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by David Phillips, 5th September 2016

It's 20 years have gone since Land Rover passed into foreign ownership. But where did the company come from and how did the staff get there? Dave Phillips traces the LR family tree...

The Land Rover is the quintessentially British vehicle. It comes with diesel and petrol engines, but secretly it eats roast beef and Yorkshire pud. Its exhaust note was composed by Elgar, just after he'd written Land of Hope and Glory. I'm typing this article with just one hand, because in my left I'm waving a Union Jack. But is my fervent British pride misplaced? After all, this year marks the 20th anniversary of foreign ownership. Since 1994, Land Rover has been owned by Germans (BMW), Americans (Ford) and, currently, India (Tata). So why do we come over all patriotic about Land Rovers? And, more pertinently, what is Land Rover? Where did it come from and how did it get to where it is today?

In short, Land Rover, Who Do You Think You Are? In the best traditions of genealogy, we need to go back a long way – to the very origins of the British motor industry, in fact. Our journey starts in the West Midlands, where men with Brummie accents invented modern transport, while the rest of the world was still driving ox-hauled carts. The epicentre of all this early automotive activity was the city of Coventry. Today, thanks to the attentions of A. Hitler's bombers in World War 2, it's a bit of a concrete jungle. But before it was razed to the ground by the Luftwaffe, it was one of the best-preserved medieval cities in England. Its narrow streets of half-timbered buildings were, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the home of England's silk-weaving industry.

Coventry was famous across the world for its silk ribbons. But it declined rapidly after 1860, when Britain and France signed the Cobden Treaty, which allowed free trade between the two countries. Cheap French silk ribbons flooded into England and the ribbon makers of Coventry were ruined. But the inventive folk of this corner of Warwickshire were not to be beaten that easily. By the middle of the 19th century cycling had become very popular in Britain and bike-making enterprises sprang up throughout the city. One such company was Starley & Sutton, set up in 1878 by John Starley and William Sutton.

In 1883 they built the first Rover – a tricycle – and in 1885 made history by producing the first modern bicycle – a chain-driven machine with two similar-sized wheels that was such an improvement on the then-popular (and dangerous) penny farthing cycles, that it was known as the Rover Safety Bicycle. It was a huge success. A decade later, the company was renamed the Rover Cycle Company Ltd and, in 1902, built the first Rover motor vehicle – a motor cycle known as the Rover Imperial. In 1904, the first Rover cars followed. The first was the two-seater Rover Eight. Despite being kept busy building military vehicles during World War I (1914-18), Rover struggled in the 1920s and was on the verge of going under in 1928 when a dynamic new chairman was appointed in the nick of time. His name was Frank Searle and one of his first moves was to headhunt young Spencer Wilks from rival car makers Hillman as general manager. Two years later, Maurice Wilks, who had been Hillman's chief engineer, followed his brother to Rover. Although they didn’t know it at the time, the two founders of Land Rover were now in place. But that was a long way off. By the mid-1930s, the dark clouds of WW2 were looming.

The British government realised that war with Nazi Germany was a distinct likelihood and busied itself with a massive rearmament programme, which included building “shadow factories”, which were paid for by the Government but run by private companies. Rover got two – at Acocks Green, Birmingham, and Solihull, where it built aero engines and aircraft frames. Rover's original factory at Helen Street, Coventry, was among the many destroyed by Hitler's blanket bombing of that city, so after the war Solihull returned to building cars at the huge Solihull plant, which it purchased from the Government. The problem was, it hadn't got enough production to fill it. Britain after WW2 was a bleak place. Although we had won the war, we were on the brink of ruin. Everything was rationed, including raw materials for building cars. Britain was desperate for foreign earnings, so car manufacturers were expected to export at least 50 per cent of their output – and steel supplies were allocated by the Government on that basis. Rover's problem was that its range of upmarket cars was both dated and unsuitable for export. What was it to do? The answer came from the Wilks brothers, but the inspiration was from the American Jeep.

Maurice Wilks had bought a battered ex-US military surplus Jeep to use as a farm hack on his estate in Anglesey, North Wales. And it was there that he and his brother, Spencer, hatched the plan to build a similar go-anywhere 4x4 as a stopgap measure in their Solihull factory, using body panels of aluminium alloy, which wasn't rationed. Launched in 1948, the vehicle christened the Land-Rover was an outstanding success. By 1949, the little 80-inch wheelbase 4x4 intended as a stopgap outsold its Rover saloon car stablemates. A year later, it was outselling the saloons two to one. Land Rover remained the company's best-seller throughout the 1950s and 60s. Various improvements were made along the way, with long wheelbase versions and a diesel engine option added and a less spartan Series II model in 1958, a year after the introduction of the original. By then, 200,000 Land Rovers had been sold, of which over 70 per cent had been exported, to over 150 countries. Many were built abroad, from CKD (completely knocked down) kits, shipped from Solihull. You would have expected Land Rover to go from strength to strength and dominate the world market for 4x4s, but instead the company got it wrong. They were complacent. Few improvements were made to the winning Land Rover formula for several years, while the company instead diverted resources to a new generation of saloon cars. When the 500,000th Land Rover – a Series IIA – left the Solihull assembly line in April 1966, it looked ominously similar to the Series II models being produced eight years earlier. By this time, Rover was beginning to worry. Japanese 4x4 manufacturers were starting to threaten its supremacy abroad, while the UK political situation threatened its very existence.

Under Harold Wilson's Labour government, the declining sections of Britain's motor manufacturing industry had begun to amalgamate under the belief that there was safety in numbers – large numbers. Rover had already bought Alvis in 1965 and in 1967 merged with Leyland Motors, which had already absorbed Standard and Triumph back in 1961. It is said that Rover agreed to the merger because it was one of the few outside companies relying upon Leyland for production of its bodyshells and was worried about the future – although in truth it probably did not want to get left behind by the big-is-better bandwagon. In fairness, the decision to merge was not universally popular at Solihull and some of Land Rover's top brass were openly critical of the move. Graham Bannock, Rover’s market research manager from 1958 until he moved to Ford in 1967, said “pretty well everyone at Solihull had been dead against it”. The critics were vindicated a year later, in 1968, when Leyland Motors (now including Rover and Land Rover, of course) joined with British Motor Holdings (which included  Austin, Morris, MG, Riley, Wolseley and Jaguar) to become the British Leyland Motor Corporation – a name which even today saddens the hearts of British car enthusiasts. Under British Leyland (as it was to become) Rover's proud heritage drowned beneath the tidal wave of industrial strife, shoddy products and hopeless management during what was probably the bleakest era in British manufacturing history. In 1975, on the brink of bankruptcy, BL was baled out by the government and nationalised. This did nothing to save most of the marques, which were headed for oblivion, yet somehow Land Rover continued to succeed – helped in no small part by the launch of the Range Rover, in June 1970.

It was to prove every bit as successful as the utility Land Rover: in fact it was the nationalised company's biggest money-spinner – a feat that didn't go unnoticed in the Ryder Report of 1975, which recommended that the successful Land Rover business should operate as a separate company within British Leyland. Happily, the Government agreed. It was a wise decision. Rover car production at Solihull ceased and the company concentrated exclusively on the Land Rover and Range Rover, although development of the latter was slowed by the lack of cash. From 1979 the UK's political landscape changed under Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government. She despised nationalised industries and set about returning them to private ownership. Hence BL was sold to British Aerospace (BAe) for £150 million in 1988. The new owners wanted nothing to do with the stigma of the British Leyland moniker and changed the name of the company to the Rover Group, which was subsequently sold on to BMW for £800 million in 1994.

For the first time in its history, Land Rover was under foreign ownership – and German ownership, at that. Although WW2 had ended in 1945, there were many politicians with long memories. The controversial sale caused uproar in the House of Commons at the time – but there was no going back. Under BAe, in 1989, Land Rover had launched the Discovery, which like the Land Rover and Range Rover before it, turned out to be a massive and enduring success. BMW weren’t so lucky and inherited the second-generation Range Rover, the ill-starred P38, which was technologically very advanced – maybe too advanced, because some of its ground-breaking new systems were prone to failure. It was a headache for the perfectionist new German owners, who were so eager to be rid of the troublesome new model that they hastened the development of the third-generation Range Rover, the L322. In the meantime, still under BMW ownership, the fourth Land Rover model – the Freelander – was launched in 1997.

Development of this model was instigated during the era when BAe was collaborating with Honda, so many believe there was a certain Japanese influence in the Freelander 1. It was also the first Land Rover model designed by the company's current design guru, Gerry McGovern. BMW showed tremendous faith in both Rover and Land Rover. They had genuinely hoped to return Rover to its rightful position as a manufacturer of quality cars as well as unleash the undeveloped potential of the Land Rover marque, but despite investing millions of pounds they were unable to turn the company into profit. It was said by some industry insiders that BMW's Rover adventure had cost the Germans as much as £10 billion. Clearly, they couldn't afford to sustain such huge losses, so in 2000, the Rover Group was broken up by BMW and Land Rover was sold to Ford, becoming part of the American company's Premier Automotive Group. Six years later, in 2006, Ford purchased the Rover brand from BMW for around £6 million.

This reunited the Rover and Land Rover brands, separated in 2000 when the Rover group was broken up by BMW, although Ford did not launch any Rover cars. Under Ford, British-made Land Rovers were built outside the West Midlands for the first time, when the Freelander 2 was produced at the company's Halewood plant, on Merseyside. But Ford had problems of its own and, in June 2008, sold both Land Rover and Jaguar to the Indian Tata Motors for £1.5 billion. This sale also included the dormant Rover brand. Six years on, Land Rover is a massive global success story. Today, the nouveau riche of China can’t get enough Range Rovers. Meanwhile, the direct descendant of the vehicle that caused it all – the utility Defender – is under threat. Production of the current Defender ceases at Solihull at the end of 2015, but the fact remains that if you stand a 2015 Defender 90 alongside a 1948 Series I, the family resemblance is striking. It has been a long journey, but if you want to know where Land Rover came from and where it is today, those two vehicles tell the whole story from the past to the present. As always, it’s the future that’s a tantalising and intriguing mystery. Tata hasn’t made the mistakes of the past. They have invested heavily in the development of new models. At the time of writing, a massive new engine factory is about to come on stream at Wolverhampton and Tata has also announced a £100 million investment in a research facility, where 1000 engineers and designers will create the cars of the future. That centre is in Coventry, where Rover was born back in 1883. Now Land Rover is back to its roots. Despite the upheavals over the years, and all the foreign ownership, the story really has come full circle. Land Rover, we know who you are all right.


Maurice Wilks (1904-63) began his career in the motor industry in 1926, when he went to work for General Motors, in America. After two years he returned to the UK to work for the Hillman Motor Car Company, in Coventry, as planning engineer. But again his stay was a short one, for after two years he moved to the nearby Rover Company as chief engineer. His brother, Spencer, was Rover's managing director. In 1947, Maurice bought an ex-military US Jeep for pottering around his estate in Anglesey. Legend has it that while idling on a beach in Anglesey, and inspired by the Jeep, the two Wilks brothers hatched the plan for a "Land-Rover", with Maurice allegedly making the sketches of the proposed new vehicle in the sand. From such humble beginnings are automotive success stories made.

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