With modern off-roaders boasting all manner of driving aids, we take a look at the ultimate incarnation of Land Rover's classic lineage. The basic machine that separates the men from the boys - the Series III
It doesn’t handle. It’s drafty, unrefined and the heater remains largely aspirational. It’s as basic as a monk’s bedchamber, with a 0-60mph sprint you can register on a sun dial. Long journeys on tarmac breach the majority of UN torture legislation.
The interior resembles a rugged cliff face, yet with fewer features. The powerplant isn’t a V8 or even a six-pot; this crude motor pumps out a mere 72bhp via four cylinders. Emergency braking procedures develop an appreciation for wipe clean seats. In-town driving requires courage and steely determination. Without venturing into the realms of pre-war machinery, this is about as raw as it gets.
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On paper, the Land Rover Series III makes little sense. Yet, as an experience and automotive icon, nothing comes close; the undiluted spirit of adventure oozing from the panel gaps is second to none. Taking a Series III 88in on the shortest of jaunts leaves you feeling like Indiana Jones – even on a freezing December morning in the Scottish wilderness.
Getting to know the Land Rover Series III
A wind whips around the unsteady door tops, the outdoor temperature colder than Margaret Thatcher’s glare. Unable to stand the chill cutting through my jacket and crabbing up my spine, I dive into the Land Rover with hopes of finding warmth. Strangely, it’s cosier outside. The heater is emanating an asthmatic wheeze but no actual heat. My limbs are destined to remain numb. Nonetheless, a spirited exhaust note accompanies the blipped throttle as the 2286cc engine whirrs eagerly.
There’s a burble upon hitting the biting point and pulling away, before the motor’s sheer noise assaults my senses. The Land Rover rapidly works through all four forward gears before the wobbly speedometer breaches 20mph. In order to remain in a (relatively) straight line, I find myself swinging the steering wheel from side to side, hand to hand as I sway across my side of the road.
Each gearchange takes genuine consideration, as finding the sweet spot within the patchy synchromesh remains the work of a mathematical genius. Attempting an fast corner is frankly terrifying, while relying solely on the slack-jawed handbrake when parking on a steep slope requires bravery; it just seems safer to employ the gearbox as well.
Yet although it’s easy to judge the humble Land Rover as a relic of post-war austerity and an all-round nightmare on tarmac, you would be completely missing the point. The Series III, akin to its predecessors, is not a road car; it’s an off-roader graced with permission to use the Queen’s highway.
While lesser four-wheel-drive vehicles construct off-road ability around on-tarmac refinement and come with road tyres as standard, the Series III took the opposite approach. Building on the unbeatable rough-and-ready formula honed by Rover engineers with the Series I and II/IIA, smoothing out the sharp edges and adding enough refinement – especially in County specification – to maintain serious road use without compromising ability off the beaten track, it remains the ultimate incarnation of the original Land Rover recipe.
Great cars may not be the same as desirable cars, but after only a short time behind the wheel of Land Rover’s third-generation offering you can’t fail to bond with it. This particular 1982 example has been rebuilt from the ground up, with a galvanised chassis in place of Solihull's original corrosion magnet. Everything else is largely original; the bulkhead wears patches of welding, whereas the fenders and panels have more ripples than a windswept loch.
The interior remains well used, evidence of a solid career as a workhorse. Yet, despite appearing weather worn and abused, the drivetrain and mechanicals are well oiled and hungry, ready to tackle any obstacle with steely determination and indefatigable resilience – even after a recorded 135,000 miles.
While the steering is loose and speedy gear changes are largely impossible on the road, it all comes into play as the pavement ends and the topography changes. Between the handbrake and the transmission tunnel rests a yellow-topped spring and a red-topped lever. Pushing down on the former engages high-range four-wheel drive, ideal for driving through sand, snow or your neighbour’s garden shed.
However, for my trip through the rough stuff I go for the red lever. This activates the low-range gearbox to give maximum grunt up physics-defying inclines and through undulating peat bogs.
Out here, pushing a button on a BMW X5 isn’t going to save you. Electronic traction control isn’t enough to ensure safe passage – you need basic engineering, thin tyres and sheer mechanical torque. The Series III 88in may look outdated, but it’ll happily run rings around a stranded Jeep Compass or Mitsubishi Shogun.
As I point the Land Rover at the potholed track packed with mud and ice, it crawls over the ridges and plunges into the water with stubborn tenacity. It isn’t fast, and it sure isn’t comfortable, but as a blend of man and machine taking on the world, the teamwork required reduces such refinement issues to a mere niggle. I appreciate just how difficult the path is to follow, experiencing real mechanical sympathy as the gutsy little engine chugs along at high revs without so much as a slip of the wheel.
With sudden bumps and tree roots punching at the rack and attempting to whip the wheel almost out of my grasp, that wayward steering now prevents damage to my hands – even if they are so cold I can no longer feel them. I also keep my thumbs outside of the wheel to avoid painful injury.
The accuracy required for crunch-free gear selection on tarmac doesn’t seem to apply as the Land Rover twists and leans over the cross-axle ruts. I can now confidently slide the spindly lever into place, and regardless of moment or manoeuvre, the perfected ratios make it easy to find a comfortable balance of control. I’m getting immediate feedback on what rests under the wheels, while the split windscreen affords surprisingly good visibility when it counts.
As I draw to a halt, the all-drum braking system makes perfect sense. There’s enough bite to bring all two tonnes to a safe standstill, without digging up the grass and leaving a trail of destruction in my wake.
Every aspect of Land Rover’s Series III design is tailored towards maximum off-road performance, without endangering the passengers or the surroundings. It’s a work of genius paired with an undying sense of classlessness and desirability. These beasts are not only arguably the coolest things on the road, but also the most loveable off of it.
Judging the Land Rover as a car is like casting your opinion of a book merely by its cover. Its wandering road manners and bouncy ride belie its simplistic, mechanical prowess and a backbone that’s hardy enough to pull you out of almost any situation.
While even questionable Series Is and IIs spiral upwards on the open market and auction prices go mad, the Series III has remained aptly valued yet affordable for the enthusiast. It’s a perfect mix of classic, enduring motoring and shoestring costs.
Unfortunately, as values have kept healthy specimens within reach of all, most have been worked into the ground or butchered and transformed into trial racers. As we are left to fight over the good ones, solid, low-mileage examples are now commanding a serious premium – but don’t shy away from a well used Series III. Even if given only the basic servicing, the engine will take all manner of punishment and bounce back for more.
However, gaining cheap access to the classic Land Rover world won’t last forever. Within the past 12 months, asking prices have risen dramatically – not least since David Beckham purchased one for his son for £35,000. As 2018 sees Land Rover celebrate 70 years, we would bet that collectors will soon have their sights firmly set on the once-overlooked Series III.
Finally, if you feel that the words here are too harsh or have been spewed from the mind of a driver interested only in supercars, do know this; I currently use my canvas-top Series III everyday – it’s just far more dog-eared than our test vehicle.
Photography by Andy McCandlish