Most Land Rover owners know about the Land Rover's earliest history. The Wilks Brothers, higher-ups at The Rover Car Company, had a wartime Jeep, drove it around their farm in Wales, thought they could build something like it in Britain, and drew a picture in the sands of Red Wharf Bay in Anglesey. Millions of Land Rovers and billions of adventures followed over the next 71 years. But who, really, were the Wilks Brothers? And what else were they known for?
Maurice (born 1904) and Spencer (born 1891) Wilks were born to Thomas Wilks and Jane Eliza in England. Their father was the manager of Leather Company, and their mother was a Suffragette. Their original career paths did not trend towards the auto industry, but Spencer married Kathleen Edith, a daughter of William Hillman, the founder of the Hillman Motor Car Company.
When William Hillman died in 1921, his son-in-law Spencer took over the co-management position at the company. He got his brother Maurice a job there as well, and he worked at Hillman from 1922 to 1926, when he took a job at General Motors in the United States for a few years, before going back to Hillman as a planning engineer. Meanwhile, Spencer had become disillusioned with the Rootes family who had bought Hillman and took an offer from Rover to become their general manager in 1929. A year later, Maurice joined him, as Chief Engineer, moving to the position of Technical Director in 1946. Other family members also took a role in the company. Maurice and Spencer's nephew, Peter Wilks, worked as a designer; relative-by-marriage William Martin-Hurst was a managing director; Range Rover Classic designer Charles Spencer King was a cousin.
Although both Wilks Brothers get the credit for the ancestry of the Land Rover, it was Maurice who did more of the brainstorming and engineering, while Spencer used his managerial position to sign off on the projects.
Maurice had a farm on Anglesey, a large island in the northwest of Wales. After World War II, he acquired a surplus military Jeep, which he drove around the farm. In the post-War period, Britain was still burdened by heavy rationing, even though they had been victorious. Raw materials, including steel, were heavily rationed. There was one way to acquire more material, though: make products for export, bringing foreign money into Britain in the process.
Maurice got the idea to make a British utility 4x4 based on the Jeep concept. It would be a useful farmer's vehicle, and most importantly, it could be exported around the world. He sketched the basic design out in the sand at Red Wharf Bay, a beach near his farm. There, in the summer of 1947, the wheels set in motion for the Land Rover. It was to be a stopgap solution until Rover could get on its feet again making upscale vehicles. It ended up outlasting the Rover car company itself.
That's what most Land Rover enthusiasts know about the Wilks legacy. However, if you go to visit Maurice's grave in Anglesey, you'll see no mention of the Best 4x4xFar on his headstone. The Land Rover was one of his post-war re-applications of war technology to the civilian world, but the one that's carved into that stone is the gas turbine car he worked on.
In 1939, Spencer Wilks was approached by the British government about working with them on the gas turbine for airplanes, at that point a budding war project. They were the leading jet engine developers in the early years of the War before other manufacturers took the lead.
After the War, Maurice had been deeply impressed by the potential of turbines for civilian use and spearheaded a project in 1945 to create a gas turbine car. By 1950, the JET1 had been prototyped, and over the 1950s and 1960s Rover continued heavily working with the concept, including running concept cars in several LeMans races. Turbine cars never took off, for a variety of reasons, but the development cycle was hugely influential in automotive design and engineering.
However, Maurice died in 1963, at his Anglesey farm, at the age of 59, and would not see the final result of his turbine program. Spencer would retire, then un-retire in the 1960s, and died in 1971.
Though their turbine cars were an eventual commercial failure, the Land Rover more than made up for it, outlasting even the collapse of the remains of the Rover Company in 2005. Their legacy is referenced by Land Rover to this day -- at the launch of the new Defender in Frankfurt in September 2019, the Defender Commercial was emblazoned with their most successful achievement: "Wilks Bros., 4x4 Specialists Since 1948."
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