Land Rover Series 1 Buying Guide
To both besotted owners and seasoned driving professionals, the original Land Rover Series I remains the best off-roader money can buy
• Project £1350-7500 • Good £5600-30,000 • Concours £12,000+ •
• Most Expensive at Auction: £129,000 (Winston Churchill’s 86”)
Running Costs ★★★
DIY Friendly ★★★★★
Originally a short-lived stopgap in Britain’s post-war export market, the first batches of Maurice and Spencer Wilk’s iconic design were registered as farm vehicles, employing complex power take-offs for operation of cultivation tools. Built upon a rigid box-section chassis for maximum strength and mated with Birmabright – an aluminium/magnesium alloy – coachwork, Land Rovers soon garnished a reputation for longevity and unyielding capability through various global expeditions and military use.
The trick with a Series I Land Rover is to find one that hasn’t been molested. With such versatility through the price trough over the decades, various engines and drivetrains have been implanted in place of the original Rover units. Lesser examples have become trial racers and fodder for those of a modified persuasion, where Isuzu diesels, Rover V8s and Chevrolet V6s under the bonnet are commonplace. If it doesn’t leak oil, chances are it’s not the original engine.
To drive on main roads takes dedication but, while slow and wayward, the Land Rover will have you bowled over with charm. The heater is largely symbolic and comfort levels breach UN torture legislation, but with Land Rover genesis at your control the inane grin across your face will prove you’ve spent your money well.
Very early examples from 1948 through 1951 operate with Rover’s 1595cc engine, whereas following models (until 1958) employed an upgraded 1997cc in-line four cylinder. Petrol engines all hold the same basic design and are as rudimentary and DIY friendly as you’ll ever find. A diesel option is available but will offer the same forward motion as a glacier, leaving them almost dangerous on modern A-roads. However, should you be after an original diesel – and they are rare – you will only find them in very late 88- and 109-inch vehicles. Anything earlier is not an original factory Land Rover.
Parts for the later petrol engine are plentiful, but the original 1.6-litre unit can provide headaches when sourcing replacement components, meaning you may have to settle for non-original parts. Support for the diesel unit is more than healthy.
Any of the engines chosen should pull well and tick over gently. You will need to keep an eye on the tappets, as they require adjustment every so often. A puff of smoke upon start up is common, but make sure it clears quickly. Blue smoke means valve seals are on the way out. Also watch for water in the oil, creating a ‘mayonnaise’ effect.
Gear changes should be easy and distinctive. If there is excessive noise or difficulty in finding a gear then you may have transmission rebuild costs on the horizon. There is no synchromesh between first and second, so it is common to find it jumping out of gear. Low range should engage smoothly from stationary by operating the red-top lever. Axles are noisy but check the oil levels and for signs of leaking. Half-shafts can be a headache, as when they fail finding replacements can take time.
Expect some clunking from underneath due to the sheer number of joints in the drivetrain, but check the front swivel hubs have a smooth finish on the chrome as damage or pitting will result in oil leaks and wear.
Suspension and brakes
Land Rovers are subjected to tough conditions and sustained terrain abuse, so you’ll need to check for suspension damage. All Series 1 Land Rovers use leaf springs, so check for signs of off-road injury and proof of neglect – mainly cracked or sagging springs. Bushes and shackles need to be changed regularly, whereas a lop-sided stance probably means the wrong leaf springs have been fitted – there are several different types. A Series I should be on handed springs. If the vehicle sits on coils then the Land Rover is not original.
Prolonged off-road use can perish brake lines and damage drums, which often results in a very long travel pedal. Finding replacement parts for either the brakes or suspension is child’s play, with several stockists available.
Don’t believe that early Land Rovers are rust free. The prototypes may have been built using a galvanised chassis, but this practice wasn’t brought forward into production. The bulkhead and chassis are critical to the entire structure and can rot badly, so ensure that it’s solid in all the right places – mainly the outriggers and mounting points. Corroded footwells are the biggest tell-tale sign of looming trouble, and while re-manufactured bulkheads and chassis can be purchased from specialist suppliers, they aren’t cheap, and a rebuild is a big job.
Body panels are crafted from Birmabright aluminium with galvanised steel cappings to stiffen the construction. They won’t rust, even if the paint has worn off. However, the door frames are steel and can corrode the alloy where they meet, along with the bulkhead seams. If you are after an upmarket Tickford Special be prepared for all the challenges and costs brought about by maintaining a timber-framed body.
Numerous panels for the 107-inch Station Wagons can be hard to find, and if you do happen upon them, they will command top price.
The vinyl upholstery wears well, designed for hard use as the interior is far from weatherproof. There is little in the way of creature comforts, except for the ‘Jesus bar’ on the passenger side – so called after the exclamations pronounced upon certain off-road obstacles. Rear benches face inwards, with the 107-inch Station Wagons offering an additional centre row. Replacement seating was once a nightmare to source, but can now be purchased brand new.
- 1948: Launched to the public at the Amsterdam Motor Show
- 1954: 1.6-litre engine dropped in favour of a larger 2.0-litre petrol unit
- 1957: 2.0-litre diesel and 107-inch Station Wagon launched
- 1958: Production lines updated for the succeeding Series II.
Corroded bulkheads, rotten chassis, abused engines and cheap and nasty repairs separate a project vehicle from a genuine concours example – be wary of those dressing up a workhorse to jump on the price bandwagon.
However, an original and unmolested Series I will provide a practical, charming and downright indestructible classic – although with the current value trend you may feel apprehensive about venturing into the rough stuff. Long journeys are also only suitable for masochists.
However, with so much personality and an overwhelming sense of fun, you’ll find Land Rover Series I ownership addictive and hugely enjoyable. Besides being genuinely useful, you’ll grow to love its charismatic faults.
|0-60mph||55 seconds - if you are brave.|
|0-60mph||58 seconds - downhill. With a wind behind you.|