Curbside Classic: 1971 Land Rover Series III – Need to Go Anywhere? No Problem!

(first posted 7/2/2012)    The Land Rover series of trucks are unique and beloved vehicles. Living in the Midwest, away from all the surviving LRs out West, I have next-to-no experience with them. But I do think they’re cool, and spotting one in downtown Davenport, Iowa a couple of months ago was a real treat. These vehicles, which enjoyed a long production run, essentially remain with us today as the very similar LR Defender. So then, just how did a luxury car company come up with these wildly successful 4x4s?

The truth is, that’s not exactly what they set out to do. Instead, circumstances were largely responsible for the way things turned out. You see, the Rover Company, like every other postwar British industry, was reeling. Raw materials were scarce, and what few were available went first to industries that were either rebuilding the country, or had items to export. This placed Rover, a maker of conservative luxury saloons, in a real jam; at the time, virtually no one was splurging on a fancy car and Rover sales were miniscule. Something had to be done.

Rover’s chief designer, Maurice Wilks, had an idea. He thought a light utility vehicle with off road capability, in the vein of the Willys Jeep, could build up the company’s coffers. Such a simple, multipurpose vehicle would sell much better than the P2 and P3 Rovers, right?

It probably didn’t hurt that Wilks had a surplus Jeep on his own farm–which, more than likely, was the inspiration for what would become the Land Rover.

The first Land Rover came out in 1948 and garnered immediate interest, both at home and abroad. The tough little 4×4 could take some serious abuse and get you to the middle of nowhere with little trouble.

Interestingly, Rover never intended for it to be a long-term vehicle. Their thinking was that once Great Britain (and the rest of Europe) recovered, saloon sales would pick up, thus rendering the Land Rover unnecessary. Apparently, no one thought at the time that LR sales would take off by leaps and bounds. These things sold like the proverbial hotcakes, consistently outselling the regular Rover lineup. Naturally, nobody in the Rover hierarchy was about to spite that good fortune!

Thus did the Land Rover stay. The original LR received regular changes, much like its Jeep competitor, and carried on until 1958, when the Series II came out. Between 1961 and 1985, regular updates were implemented, and further refined Series IIA and Series III models carried on in Bristol (or is that Solihull?) fashion.

With over 440,000 made, the Series III, which replaced the Series IIA in 1971, is the most common Land Rover series. Not coincidentally, it also had the longest production run, from 1971 to 1985. To once again liken it to the Jeep CJ, its basic shape remained the same over the years, even as numerous improvements were made.

Series III engines were much the same as the outgoing IIA, offering a choice of a 2.25L I4 gasoline engine with 75 horsepower, or a 2.25L diesel with 62 horses. A 2.6L straight six, introduced in ’67 on the IIA, was also available. Regardless of engine size, all Series III vehicles came equipped with a four speed manual and, of course, four-wheel drive.

Several new features graced Series III interiors: The old metal dashboard, with its center-mounted gauges a la Jeep CJ, was replaced with a padded plastic affair with a driver’s-side gauge cluster. This new, more car-like layout certainly made things more complex at the factory, which now had to build both left- and right-hand drive versions of each model.

Michael Freeman, our resident LR Series specialist (who also helped me identify our featured car as a Series III–thanks, Michael!), had some interesting information about the Series III:

When they got the new Series III in Australia they all balked at the new grill. On the Series II, the grille is metal and they used to use it for grilling. The new one on the III was plastic. No more shrimp on the LR Barby! Also many of the features of the series III were carried over from military trucks. The Salisbury rear axle, the addition of a coolant expansion tank; that idea was home-brewed by the desert raiders way back in WWII in their pink panthers. The lights on the wings were to meet minimum light spacing requirements in certain markets, like the USA.

As had been the case since the original Series I, Land Rovers sat atop one of two wheelbases. At its introduction, the SWB version rode an 88″ wheelbase and measured 132″ in length (increasing to 142.4″ by the time our featured Series III was built). Long wheelbase Land Rovers featured a 109″ wheelbase; early models were 173.5″ long. A long wheelbase pickup joined the lineup in 1954. Although the long wheelbase had been around from the start, Land Rover waited until 1956 to introduce a LWB four-door (or five-door, if you count the tailgate) Station Wagon model. There had been a Station Wagon before that, but it was a short wheelbase, two-door model with a Tickford-built body.

Later LWBs, represented by this late ’70s version shot by Cohort contributor channaher, were a bit more civilized but still all business. By this time, the overall length of LWB versions had reached 175″; their wheelbase remained unchanged.

While I was running errands one morning back in late April, I did a double take upon spotting this open-top SWB Series III. Wow, what a cool truck! In the Quad Cities, these things are about as common as a Sherman tank, so of course I had to stop for pictures.

It was not a show car, but in very solid shape. Despite having a mishmash of different vintage Land Rover parts on it, such as the Series IIA grille, it looked very original, right down to the seats and “Land Rover” mud flaps on the back. There is a British car show in Davenport every August, but I’ve never seen this truck there. A new acquisition for the owner’s fleet, perhaps? Very few Anglophiles have just one British car, you know. They’re like potato chips.

At any rate, seeing this cheery Land Rover on a hazy, overcast afternoon really brightened my day. The Series III itself finally was put out to pasture after 1985, although the Land Rover Defender, introduced in ’83, filled some of the void left by this icon. And, as attested to by this drop-top, there are plenty of them still puttering around. Even in Iowa.