On this day in 1963, the 15 thieves involved in the Great Train Robbery, one of the most famous heists of all time, escape in an ex-British Army truck and two stolen Land Rover four-wheel drive all-terrain vehicles, making off with some $7 million in stolen loot.
The mastermind of the Great Train Robbery was Bruce Reynolds, a known burglar and armed robber. Inspired by the railroad heists of the Wild West in America, Reynolds and 14 other men wearing ski masks and helmets held up the Royal Mail train heading between Glasgow, Scotland, and London, England. They used a false red signal to get the train to stop, then hit the driver with an iron bar, seriously injuring him, in order to gain control of the train. The thieves loaded 120 mailbags filled with the equivalent of $7 million in used bank notes into their Land Rovers and sped off. The vehicles had been stolen in central London and marked with identical license plates in order to confuse the police.
In their hideout at Leatherslade Farm in Buckinghamshire, England, the robbers divided their loot. Viewed as folk heroes by the public for the audacious scale of their crime and their flight from justice, 12 of the 15 robbers nevertheless were eventually captured. In all, the gang of thieves received a total sentence of some 300 years. One of them, a small-time hood named Ronnie Biggs, escaped from prison after just 15 months and underwent plastic surgery to change his appearance. He fled the country and eluded capture for years, finally giving himself up in 2001 when he returned from Brazil voluntarily to serve the 28 years remaining in his sentence.
The two Land Rovers used in the robbery were discovered at the thieves’ hideout; a car enthusiast still owns one of them today. Produced by the British-based Rover Company, the Land Rover made its debut at the Amsterdam Motor Show in 1948. It was modeled after the four-wheel drive American-made Jeeps used by the British War Department during World War II and was made of cheaper, readily available aluminum alloy due to the postwar shortage of steel. By 1960, Land Rover production had reached 500,000 vehicles per year, and the all-terrain vehicle had become popular in all types of climates–desert, jungle and city–around the world. Rover later introduced an upscale version called the Range Rover, which become another bestseller for the company. The German automaker BMW purchased Rover in 1994, but split the brand six years later, selling the Land Rover name to Ford Motor Company. In 2008, Ford sold Land Rover, along with Jaguar, to Tata Motors Ltd., India’s top automaker.