Why you’d want a Land-Rover Series I
Necessity is the mother of invention and, when war came to an end, small farmers such as Maurice Wilks needed a new light multi-purpose vehicle. It would have to drag a trailer-load of hay cross-country, power a small sawmill, plough a field, take a few sheep to market and milk churns to meet the lorry, or ferry the family to church.
The war had made mechanisation normal and near-essential, and war-surplus Jeeps or cut-down pre-war Austin Sevens and Ford Eights were only a stop-gap. What made Wilks different was that, as well as running a farm, he was chief designer at Rover – where his brother Spencer was MD.
Maurice used a Jeep on his farm, but it was worn out and there was no alternative: the brothers suddenly saw a gap in the market. A Rover for the land must be a Land-Rover, and in no time a prototype devised by Gordon Bashford was under test.
To make the vehicle more useful than a Jeep, it would have power take-offs to drive machinery and effective weather equipment. A year after having the idea, the first cars were unveiled.
With a limited budget, restricted steel allocation and minimal press tools, the Land-Rover’s simple square shape was enforced – yet softened just enough to give it an endearing character.
Tooling and steel availability led to the chassis being welded up from four strips of flat plate, a surprisingly successful method that continued for decades on SWB models.
Despite the Land-Rover having a much smaller engine than the Jeep, development ensured that it was just as capable off-road and considerably more versatile.
Just 25 pre-production cars had been built by the time of its ’48 launch – which brought an overwhelming reaction. Motoring writers were astonished by the vehicle’s adaptability, which was beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. It cost only £450: passenger seats, doors, a spare tyre and a starting handle were optional extras at first, but were soon included. Rover had to rapidly gear up its plans for production, and never looked back.
Series Is are highly collectable and caution is urged when buying an early car: the more history that can be shown, the better. Rust is the biggest enemy, but previous owners substituting incorrect major components can create havoc, too.
Land-Rover Series I: what to look for
See above for trouble spots
This is a 1600 engine; 2-litres have a filter on rocker cover and a side breather (see One to buy). Starter ring gear NLA for 1.6/early 2-litre. When hot, oil pressure can drop to 10psi at idle; 50psi at speed. Check for overheating/blown head gasket (water loss, emulsion on oil filler).
Suspension takes a pounding so look for broken spring leaves and wear in swivels and six track-rod ends. If fitted, the freewheeling hubs need to be used.
Halfshafts can’t be removed from semi-floating axle. Excessive internal oil leaks mean brake shoes will be soaked and diffs may be suffering due to lack of oil.
2/4wd lever control came in 1950, previously a pull ring engaged the front freewheel. Transmissions strong provided they don’t leak too much.
Aluminium-cased steering box of early cars cracks. Check swivel balls on front axle are smooth and rust-free: if not, budget up to £1000 to put both right.
Everything is available to retrim an early Landie, or to change body spec from truck cab to canvas tilt, so tatty or missing fabric trim is not a big problem.
Limited instruments and switchgear can be a challenge if you are keen to have an early car 100% original: details often changed and parts can be scarce.
Land-Rover Series I: on the road
The Series I may be basic, but it shouldn’t feel primitive or unsafe when driving. The engine should be smooth, with good oil pressure and no untoward clattering or knocking. Look for signs of overheating: the unit was designed to work hard in low ratio with no airflow, so should have plenty of spare capacity for normal use.
Some rattles are inevitable but if everything shakes and feels as if it is about to fall apart, it probably is: major expenditure may be imminent. Transmission noise should be noticeably reduced in third and fourth.
Make sure you get up to speed in two-wheel drive, but also ensure that it works properly in four-wheel drive and low ratio. If four-wheel drive is engaged, you should feel the steering wheel wobble when driving on tarmac; if freewheel front hubs are fitted, lock them.
Don’t drive any distance in four-wheel drive on tarmac because it strains the transmission and wears the tyres; original-spec Avons are costly, so check for tread depth and cracking.
Series I ’box has synchro only on third and top, so double-declutch when changing down into second. But it is strong and a rebuild will usually only entail new bearings, synchros and seals.
With its short wheelbase, the 80in has the choppiest ride on uneven roads: 86/88in are much smoother and LWB better still. The steering should not be excessively heavy or sloppy, the former suggesting seized swivels and the latter worn track-rod ends or a tired steering box.
Many have bodged wiring, which can be a fire hazard, so inspect the circuitry carefully for age and quality, and that everything works.
Land-Rover Series I price guide
Narrowing down prices for S1 Landies is a tricky business.
In general, highly-original, patinated early vehicles are usually worth more than cosmetically restored ones – although those being restored by JLR in the Reborn programme are being sold for circa £80k, so it doesn't always hold true.
Age-wise, 1948 models are the most desirable by far – so long as they have the right spec – and these will almost always sell for more than examples from 1949 onwards.
And to further complicate matters, 80in models usually command a premium over later 86 and 88in models, all else being equal; 107in Series Is can even be bought for under £10k thanks to the fact that few people want a LWB.
In summary: take the below as no more than a guide – and do your research before buying.
- Show/rebuilt 80in: from £40,000
- Average: £15,000-20,000
- Restoration: from £3000
Land-Rover Series I history
1948 Apr Land-Rover launched at Amsterdam Motor Show Oct Station Wagon introduced: all-alloy panels, winding windows, £959 (to ’51)
1948 Dec Pressed curved bulkhead replaces folded
1950 Metal van-type roof option added
1950 May Headlamps exposed
1950 Nov Freewheel front replaced by selectable rear/four-wheel drive
1951 Jun One-piece front wings Jul External doorhandles, chassis braces under rear floor
1952 Jan 1997cc IoE engine replaces 1595cc
1954 80in grows to 86in; 107in LWB introduced, 10-seat wagon option; dash reshaped/larger dials
1955 P4-type 1997cc cylinder block (with de-siamesed bores) standardised in Land-Rover 1956 Oct Wheelbase grows to 88/109in,
to make room for bulky new diesel engine
1957 Jun Diesel engine option: 51bhp at 3500rpm; 87lb ft of torque at 2000rpm
1958 Apr SII introduced with new overhead-valve 2286cc petrol engine, 52bhp, sills added to sides
The owner’s view
Chris Wilderspin always wanted an SI, and jumped when tipped off about one in a barn in Wales in 1999.
“When the Heritage Certificate arrived, I learnt that it was built the day I was born, 20 December 1950,” he chuckles. “There was rust in the bulkhead and chassis; at first it was a rolling resto, plating bits each year, but the chassis had rotted. I bought a ’51 chassis from Australia and started a full rebuild, putting it back to original. I swapped its 2-litre for a ’51 1600.
“It took 31/2 years, of evenings and weekends, and was on the road in ’09. Some details aren’t perfect because I couldn’t find the answers then and it has a ‘stealth overdrive’ control hidden under the seats. We recently towed the caravan 360 miles to Scotland for a club event, and back.”
WILLYS JEEP CJ2-3
Rugged, reliable non-military CJ-2A came with optional power take-offs, winch, belt drive etc on wartime 2.2-litre sidevalve engine. CJ-3B was fitted with an IoE head for 1953.
Sold 1945-’68 • No. built 501,539 • Mpg 16-24 • 0-50mph c27 secs • Top speed 60mph • Price new n/a • Price now £8-12,000
Flexitor trailing-link all-independent set-up, pressed-steel body and 90in wheelbase: 62bhp 2.2 A70 unit or 55bhp diesel; live axles and s-elliptics ’62. Good value but rust worse than L-R.
Sold 1958-’68 • No. built 21,208 • Mpg 18-27 • 0-50mph c23 secs • Top speed 68mph • Price new £640-755 (1958) • Price now £4-8000
Land-Rover Series I: the Classic & Sports Car verdict
The Series I may be the cutest of the family but it’s not the quickest or the most sophisticated, so don’t expect it to double as everyday transport unless you are very patient. But they are remarkably versatile and still impress off road.
Beware bitsas, fakes of rare models and the demon rot: otherwise, buy and enjoy a leisurely vehicle that started a whole genre.
- First and purest of the world-beating all-rounder
- Simple, practical and easy to run
- Still exceptionally capable off-road
- Virtually all parts are readily available
- Early cars are quite slow on the road
- Many have been heavily modified over the years
- Corroded bulkhead and rotten chassis are expensive to put right
Land-Rover Series I specifications
Sold/number built 1948-’58/c200,000
Construction steel ladder chassis, steel and aluminium-panelled body
Engine cast-iron, overhead-inlet side-exhaust valve 1595/1997cc four, with Solex carburettor, or ohv 2052cc diesel, with CAV fuel injection; 50bhp @ 4000rpm-52bhp @ 4000rpm; 80lb ft @ 2000rpm-101lb ft @ 1500rpm
Transmission four-speed man (synchro on 3/4), driving all wheels via high/low ratio transfer box
Suspension front/rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, telescopic dampers
Steering worm and nut
Brakes f/r Girling 10in drums, Hydrostatic self-adjusting replaced by adjustable Jul 1949
Length 11ft-14ft 51/2in (3353-4407mm)
Width 5ft 1in-5ft 21/2in (1550-1588mm)
Height 5ft 101/2in-6ft 111/2in (1790-2120mm)
Wheelbase 6ft 8in-9ft 1in (2032-2718mm)
Weight 2780-3444lb (1264-1565kg)
0-50mph 28.9-25.5 secs
Top speed 58-60mph
Price new £560-1029 (1956)