Fancy a new classic Range Rover? JLR’s announcement of fully restored early 2-door cars might take the pain out of ownership, says Dave Richards.
The Range Rover occupies the most regal slot in the rarefied world of luxury 4x4s. The cars have been in high-profile Royal ownership almost since inception; used by the Queen and minor Royals at the Polo and on estates from Balmoral to Sandringham, the Range Rover symbolises a country-set stateliness with no-nonsense go-anywhere ability. They’re as likely to be pulling horse boxes as parked outside Harrods, and it is this very versatility that has carved its niche – and one which other manufacturers have struggled to match.
Yet it wasn’t always so. As conceived, the Range Rover was set to be a rugged replacement for the country farmer. Able to replace a Land Rover on the farm and a Jaguar for church on a Sunday, the first Range Rovers could compete across slippery fields yet sit at 70mph in comfort on motorways. It rose out of Land Rover’s knowledge that the original cart-sprung model would need replacement, and indeed, work commenced in 1951 on a project named Road Rover. This was designed to be a larger car than the original S1 Land Rover, and being based on the P4, was only 2-wheel drive. Gordon Bashford oversaw its development, and for 7 years, engineers in Solihull worked away on the project before it was shelved in 1958.
The concept lay dormant until 1966. But with the S2 Land Rover looking increasingly venerable, Spen King and Bashford set to work again on the idea.
This time, they headed straight for the 4x4 iteration which would be famed and feted for its prescience. Let’s remember how Rover thought of itself during the 1960s: a leader in engineering, style and quality. It had produced the P4 and P5, both classy luxury cars. With the introduction of the P6 the firm had brought a new segment into the market – compact luxury that included award-winning engineering. The firm had also – and in tandem with developing road cars – been investigating gas turbine engines for road use, culminating in Le Mans entries. Then with the purchase of the ex-Buick light alloy V8 motor, Rover found itself as one of only two V8 engine manufacturers in Britain, along with Rolls-Royce. In 1965, Rover also took a controlling interest in Alvis, the military vehicle producer. With the extra knowledge, this all-wheel-drive company brought, Rover could better assess its own knowledge. The time was ripe to revisit the Road Rover idea.
By July 1967, a full-size prototype was drivable. This car, was in outline discernible as the protean Range Rover. Some details differed, such as the front grille and lamp treatment. But on a 100-inch wheelbase with excellent axle articulation this prototype could offer near-P6 levels of ride comfort. The 2-door body was chosen to keep costs lower. The Land Rover gearbox was deemed insufficiently strong to cope with the additional power of the ex-Buick 3500 V8 engine. So a new gearbox was designed. It retained high and low ranges, but the 4x4 capability was provided by a lockable central differential, contrasting with the dog-clutch mechanism used on a Land Rover.
The first prototype retained Land Rover drum brakes, but problems with axle location, brakes and transmission meant that by the time prototype number 2 was built, the car was using disc brakes and Boge Hydromat levelling. These features were combined in the first ‘production specification’ prototype, No. 3. Then cars 4 to 6 were built for longer term testing and filming. One final engineering prototype 100-7 was then built to assess production problems in the Pilot Build Shop. The specification of the LT95 transmission was finalised.
Production began in 1969 with 28 pre-production assessment vehicles finished initially without rear seats and with only minimal trim.
These ‘Velar’ badged cars were mostly registered YVB***H. Prior to launch, a further 20 were built for the press introduction. These were registered NXC***H, as by then Rover wanted the Solihull connection to be known.
These 20 cars were shipped on transporters to Falmouth. The press launch took place at the Meudon Hotel, still under the management of the same family today. Chassis 001, YVB151H went to Michael Forlong, who produced two Range Rover promotion films.
The launch was a huge success. Public demand outstripped all expectations. And sales were made to some unexpected buyers too. In addition to the land-owners and racehorse trainers expected, the Range Rover found ready buyers among the Police owing to its commanding driving position, 100mph top speed and space inside to carry the equipment traffic Police required. The strong towing ability enabled the car to win favour from caravanning families too, for whom a Land Rover was too slow and uncomfortable. In essence, the Range Rover opened up a whole new market. During the 1970s the Range Rover’s practical features made it a default purchase for the well-heeled, for whom being able to hose out the inside after a day on the farm or out shooting grouse was more important than whether the inside was trimmed in wood and Wilton.
By the end of the 1970s, the shortcomings of the 2-door bodystyle were becoming apparent in limiting the car’s market.
To such an extent that coachbuilders such as Monteverdi were able to sell Range Rovers converted to 4-door specification. Plus, the car’s market was being encroached by Mercedes-Benz’ newly released G-Wagon. Taking the car upmarket allowed the Range Rover to develop the market it created.
To drive, you climb into a driving seat made easy to access by the slippery vinyl seat cover. The insulation afforded to the low-stressed V8’s rumble by the car’s separate chassis makes the engine seem more distant than in a normal monocoque car. The clutch is weighty, and the non-assisted steering shows the age of the design. Yet once underway and driving at normal speeds it lightens up adequately. The sparse dashboard, deep windows and airy interior give sense to the age of the design. You’re not hemmed in by the car, rather the car allows you space to travel in style.
Nowadays, early Range Rovers have come out of the doldrums. It is fully recognised as a British design icon. For too many years the cars were rusted out, fodder only for the offroad ‘Bobtail’ converters to have their muddy fun. Yet the stalwarts who have championed these characterful workhorses in standard condition have paved the way for Land Rover to get involved with its Heritage once again.
- Engine: 3532cc OHV V8
- Power: 130bhp@5000rpm
- Torque: 185lb/ft@2500rpm
- 0-50mph: 11.1sec
- Top Speed: 96mph
- Fuel consumption: 18mpg
- Price now: from £135,000