Have you ever lain awake at night wondering where one of the most desirable and luxury SUV’s originated from? Who was the magnificent brainchild behind such a fantastic machine, the modern day Rolls Royce that could climb every mountain and ford every stream?
Actually, believe it or not, the origin of the mighty Range Rover goes back to the communistic clumsiness of British Leyland, where, in one of their rare moments of genius, they realised the dream that a contemporary 4×4 could be married with the luxuries and styling of a regular saloon car!
The original concept of the Range Rover can be traced back to the groundbreaking original Land Rover of the 1940’s, where upon its introduction in 1948 as an extended development of the American Willy’s Jeep, the Land Rover had taken the world by storm and become the most desired 4×4 in the world. Light, practical, endlessly tunable and easy to maintain, the Land Rover was a hit across the globe, primarily in the colonies of the British Empire, taking people to remote regions that had once been only within the reach of a Horse or a Camel. Initially, a plan was made to create a saloon style version of the Land Rover in 1949 with the help of coachbuilder Tickford, dubbed the ‘Land Rover Station-Wagon’, but this was not exactly a success and sold only 700 examples before the car was withdrawn from production in 1951. The main features of the Station-Wagon were a wooden-framed body, seven seats, floor carpets, a heater, a one-piece windscreen and other car-like features, its hand-built nature, however, kept prices high.
In 1954 Land Rover took another stab at the Station Wagon concept, only this time it was built in-house rather than outsourced to a different company. This version’s primary market was for those who required an off-road vehicle with greater capacity, such as ambulances or even small buses in remote regions such as the Scottish Highlands. But even though this second incarnation of the Station Wagon was available with features such as an interior light, heater, door and floor trims, and upgraded seats, the basic Land Rover roots of this car meant it was still tough and capable, but the firm suspension made its road performance somewhat mediocre.
In 1958, Land Rover took yet another stab with the Road Rover, a development of combining the Land Rover chassis and running gear with the internal furnishings and body of a regular saloon car. The intended audience of the Road Rover was again in the remote British Colonies of Africa and the Australian Outback, where the firm suspension would be useful on the long, uneven roads. By the 1960’s however, developments across the pond in the United States were starting to rock Rover’s boat, as the newly coined Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) began to make progress. International Harvester released the Scout, and Ford the Bronco, offering a different blend of off and on-road ability from existing utility 4x4s such as the Land Rover and the Jeep, proving capable of good on-road comfort and speed while retaining more than adequate off-road ability for most private users. The Jeep Wagoneer proved the concept further, being both spacious and practical, but still with the raunchy off-road abilities to conquer the harsh American terrain.
Being frontline observers to this, Rover dealers in the United States looked on in horror as the American motor industry cornered the market for the SUV, and through frustration the president of Rover’s USA division sent head office a Land Rover Series II 88 fitted with a Buick V8, designed for contemporary American pickup trucks, which offered far greater on-road performance and refinement than any Land Rover then in production.
Things came full circle though thanks to a man named Charles Spencer King, a former apprentice at Rolls Royce and one of the most prominent figures in the ownership of Rover and its transition to British Leyland. Taking over the development, he began the development program with the 100-inch Station Wagon project, taking the original concepts of the previous Road Rover and fitting it with coil springs after coming to the conclusion that only long-travel coil springs could provide the required blend of luxury car comfort and Land Rover’s established off-road ability. His realisation of this apparently came when he drove a Rover P6 across rough scrubland adjacent to Land Rover’s Solihull Factory, but was also helped by the fact that Land Rover purchased the coil springs from a Ford Bronco and began developing from those. Permanent 4WD was also necessary so as to provide both adequate handling and to reliably absorb the power that would be required by the vehicle if it was to be competitive, which came through in the form of a new transmission known as the Land Rover 101 Forward Control. The final piece to the puzzle though was the use of the Buick derived Rover V8, a strong, reliable, lightweight and endlessly tunable engine. In addition to the regular V8, the car was fitted with both a starting handle for emergencies, and carburettors to help continue to supply fuel at extreme angles.
The final design, launched in 1970 with bodywork styled largely by the engineering team rather than David Bache’s styling division, was marketed as ‘A Car For All Reasons’. In its original guise, the Range Rover was more capable off-road than the Land Rover but was much more comfortable, offering a top speed in excess of 100mph, a towing capacity of 3.5 tons, spacious accommodation for five people and groundbreaking features such as a four-speed, dual-range, permanent four-wheel-drive gearbox and hydraulic disc brakes on all wheels. The body was constructed, in keeping with other Rover products, of lightweight aluminium, and in its first incarnation was only available as a two-door utilitarian runabout, rather than the five-door luxury car we know today. This was rectified in 1981 when a 4-door version was made available, but this doesn’t mean that the Range Rover wasn’t a success before this change.
Upon its launch in June 1970, the Range Rover was lauded with critical acclaim, and Rover was praised for succeeding in marrying the practicalities of a modern 4×4 with the luxury capabilities of a standard road car. With a top speed of 95mph and a 0-60 acceleration of less than 15 seconds, performance was stated as being better than many family saloon cars of its era, and off-road performance was good, owing to its long suspension travel and high ground clearance. The bulky but practical design was also praised, many considering it an artistic masterpiece in its own right, with one example being put on display in the Louvre in Paris! Early celebrity ownership also helped the sales quota, but not in the same way you’d expect today. Instead of Musicians and Movie Stars buying up stashes of Range Rovers like they do nowadays, people of established wealth such as Princess Diana and Government bodies became proud custodians of these mighty machines.
Problems however were quick to occur as, let’s not forget, this was a British Leyland product. Reliability was a major issue, with strike cars being especially poor as many would leave the factory with vital components missing or not installed properly. To save costs, many pieces of the cars were carried over from other Leyland products, with switches and dials being donated from Austin Allegros, and the door handles coming direct from Morris Marinas. Name any of the faults endemic to British Leyland products of the time, and the Range Rover suffered from the same curse, be they mechanical, electric, cosmetic, or, worst of all, the demon rust!
But the Range Rover survived to see the 1980’s despite its faults, and after the introduction of an extra set of doors it started to gain a true identity as the luxury motor of choice for the new money. With the additional 5-door layout, new variants such as the long wheelbase Vogue and the SE (Special Equipment) versions took many of the luxury items of the Jaguar XJ series such as leather seats and hazelnut wooden trim and placed them into the Range Rover. In the 1980s as well, special utility versions began to be developed, including a 6×6 Fire Tender for airfields and small airports, Ambulances for military bases and remote regions, and one special variant for his holiness the Pope, affectionately dubbed the Popemobile!
However, towards the late 1980’s the Range Rover in its original incarnation was starting to look very much its age. The angular design was looking tired, and internally its utilitarian roots were in evidence. The dashboard was not much like that of a regular saloon car, but more a bus or a truck, with a huge steering wheel like that from a tractor, and was not particularly well equipped. Land Rover however intended to narrow the Range Rover’s portfolio to the truly luxury market rather than having the low end versions which didn’t sell as well due to their expense. In 1989 Land Rover launched the Discovery, which was similar in size to the Range Rover but cheaper and given a more family layout with seats and furnishings being carried over from the Austin Montego. To bring the Range Rover back into the front line of luxury motors for the 1990’s, Rover Group (the descendant of British Leyland) put together a plan to design a new car under the chassis codenumber P38A (or just P38 for short). Four years of development and £300 million later, the car was launched to a whirlwind of critical acclaim. With a beautifully equipped interior, a more car-like design of dashboard and with a wider variety of luxury trim levels, including the personalised Autobiography editions, the P38 was the first of the mighty Range Rovers to appeal to the bling-bling generation.
This, however, left the original Range Rover out in the cold, and even though it was still a much loved part of the British motoring scene, the time had come for the original, dubbed the Range Rover Classic after launch of the P38. The last of the original Range Rovers slunk silently of the production line at Solihull in 1996, with production now fully based on the new P38, as well as to future developments such as the Freelander of 1997 and ongoing Discovery and Defender. Today original Range Rovers are somewhat easy to come by depending on where you look. In London you’ll find a fair few (after all, these were the original Chelsea Tractors), but even in the country you’ll bump into these things, especially around my home of Devon where the Range Rover/Land Rover products were perfect for the rugged Moorland terrain. Early British Leyland ones you’d be hard pressed to find, most rusting away in the 1980’s, but the Rover Group ones of the 80’s and 90’s are by no means rare.
But even so, 45 years after the first Range Rover left the factory in Solihull, Range Rovers continue to be produced today, now in it’s 4th Generation and available in more variations than ever before! Although British Leyland has long since died together with their many woeful products such as the Morris Marina and the Austin Allegro, the Range Rover is very much their legacy, the last of their original products to survive the strikes and bankruptcy, fighting off the fuel crisis and privatisation by the Thatcher Government, and then being split in 2000 by BMW and juggled between owners Ford and TATA Steel, and still being the luxury motorised toy of the modern day rich!