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Friday, 1 May, 1998, 10:20 GMT 11:20 UK
Land Rover - 50 years on and off road
The Pope takes to his adapted Land Rover in Slovakia in 1997
The Pope takes to his adapted Land Rover in Slovakia in 1997
The Pope has one, Sylvester Stallone has one - off-road vehicles on-track for half a century on the road.

Now owned by BMW, the Land Rover, and its spin-off the Range Rover, is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

The Popemobile is different of course. It has a bullet-proof kiosk on the back, but the vehicles are essentially the same. Sturdy and durable - so much so that Rover estimates that 70% of all the Land Rovers made since 1947 are still in service.

The vehicle was devised in times of post-War metal shortages and Britain's desperate need to export goods to the world. To get round the shortages, brothers Spencer and Maurice Wilks stitched the early models together with cast-off strips of steel and aluminium.

Used mainly by farmers and the Ministry of Defence, the company strengthened the Land Rover's off-road capabilities until - recognising the potential of the on-road market - launched the Range Rover in 1970.

In the late 1980s, Rover moved into the burgeoning American 4x4 market and had huge success with its Discovery models. The company is hoping to build on this with its new line, the Freelander, which was awarded Car of the Year by What Car? earlier this year.

Rough riders

But, says Russell Hayes, of BBC TWO's Top Gear programme, Land and Range Rovers have not always seen things go so well.

"The Land Rover is still quite widely bought, but it's had a really ropey history. There were times when it didn't sell many at all, for instance through the times when British Leyland was changing hands.

A 1997 model Range Rover
A 1997 model Range Rover
"But despite the management, really, it's survived. And, people have suggested, one of the biggest reasons BMW wanted to buy Rover was that they wanted the prestige of the off-road cars."

Now, he says, the company is emphasising that heritage far more.

Walter Hasselkus, the Rover Group chief executive, said the company was determined to stay at the forefront of the four-wheel drive market.

The growth in the market has been driven by two main factors: the fashionability of 'off-roading' and the extra feeling of safety drivers being higher off the road than normal cars.

But this growth in turn has raised some concerns. Countryside campaigners oppose off-road driving because they say it damages footpaths and natural habitats. Now nearly every car company seems to make four-wheel drive cars. Where the Land Rover once was unique, today the competition is fierce.

  • Top Gear's report on the Land Rover's anniversary can be seen in the UK on BBC TWO on Thursday May 7 at 8.30pm. It will also be shown on BBC WORLD.
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