2008 to smarten it up. This is Dave’s tenth visit to Anglesey for the year, three of these were for photoshoots and TV crews while one visit was with the Land Rover Series One Club. During that little adventure they had 37 Series Ones on the beach here. Dave’s blood is Land Rover green and he has never owned anything else. When we stop next to him he takes out his Ordnance Survey map and on it he has marked 50 Land Rover places of interest in Anglesey. These include places where they have launched a Land Rover product, such as the Defender SVX and Freelander. Others relate to the Wilks family and these are the ones that I am most interested in.
Once we have the Series I off the trailer we head off on a beach convoy drive just as Maurice would’ve done. Though the tide is low there are pools of water everywhere. Dave drives his Series I like he just stole it. As he powers through one particularly bumpy section the driver’s door flies open as the lever comes off. “Not too worry. When we are done I will go to the nearby Conwy Land Rover dealership and get another one. This Land Rover is still under warranty,” laughs David. With the shoot out the way we stop and get the map out again. Strangers notice our Land Rovers and come over to have a chat. Kirsty Farrell from the Moelfre Coastguard tells us how a club lost a Defender 110 here over the weekend. “They tried to drive from the eastern side of the bay to The Ship Inn. It’s impossible to do, even in a Land Rover as the boggy bit in the centre will stop you in your tracks. The tide came in and covered their entire Defender with salt water. A tractor was used to recover it once the tide went out. They won’t forget Red Wharf Bay in a hurry.” I ask David to point out which places we should visit on the map. The Wilks family used to own a farm called Tros yr Afon in Dwyran, but as they longer own it, we decide to give it a skip just in case the new owner doesn't like Land Rovers. We decide to instead head to the school in Dwyran where Martin Peach, a former Land Rover designer made and installed a special commemorative mosaic plaque. The thousands of tiny tiles tell the early story of Land Rover and the significant role played by the Wilks’ brothers and the surrounding area in that story. One section of the panel reads: “The Land Rover (referring to HUE 166) was a huge success and the Rover company started to build them. By today thousands and thousands of Land Rovers have been made and sold all over the world.” A few months ago they produced the two millionth Series Land Rover and Defender, so it would be fair to say that they might have to change that section of the panel to millions and millions.
This fitting tribute came about after the headmaster asked a local historian if anybody famous came from the area around the school. Well to me they don’t come any bigger than the creator of Land Rover. From here we headed to Newborough, where Maurice was buried in an old churchyard. It’s a simple grave with a regular headstone, but the thing that I found the most surprising is that there is no mention of Land Rover on the headstone. Looking back, it does make sense as Maurice died in 1964, no one back then had any sort of idea that Land Rover would grow into what it is today. It has to be one of the most incredible motoring stories of all time. What they did say on his headstone is the following: “A much loved, gentle, modest man whose sudden death robbed the Rover company of a chairman and Britain of the brilliant pioneer who was responsible for the world’s first gas turbine driven car.” A rose bush had started to peak up behind his gravestone. I quietly thank Maurice for creating the Land Rover for us and just sit there for a few minutes, in the presence of one of my heroes. I hope he now knows the impact of what he once created. In the days gone by one could just head to Stepping Stones from here and make your way down onto the beach in your 4x4, just as the Wilks brothers used to do. This is no longer the case. I decide that we need to go to Red Wharf Bay one more time before we leave Anglesey and so we go there to watch the sunset. It was more like a fireworks display as the sky turned various shades of red and then pink. What a perfect way to end a great day. Our adventure was not yet over. The next morning we take the tar road to Solihull, where in only a few weeks time the last Defender, as we know it, will be rolling off the production line.
I have previously done a Defender Celebration tour at the Solihull factory and will not be doing it again today, but I would definitely suggest you do it before it is too late. We stop at the Solihull Land Rover Experience where instructor Mike Smith is ready to take us around some of the famous off-road tracks found here. The place was buzzing with Land Rover enthusiasts from all over the world who had either just been or were about to go on a Defender Celebration Tour. Before heading out onto the tracks we take a walk along the original test track that runs above some old Second World War bunkers. I have no doubt Maurice took the odd drive or two along it. Today the track is pretty overgrown and not in use anymore. I have probably driven along the Solihull Land Rover Experience 4x4 tracks about a dozen times and will never tire of coming here. The history and setting are all contributing factors of course. The long water crossings of the Jungle Track prove to be no match for our Heritage Defender, it just took it all in its highly capable stride. Nothing like a bit of traction control to help you along if and when needed. After about 90 minutes Tom decides to call time for the session and so we returned to where we started. Out tribute trip to Maurice is officially over. I’m sure that after reading this feature a few of you will start to make a plan to follow in our tracks. All I can ask is that you do so in a respectful and befitting manner. It’s the least you can do for the Wilks family as you say thanks to them for making such legendary vehicles.WHERE WE STAYED:
Kingsbridge CARAVAN and Camping Park is a conveniently located family run site. We camped in tents on the lovely grass pitches. The staff were helpful and the ablutions clean and plentiful. For more details see www.kingsbridgecaravanpark.co.uk
Pictures: Alisdair Cusick