Ever wondered why the clock in Defenders is centrally mounted? It’s because Maurice Wilkes, designer of the original Land Rover Series I, recalled his mother always putting her clock in the centre of her mantelpiece, so he did the same. I happen to know this little fact because Maurice Wilkes’ chief engineer in 1948, Arthur Goddard, without whom both the Defender and disc brake wouldn’t exist, told me on the eve of the Revival. He’s a mere 94-years-old, is Arthur, and thought nothing of flying over from his home in Brisbane, Australia to talk about building the Series I, the Defender’s predecessor, all those years ago.
As with all great successes in life, the Series I was to a large degree the product of luck and timing. Arthur Goddard had never seen a car engine when he got called in to see Wilkes about building the Land Rover. He had been working on the Merlin engine but Wilkes wanted to discuss building ‘a special vehicle aimed at the military, agriculture and commercial’.
It was ‘a steep learning curve’, according to Goddard. ‘In aircraft, you don’t do the testing yourself, so it was fun for me to take the cars out. They won my heart over at Rover.’
The Series I came about largely because of a steel shortage. ‘If we could make a vehicle that didn’t use steel, we’d get credits, so we decided to go for that,’ Goddard told GRR. Thus they used aluminium, a mere 64 years before the first aluminium Range Rover was launched.
First of all, they looked at the Willys Jeep to see if there were any ideas ‘worth copying’. ‘The first lesson we learned,’ says Goddard. ‘Was that Jeeps rusted to pieces, which is where our galvanised chassis came from. That part has worked out pretty successfully.
‘We had to have a very simple body using folded metal. That worked extremely well; it enabled us to get into production in 10 months instead of two years.’
Arthur Goddard drove the finished vehicle to the Amsterdam motor show to display it on the stand and talk to potential customers, as he knew the most about the car. He had his eye on the military as the British Army was after 1,000 vehicles. However, the response was overwhelming. ‘It frightened me to death when the orders started coming in,’ says Goddard. The British Army wanted a thousand, as did the Spanish and Yugoslavian Armies. ‘Suddenly we were in the middle of starting another world war,’ he added with a chuckle.
All the more startling was the fact that ‘we knew nothing about making four-wheel-drive vehicles, but we knew something about the theory.’ They had a mere 10 prototypes (modern car companies use hundreds), with two blokes and Maurice Wilkes testing them. ‘We didn’t have consultants and stylists for the Land Rover,’ Goddard recalls. Wilkes himself designed the logo and ‘he was great with ashtrays, especially the colour,’ says Goddard, chuckling.
It’s safe to say no one had any idea what a success story they were sitting on back in 1948. ‘I’d have organised myself a bonus if I’d realised production was going to take off so much,’ laughs Goddard, shaking his head. ‘We never thought that it would be used for transport or civilian use. There was a tax on building cars for private use, you see, 20 per cent or something.’
So what does he think of today’s final incarnation of the Defender, a family leisure vehicle, complete with air-conditioning and all the trappings of civilian life? ‘You’ve got to be pleased. It’s making money,’ he says. ‘Land Rover haven’t made anything particularly bad on it, they’re nice vehicles, they’ve still got a big fancy chassis.’
A fancy chassis, and a little bit of magic. The Defender has had a glorious run since its incarnation as a sketch on a Welsh beach all those years ago, and bows out this year safe in the knowledge that it is one of the few cars of all time to be a true British automotive icon.