The Centre Steer Land Rover is considered by purists fans of the brand as the beginning of everything.
It was in September 1947 when the British company Rover decided to make a light tractor model agricultural type vehicle based on the Willys Jeep who had reaped so much success in the war years. The idea was to produce a minimal cost unit in post war Britain with parts salvaged from other vehicles to enable the company to speedily move back to production of luxury cars, their main business focus.
With the agricultural intent, the vehicle was perceived to have a valuable export appeal throughout the British Empire and Commonwealth enabling the company to raise funds quickly to refill the drained coffers.
Here was born the first “Land” Rover 4×4.
Its most distinctive feature was the steering wheel mounted centrally, with two seats for passengers, one on each side; this design would coin the name, Centre Steer.
This was done for three reasons; The Land Rover was designed as an agricultural vehicle capable of performing work by tractors and inspired by tractors namely ‘Ferguson’ of the period. These tractors had center mounted steering and this system would be familiar to farmers and ploughmen alike, the space on either side could be used as additional storage space for load carrying if passenger seats were removed.
The space could also be used for mounting equipment such as a generator or engine driven equipment through the “PTO” system of the main gearbox, which was under the seats.
Another reason was the cost savings, eliminating the need to produce the vehicle in both versions, right and left hand drive.
With the same wheelbase as the Willys, on this prototype a Jeep-like rear body tub was used generally squarer, flatter panels for ease of production, the front wings were curved. Later, when they entered production, they were made at right angles simply because they were easier to cut and assemble, saving time and money.
The engine was a 4 – cylinder 1.6 ltr petrol giving 50 bhp. The first unit was mated to a manual gearbox 4 speed gearbox of the Rover P3 saloon car with a transfer case from a Willys. In 1948, this box was replaced by a purpose built transfer box enabling the freewheel to be locked out to ensure full traction at both axles when off-road.
The Centre Steer was used as a concept of the basic design and mechanical elements and was used for promotional photographs for the first Sales Brochure, however these pictures were heavily airbrushed to resemble a normal early Land Rover. The pre-production vehicles quickly developed, without the central steering The design team felt the centre steering was somewhat awkward to use and impractical in certain circumstances. The concept stayed in initial development drawings of the ‘Land Rover’ program in October 1947. However, by December 1947 the normal Land Rover had developed on the drawing board to be a conventional right- and left-hand drive vehicle.
The centre-steer vehicle was used off-road in and around Rover’s Solihull works. Pictures exist of the vehicle seen ploughing and driving a threshing machine on a farm, though most of these photos are static publicity photographs.
Research in 2011 turned up some drawings of the Land Rover design between the Centre Steer and the normal Land Rover. An article on this vehicle, the 1947 Land Rover mockup was in the Land Rover Register 1948 to 53 April 2011 Bulletin and shows that the Land Rover Mockup was initially drawn up with central steering.
It is not known if any of the Centre Steer prototypes still exist. Some say there was only one, others say there were up to three. Many people, including most of the original design team believe it was broken up once production of the final Series I design started in 1948. Others say it was rescued and remains in some forgotten barn waiting to be discovered. The discovery of the Centre Steer remains a ‘Holy Grail’ to many Land Rover enthusiasts. New research has revealed that the final Land Rover design was well advanced by early December 1947 leaving the Centre Steer for use in publicity photographs that were used in the first sales brochure, though heavily air brushed to look like the production vehicle.
In 2004/5, a Land Rover enthusiast Mr. Bill Hayfield, constructed a replica centre-steer vehicle after much study of remaining photographs of the original. The fully working vehicle demonstrated both the practicalities and drawbacks to the novel design. The replica used exactly the same engine and gearbox, and the necessities of building such a vehicle in a home workshop also pointed towards ways the Rover company would have built their vehicle without complex pressing and cutting machinery- such as the creation of curves on the bodywork by cutting slots in a straight sheet, applying pressure to the metal, allowing it to bend at an angle allowed by the expansion slots, then welding up the slots to form a solid, strong body panel. Many previously speculated on the feasibility of constructing a centrally mounted steering system. Mr. Hayfield simply ran a chain drive from the steering column in the centre to the steering relay mounted under the left-hand wing, as used on the Jeep. The rest of the steering system was also the Jeep’s re-circulating ball/trackrod system.
May be it is out there somewhere …