The last safari
It all started just after World War II in Great Britain. Maurice Wilks, the Chief Designer at Rover Cars LTD was in need of a new farm chore vehicle. His old military Jeep was completely worn out, so instead of looking for another one for the farm, he decided to build one from his existing Jeep frame. He chose to use off-the-shelf Rover parts, and turned the project into a design study that yielded excellent results. So good that the company decided to put the design into production as a stop-gap until the company could source more steel, rare in post-war England.
Building the farm utility vehicle as a mass production model required Rover to find alternative materials to steel. There was plenty of aluminum available from aircraft production, so Wilks employed simple folds to create the body panels. Supplies like body paint were sourced from military aircraft production, so the early production models used light green cockpit paint. Aircraft building practices were also used, like rivets to attach panels. It was all a cobbled-together effort that made do with what was lying about. The first vehicles were shown at an international automobile exhibition, and the orders simply poured in. First year production of the farm utility vehicle went well beyond anticipated numbers.
Rover chose to name the vehicle as simply as it was designed, and called it the Land Rover. It was an instant hit because of the design and utility. War-ravaged Europe had found a vehicle that would fulfill so many urgent needs, and Rover sold as many as they could produce. The Land Rover was easily adapted for use as an ambulance, a firetruck, service van, and of course, a useful farm vehicle. The Land Rover met military requirements, and also found its way into use by organizations operating in the wilds of Africa. The Land Rover's most visible venue turned out to be wildlife excursions and safaris in the dark continent, where it was widely seen in films and documentaries. Over time the cobbled together utility vehicle made from war surplus became an exclusive, sought after symbol of adventure.
I remember seeing my first Land Rover in the film "Daktari," starring John Wayne. Seeing an enraged rhino charge the vehicle and puncture the cabin door with its horn was pretty dramatic stuff. In later years I remember filling the gas tank on many a Land Rover in Hanover, N. H., when I worked at Park Street Mobil. Rather than seeing it as a four-wheel-drive utility vehicle, I viewed them as Swiss Army knives of the automotive world, ready to pursue adventures on any continent in any weather. They also took forever to fill with fuel because they had built in filter screens in the filler, and a rather convoluted filler neck that just slowed everything down. I got to chat with the owners about their Land Rovers and look them over carefully during the fueling ordeal. They just exuded cool from every odd detail like the center facing bench seats in the rear, the hood mounted spare tire, the recessed door handles, elongated port style curved windows on the roof edges, or the double roof with air space to cool the interior.
As the Land Rover evolved, the name changed. The original was the Series I, followed by the Series II, Series IIa, and the Series III, and finally, the Defender. The rugged, superbly engineered Land Rover with the aluminum body has been in continuous production since 1948. Nowadays the Defender is sought after by the rich and famous, and the astronomical prices reflect that demand. Even Queen Elizabeth has one. I recently learned that emission requirements will sound the death knell for the Defender, with production scheduled to end in December of 2015. Nothing will ever compare with the original concept of the Land Rover, making the last safari a sad affair indeed.
Arlo Mudgett's Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for nearly 30 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT FM Monday through Saturday mornings at 8:35 a.m.