The 60-year history of Land Rover is well documented – I must have half a dozen different books in my home library covering the marque, and we published a special feature back in July 2008 detailing the origin of the species.
Whilst most Land Rover fans are well acquainted with the original 80-inch wheelbase cars that were to become known as Series I, from 1948 to 1958, the car featured here is one of a two-year build period between 1954 and 1956 when the wheelbase had its first lengthening to 86 inches in response to demand for more carrying capacity.
Thanks to CAR Middle East for this feature…
The Series I 86 differed only from its predecessors in overall dimensions, which makes it quite a rare specimen; everything else remained the same as the outgoing 80, including the upgraded 2-litre overhead valve engine and the now standard two/four-wheel drive transfer case. Unlike 4x4s today, the transmission of the early Land Rovers was operated by a veritable grove of levers sprouting from the floor.
In keeping with the original brief, the early Land Rovers were still very much designed as off road vehicles that you could use on road, and many of the first generation vehicles were fitted with power take-off drives to the back of the transfer case so that powered trailers, winches, pumps and various pieces of agricultural equipment could be operated in situ, using the Land Rover itself as the prime source of power. The giveaway is the offset hole in the rear crossmember of the chassis which could house the drive coupling that operated the additional equipment, either mounted directly to the vehicle or by way of a belt drive to a remote work station.
Mechanicals were otherwise fairy simple. Live axles front and rear, with semi-elliptic leaf springs and telescopic shocks all round, would continue to see service in every Land Rover until the advent of the 110 and 90 models in 1984 and 1985, when coil springs became the standard. The early chassis were handed – so a left-hand drive vehicle had a different chassis from a right-hand drive vehicle, but with central instrumentation, all other body panels and components were interchangeable. Export models, therefore, were almost indistinguishable from home market products.
The 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine of 52bhp was capable of rocketing the 1250kg Land Rover to a flat out speed of 94kph. However, the main advantage of the engine was its strong torque delivery which peaked at 1500rpm.
What this means in the real world is that, if you selected low first gear and dialed the hand-throttle up to just over tickover, you could get out and help the car by pushing it through the soft stuff whilst the car drove itself. I know this, because I’ve actually done it!
The bodywork on the early cars was rudimentary. Mainly flat panels of aluminium alloy (known as Birmabrite after Birmingham, the main city next to Land Rover’s Solihull birthplace) riveted and bolted to supports hanging from the steel chassis and bulkhead, it was designed, if that word is even relevant, to be simple to remove and replace. Both front doors hinge through 180 degrees so that they can be lifted and removed, as does the drop-down tailgate; the windscreen could be folded flat against the bonnet leaving complete access to the vehicle and a driver’s view second to none for the serious off-road work that the Land Rover was built for.
There were a number of mad variations on the theme, apart from the 107-inch ‘long wheelbase’ model: tracked vehicles, a hovercraft model, one used on the factory railway as a shunter and even three-wheeled versions for use as aircraft tugs on carriers, illustrated the range of specials which could be built using ‘the World’s Most Versatile Vehicle’ as a base.
Dubai E 81680 was imported to the UAE in 2003 having been found in the UK. This matching numbers 1955 unit underwent an extensive restoration at AAA Service Centre in Dubai when it arrived and was bought by its present owner, Mohammed Al Budoor, in 2004. It is still regularly used as a farm vehicle and occasional runabout, when the weather allows for no air-conditioning other than the roof being folded.
‘I wanted to preserve the car since these early Land Rovers contributed significantly to the growth of the UAE,’ says Mohammed. ‘The early vehicles helped the people of the Emirates to really get around.’
Mohammed recalls the Series I Land Rovers as being instrumental in getting people to hospital more quickly, for example, when there were no roads and the alternative was an uncomfortable camel ride, and allowing the falconers to go hunting for shorter periods instead of the month away that would be spent using a camel caravan.
How things have changed.