Not long after the end of WWII, a farmer named Maurice Wilks was using a battered jeep to do some work on his farm on the Welsh island of Anglesey. Things weren’t going well. The prized piece of U.S. Army surplus kept breaking down. Finally, Wilks decided to rip the thing apart and build his own vehicle off the chassis. The four-wheel-drive result was powerful but minimal. Wilks also didn’t see the point of niceties like seat cushions, a heater or even doors. With its cracker-box body and canvas roof, his creation might have been the ugliest car in the world.
Strangely enough, it would also become one of its most luxurious.
Wilks’ homemade conveyance was the Land Rover, a vehicle that stands today as proof of one of branding’s more colorful quirks. Sometimes the ultimate in luxury is really just the ultimate in utility. Call it industrial chic. A handful of clever brands—Viking ranges, Orvis outerwear—have made fortunes out of it, but Land Rover wrote the book.
In the 1960 ad here, the vehicle that one Tom McCahill and his four hounds are posing with is a veritable copy of Wilks’ 1947 original. As McCahill attests, the car is “as rugged as a cement casket” and, with its profusion of right angles, it’s also about as stylish. And yet, the four-wheel drive Rover is “a class vehicle,” says its owner, who’s also a magazine writer and a sportsman. The mingling of these elements is integral to the marketing magic at work. The Land Rover might be a hardworking wagon, but it’s a gentleman’s wagon. Yes, m’lord, you can indeed have both.
“The image of it was basically what you took on safari to go shooting tigers,” said Christopher Cedergren, president of L.A.-based brand consulting firm Iceology. “It was very rugged but also an eccentric’s car. You had to have a lot of money for one. This 1960 ad shows the original model, but ever since then, every model that’s come out has represented an evolution of the concept from a design and conceptual perspective.”
Evolve, it did. In 1970, Land Rover introduced the Range Rover, which integrated the brand’s famed performance features (4WD with a 3.5 litre V8) with more civilized trappings (sporty paint job, cigar lighter). Ads spoke of “roughing it in luxury” in a vehicle that was as much home in the Serengeti as in St. Moritz. And it’s that same mingling of disparate elements—the industrial and domestic, the rough and refined, cold steel and soft suede—that forms the core of the brand’s identity today, as the 2013 ad clearly shows.
There’s an unspoken conceit to all of this, of course. Most owners of this “estate car” don’t own estates, and the closest they’ll come to going on safari is taking the kids to the zoo. Still, industrial chic has always been more about the satisfaction of owning a piece of kick-ass machinery even if you’ll never put it through its paces. A handful of other car brands (anyone remember Hummer?) have tried this same trick, but only Land Rover truly pulled it off in the global marketplace. “It’s one of the most iconic brands out there,” Cedergren said. “Synonymous with luxury and sophistication but also ruggedness and durability.” It’s not as easy as it looks—especially since, as Land Rover first taught us, ugly can be very attractive.