Keeping it in the Family - the History of Land Rover

In what could be a storyline from the BBC’s ‘Who do you think you are?’ our very own Peter Gordon has revealed a family connection to motoring royalty. Peter, Lookers’ Group Marketing Director, has a niece who is married to the Great Grandson of Maurice Wilks. Maurice, along with his brother Spencer helped make automotive history by inventing and bringing the Land Rover to market in 1948.

Described as someone "who because of his natural reticence and modesty, never received the national recognition which was his due", Maurice was nonethless regarded by many as one of the country's most outstanding engineers.

Road to Success

The Wilks brothers were born in England – Spencer in 1891 and Maurice in 1904. Their father was director of leather goods company and their mother a suffragette. Both enjoyed a comfortable and happy childhood and went on to great academic success. Maurice studied engineering at Malvern College and Spencer was a law graduate.

Spencer married Edith, a daughter of William Hillman, and in 1921 took over the joint running of the company when William died. Hillman, founded in 1907 developed some of the most iconic British cars including the playfully named Wizard, Minx, Imp and Avenger.

The brothers’ careers soon began to overlap. Maurice moved to the US to work for General Motors returning in 1928 to take up a position at Hillman as planning engineer. Spencer then moved to the Rover Group, based in Longbridge, as Works Manager and was followed by Maurice in 1930.

take up a position at Hillman as planning engineer. Spencer then moved to the Rover Group, based in Longbridge, as Works Manager and was followed by Maurice in 1930.

Maurice Wilks

Eureka Moment

After the war Maurice came into possession of a surplus Willys Jeep. Although very beaten up it proved to be very useful for small jobs around his farm in Anglesey. In need of replacing there was a small snag – spare parts could only be purchased in bulk and new Jeeps were not being exported from the US to the UK. Besides, he balked at the idea of buying a non-British vehicle and was said to have remarked that if he could not build a better one he should not be in business!

Maurice mulled this over and the innovative designer whilst on holiday with Spencer in 1947 sketched the shape for the original Land Rover in the sand of Red Wharf Bay. This was the eureka moment and the genesis of this now legendary vehicle.

Two were produced as protoypes, robustly tested on the island of Islay, and showcased at the Amsterdam Motor show in 1948 where motoring journalists were hugely enthusiastic. By 1951 Land Rovers were out-selling all other Rover vehicles 2 to 1.

Marrying the Past with the Present

So enduring is the affection and connection, that the Wilks family today still owns one of those original prototypes. Going strong after 67 years it recently played a key role in a very important day.

On a warm summers day in June this year, beautiful bride Tessa – Peter’s niece - enjoyed a ride in this vintage wedding car with a difference. Driven by Tessa’s father, this historic Land Rover drew admiring glances as it transported the bride to the wedding venue and then on to the reception with her new husband, James.

This touching gesture and link through the generations would no doubt have made Great-Grandfather Maurice very proud.

The prototype Land Rover

Driving the Bride to Church

Tessa and James


With over 2 million vehicles sold since its inception this award winning British institution has a deserved reputation for its superior off-road ability and performance. Spencer and Maurice Wilks were inspiring visionaries. Their collective experience and passion for design, engineering and commerce has helped shape the British motoring industry for decades, while also building Land Rover into an iconic global brand loved by many – including the Queen. Their legacy and innovation has gone on to inspire a whole new generation of designers and drivers alike. Are you one of them?

The Charles Hurst Land Rover Showroom at Corporation Street, Belfast (mid 1960's)

Top 10 Land Rover Facts

1. The first Land Rover had the steering wheel in the middle.

2. The earliest Land Rover models were only painted with military surplus aircraft paint, so they were available in a variety of fatigue greens.

3. The one-millionth Land Rover was sold in 1976.

4. Winston Churchill had a first-generation Series I Land Rover given to him as an 80th birthday present in 1954. It included an extra-wide passenger seat and a heated footwell.

5. Land Rover vehicles had wooden frames for decades before switching to steel frames.

6. Land Rover are said to be a favourite of the Queen.

7. Land Rover vehicles have been converted into everything from ambulances, to tractors, fire trucks and more.

8. The name ‘Land Rover’ came from a spontaneous moment. Spencer Wilks owned the Laggan Estate on Islay. In 1947, while driving his Rover 10 across rugged landscape, the estate’s gamekeeper remarked: “This must be a Land Rover then” and the name was famously born.

9. Islay was a testing ground for some of the early Land Rovers with several of the early series and Land Rover prototypes were put through their paces.

10. A Land Rover appeared in the 1958 film 'Ice Cold in Alex', which was set in WW2 - before Land Rover actually existed.


And then...