Land Rover, the Alpha and the Omega of British off-roading, celebrates its 70th Anniversary this year. This historic badge is synonymous the world over with grit and class, and has been since the end of World War II. Its vehicle models have grown and evolved over the last seven decades, yet remain staunchly loyal to the traits that make Land Rover so beloved in the first place. And, lucky for us, Land Rover North America has brought them across the pond.
Land Rover’s story is one that gives life to a fleet of defining vehicles. Where would the SUV market even be today without the Defender, Range Rover, or Disco? So rich in history, yet still so sought after in modernity. And with a domestic arm of the business in full swing like never before, Land Rover North America looks to keep the brand at the forefront of its place in the market. Specifically, the place where refined English luxury and rugged off-road capability intersect.
The story of Land Rover’s 70th Anniversary begins in 1948. The first model debuted at the Amsterdam Motor Show, based on a design from the year before by Maurice Wilks. (His brother Spencer happened to be Managing Director of Rover Automotive Company at the time.) The original prototype was built on a Jeep chassis and axles, as the brothers used a Jeep around their farm.
Due to the fact that they were limited to surplus military paint for British aircraft, virtually all early Land Rovers are an earthy green color. And, fun fact: the prototype was designed with the steering wheel in the vehicle’s center. This felt more tractor-like to Wilks’ farm-oriented mind. Inadvertently, this also eliminated the hurdle of separate designs for left and right-hand drive markets.
Ownership? It’s Complicated
Despite cheery 70th Anniversary celebrations, Land Rover’s history as a company packs some serious drama. In fact, the ownership saga has more twists and turns than a Mexican telenovela.
Land Rover as a company has only been in existence since 1978. Every Land Rover that came before that was part of a Land Rover product line, owned by the Rover Company. In 1994, BMW bought Rover, who still owned the Land Rover line it established in 1978, and split Land Rover from Rover. Still following? Good. In 2000, BMW sold Land Rover to Ford. They remained different companies until Ford also bought Range Rover in 2006, at which time both aligned under the flag of Jaguar Land Rover. Subsequently, Jaguar Land Rover was sold by Ford to Indian automotive giant Tata Motors in 2008, and has remained in Tata’s charge ever since.
Regardless of who has claimed ownership through the years, it cannot be disputed that the variety of vehicles that trace their lineage back to that old Rover line have changed the way the world perceives the SUV. The evolution of an off-road vehicle from a glorified tractor to the output for Land Rover North America, an upscale status symbol that prowls suburban cul-de-sacs, can be seen in the growth of the fruit from the Rover tree.
While early Rovers sold well, the models that still fuel Land Rover North America’s sales today began rolling out in the ’70s. Debuted in 1970, the Range Rover arrived as a road-worthy alternative to earlier Rover models. Capable and rugged, early models sported a body-on-frame design with full-time 4WD and utilitarian styling. (A far cry from today’s upmarket offerings.) When BMW took over in 1994, luxury leanings took hold and the SUV became more lavish (and expensive). The Range Rover line has since expanded, including a number of offshoots like the Range Rover Sport and the Evoque.
Born in 1983 as the Land Rover 90 and 110, these would eventually be known as the beloved Defender. Slow, impractical, expensive, and unreliable, the Defender is still seen as a national treasure in its native England. It experienced acclaim on American shores as well, even before Land Rover North America was ever a stateside presence. For years, this vehicle was one of the most hunted prizes on the automotive gray market.
Introduced in 1989, the Discovery helped bring Land Rover to the masses. Built on a Range Rover chassis, the model had a lower starting price point in the hopes it would compete in foreign markets (like Japan). Designed to exist in the gap between the Defender and the Range Rover, the beloved “Disco” has grown and evolved with market changes over five generations and nearly three decades.
Land Rover North America
Land Rover North America did not set up shop until 1987, which opened up a line of smartly-equipped off road go-getters to a whole continent of salivating buyers. Buyers who had, for nearly two decades, been attempting to smuggle Range Rovers, 90s, and 110s into the US by any means available. It has been a national love affair ever since.
Off-road enthusiasts love the specs. Suburban parents love the extra room and amenities of the well-appointed interiors. Even the motorsports crowd in America loves them. The Camel Trophy Competition of the 80s and 90s was dominated by Land Rover vehicles (and sometimes won by Americans in Land Rovers).
Stateside, Land Rover outsells Jaguar, its sedan-only sibling, and it does so 5 to 1. Sales are increasing every year since the recession. Land Rover North America has more than doubled its market share percentage in the US since 2002. (Not bad for a stodgy old Brit celebrating its 70th Anniversary, eh?)
What else can we expect from Land Rover North America? Definitely not a slow down, that much is certain. The company recently opened a brand new national headquarters in Mahwah, New Jersey (not far from NYC) and Land Rover now runs three separate “experience” centers. Located in California, Vermont, and North Carolina, these centers give drivers a (fairly pricey) chance to scale mountains and climb rough terrain—-all while getting a true Land Rover experience. Ranging from one hour to full-day adventures, these centers tell us what we already know about America and the Land Rover. They simply cannot get enough of each other.