More than 70 per cent of all Land Rovers built are still in use. Of these, 70 per cent work overseas. Given that this mechanical workhorse has been in production for 35 years, these are remarkable figures: especially because, in that time, other manufacturers - notably in Japan, the United States and now Korea - have had every chance to beat Land Rover at its own spartan game. Remarkable too, because many cars of that vintage would have been restored, polished and taken out only on high days and holidays by now . . . if they were not Land Rovers.

Over the past 20 years, however, the Land Rover has kept firmly in the background - in fields, deserts, jungles and savannahs - while its sibling, the Range Rover (launched in 1970), has become the automotive, air-conditioned, wood-and-leather darling of the mud-free, green-wellie brigade.

Certainly, the Land Rover has become more comfortable than it was when first shown to a universally enthusiastic public and press at the Amsterdam Motor Show in 1948. Then, optional extras included seat cushions, sidescreens and doors. The basic Land Rover was - and still is - a brutally functional, four-wheel-drive jack-of-all- trades; a Meccano car that quadrupled (at the very least) as tractor, fire-engine, mobile expedition base and desert tank.

Since Maurice Wilkes (chief designer), Gordon Bashford (research engineer) and Olaf Poppe (chassis designer) bolted together the first of these highly adaptable tools, the Land Rover has taken to water, railway tracks, and even journeyed without wheels (the short-lived Hover Rover).

But, now that the Discovery and Range Rover models have taken the marque to Sloane Square and the immaculate drives of Home Counties estates, the basic Land Rover seems ever further out on a limb. Investment in the vehicle, however, continues. This week, Land Rover management went to the Royal College of Art to see what first-year vehicle design students thought 'the Land Rover of the 21st century' should look like.

The display of designs was an intriguing one, not least because Ken Greenley, the RCA's head of vehicle design, had asked students - representing seven nationalities - to explore the notion of 'Englishness' in their designs. The Land Rover (derived only loosely from the wartime US Willys Jeep), Greenley reasons, is one of the most English of all industrial designs. Its Englishness remains a chief selling point and Rover, the parent company, has been developing an 'English' ('British', says Rover's head of design, Gordon Sked, a Scot) look for its Honda-based cars.

But the RCA students have very different ideas of both Englishness and of Land Rovers. The design that Land Rover itself liked best was by Tony Henbury (English). Henbury's drawings have been turned by Rover's design studio in Coventry into a convincing quarter-scale model. It shows a rugged, muscular car, its sterling characteristics softened by that most English device, the curve. With its civilised looks, clip-in toolboxes, and sense of tamed brutishness, it can easily be visualised as the Land Rover for 2010. This is a sensible, not an extreme car.

Other students thought very differently. Patrick Giraud (France) designed an ingenious lightweight mechanical horse (even the seats are like saddles). Although his sketches reveal such inspirations as Sir Norman Foster's Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank headquarters, a Central London Railway electric locomotive from the turn of the century and a lightweight wartime Jaguar Jeep, his model shows a car that has more in common with the Citroen 2CV and, in particular, its plastic-bodied Mahari derivative (that orange-coloured beach car, popular still on the Cote d'Azur). Giraud is a talented designer, but Frenchness pervades his Land Rover. It would be more at home on Mediterranean beaches than Welsh hill farms and Indonesian jungle trails.

The equally inventive Spanish student, Cesar Muntada, has produced a Land Rover as un-English as anyone could imagine. But, what a concept] Here is a Land Rover designed very much as a tool and with a strong architectural inspiration. The body of the car is formed of two cylinders, the seats arranged in a circular pattern and moving with the steering, enabling driver and passengers an optimum view out.

While Giraud and Muntada expressed the concept of the Land Rover of the future in highly imaginative ways, it is easy to see why Land Rover itself has invested in a model of Tony Henbury's design. The Land Rover of 10 or, more realistically, 15 years' time will be a rugged vehicle, a car still to be driven through rivers and washed with a hose inside and out; but, like the first Land Rover, it will have an engineering style that emerges from the English desire to make the toughest product look as friendly as a labrador.

The Land Rover never looked as brutal as a Willys Jeep and certainly not as macho as its later Japanese, German, US and Korean rivals.

It is unlikely ever to be stylish in the way that French, Italian and Range Rover owners understand style, but a road-going locomotive or high-speed tractor with a style that comes from use, as well as looks that improve with the patina of age.

(Photograph omitted)

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