SOLIHULL, England – At the end of World War II, the Rover Company designed a vehicle that would keep the town's assembly plant running. The facility was built back in 1936 and served as a shadow factory during the war.
The original Land Rover Series I was born in 1948, and the first pre-production model is found at the British Heritage Museum in Gaydon. It was inspired by the Willys Jeep that served its military purpose, and the first running prototype of the Land Rover was actually built in a Jeep chassis.
The idea was to create a sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicle, using as little sheet steel as possible, because of post-war shortages. Aluminum was thus used to form the body panels, while Rover engine and transmission components were fitted as well. In its first year of production, Rover's new model was outselling its cars.
In 1969, the very first Range Rover was unveiled, which promised both off-road capabilities and the interior comfort of a car.
Land Rover eventually became a brand in itself, and its model line-up expanded. Yet without the financial backing of the Ford Motor Company, followed by the long-term stability provided by current owner Tata Motors of India, both Jaguar and Land Rover might have disappeared, just like so many other English brands.
The facility in Solihull, which we got to visit thanks to Montreal Jaguar and Land Rover dealership Decarie Motors, has been thoroughly modernized, and the amount of high-tech machinery is pretty impressive. Actually, there are two plants side by side; the one we walked through builds the Range Rover, the Range Rover Sport and the Discovery (known in Canada as the LR4).
The other line hasn't been overhauled, as it currently builds the robust, old-school Defender. This part of the factory is in fact the original building erected in 1936, and it still wears traces of its wartime camouflage; during WWII, a pilot in a bomber plane likely mistook the plant for a row of houses, not a factory that produced fighter plane engines. Sadly, the Defender will be retired sometime next year, and the building will probably get torn down.
The Defender's replacement is reportedly in the works, although where it would be built hasn't been confirmed yet. As for the Range Rover Evoque and the Freelander (known in Canada as the LR2), they are assembled in Land Rover's other facility, located in Halewood. The company recently announced that the Freelander will soon be replaced by a new model called the Discovery Sport.
Seeing all the robots work together in an assembly plant always amazes me, and there are 328 of them here. They swirl around the vehicles' shells, clamping and riveting aluminum panels or welding steel frames together, according to which model is being produced. The Discovery/LR4 is still built on a steel ladder frame, while the RR and RR Sport benefit from an aluminum unibody design. According to Land Rover, it takes 403 aluminum panels to create a Range Rover, all bonded together using 3,922 rivets.
Quality control is also a priority at Solihull; some robots are used for measuring components, while digital images are taken and compared to master samples. During each shift, workers take one body off the line and take it apart to inspect it, making sure the fabrication process is precise. The company also adopted a philosophy called Poka-yoke, a Japanese term that means "mistake-proofing" and aims to avoid human errors in a manufacturing process.
On the assembly line, workers are encouraged – not reprimanded – to halt production when a problem occurs, so they can get it right instead of letting a mistake or defect roll down the line and potentially land in the hands of a customer's vehicle.
When Tata Motors purchased Jaguar and Land Rover, they were mulling the idea of shutting down one of the companies' three assembly plants and concentrating production. However, with the addition of new models and sales increases around the globe – including China – the facility in Solihull should be cranking out Land Rovers for years to come.
More articles and photos about the Great UK Tour
The Great UK Tour, day 1: heading to Fawsley Fall
Aston Martin Works: the fountain of youth
The Aston Martin factory in Gaydon: pursuing the tradition
The Great UK Tour, day 2: getting to know Aston Martin
The British Heritage Museum: automotive history, English style
Jaguar Land Rover's Virtual Innovation Centre in Gaydon
The Great UK Tour, day 3: down and dirty with Land Rover
Jaguar's Castle Bromwich Assembly plant in Birmingham: high tech
The Great UK Tour, day 4: visiting Jaguar and Land Rover