The cars : Range Rover P38 development history
It took Rover 24 years to replace the Range Rover – but when it did, it largely got the recipe right…
Taking that fine old car into the 21st century was never going to be easy.
Replacing the irreplaceable
BY the mid-to-late-1980s, the Range Rover’s transformation into luxury express was well underway; one only had to look at the success of the Vogue editions of it to see this. Cannily, Land Rover tapped into the healthy demand for increasingly plush versions of the Range Rover, and ensured that prices remained relatively high, but not hideously so. This pricing policy ensured that the Range Rover would always remain relatively exclusive, but accessible enough for aspirational customers to feel they could reach one. With this, the future for the Range Rover brand was set. With the lower-priced Discovery under development, the intention was to push the original (and best) increasingly upmarket, ensuring that the Range Rover would represent the absolute pinnacle of four-wheel-drive vehicles.
In the long term, planners knew that the 1970 original – as smart as it was – would need significant development in order to keep pace the development of rival cars. Work began on the project in 1988, with engineering and styling work being focused upon – but at this point in time, no deadline for launch was set. It was not until 1990, and with a budget of £300 million, that the project to replace the Range Rover was formally started under the codename of 38A. The launch date of late 1994 was set at this time. Technically, meeting the demands of the 1990s would be no mean task, but given the excellence of the original, a firm foundation was already in place. Also, because the relationship between old and new, it would be entirely possible to introduce features bound for the new car into the existing one. It was a ploy that had worked well in the past for Jaguar and Rolls-Royce, so in this respect, the Range Rover was in good company.
Of more of concern, however, was the new car’s styling. Rather like the difficulties encountered by Porsche when it came to replacing the 911, Land Rover knew that a major part of the Range Rover’s appeal was its styling – and it would absolutely need to be right. Therefore, a great deal of care and attention would need to be employed in the development of the 38A’s look… it would need to look substantially more modern, yet be readily identifiable as a Range Rover. George Thomson, Land Rover’s styling director was handed the project in 1988, and admitted later that he found the brief both challenging and intimidating. “Recreating a classic like the Range Rover is a great challenge – but not an easy one.”
Thomson needed to weigh up the conflicting stylistic demands of the new project, stating, “We had to produce a familiar, yet contemporary design that would delight existing customers and attract new luxury car lovers.” It seemed that there was no shortage of styling houses that were keen to undertake the task, and with the help of Pininfarina, ItalDesign, Bertone and British designers John Hefferman and Ken Greenley, Thomson’s team produced five separate models, which all sat on the upcoming LSE chassis with longer 108-inch wheelbase. There was quite a range of designs, from the evolutionary in-house effort, to an advanced Renault Espace-apeing one-box.
Ultimately, only the Bertone and In-house efforts were developed into full-size models, and it was at this point, that market reseach and customer clinics were set-up in order to ascertain which would be the more suitable design. In one French clinic, which would eventually prove pivotal to the project, it became clear tha the Bertone design just was not “Range Rover” enough. Programme Director John Hall recounted,
“…we showed one of the early design concepts where we put a lot of attention into making it compatible with luxury cars. This Frenchman said: “Theese carrr, eet ‘as lost eets Wellington boots.” At that time the rear quarter glass actually wrapped around the tailgate, which is a tremendous styling feature, but it wasn’t Range Rover; it wasn’t tough. The car also had body coloured bumpers which aren’t practical, aren’t appropriate on a real 4×4 vehicle.”
Of all the prospective and existing buyers polled, the weight of support went for the more conservative in-house design, which came as no surprise to George Thomson: “The other designs provided a lot of inspiration, but our familiarity with the product and its customers gave us the advantage.” The truth is that on this occasion, as on so many others, being led by customer clinic results led to a rather conservative car, and it has to be said that the final result was handsome, and it did grow on people – just as Land Rover promised it would – but it was not a leap forward in any respect.
With the Pegasus styling scheme chosen, it was a simple task to transpose stong and traditional Range Rover styling cues onto it, in order to maintain that family resemblance so desired by the management. These cues were identified as a low waistline, straight flank feature-lines, dark window surrounds, floating roof and “castle” ridges on the front corners of the clamshell bonnet. This was a successful ploy – and anyone from 100 metres could tell it was a Range Rover… one disappointing aspect, however, was the deletion of round headlamps in favour of large, rectangular items that looked out of place on an expensive car, planned for the 1990s. In fact, they looked to be standard Euro-issue items from 1980 and give the front end of the car a look distinctly reminiscent of the Talbot Horizon.
Wind tunnel testing successfully improved the orginal’s brick-like aerodynamics from a cd of 0.45 to an acceptable 0.38; this was achieved by subtlely altering the rake of the grille, paying close attention to the glazing and adding small strakes on to the rear pillars.
In terms of body and chassis engineering, the P38A (an amalgamation of “Pegasus” and “38A”) retained much of the original’s underpinnings. The ingredients were familiar: a ladder-frame chassis (stiffened by 18 per cent) with the body compliantly mounted in the interests of NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) reduction. Crashworthiness was also improved, with front and offset impact resistance improved with further chassis reinforcement – the fuel tank was also re-located to beneath the rear seat, and side impact bars were added to all the doors… all in the interests of improved safety.
All of the engines were new: two versions of the Rover V8 were introduced, in 4.0 and 4.6-litre forms. Somewhat rather like the Irish hammer that had several new heads and handles, the venerable and constantly developed V8 continued – the 4-litre version developed 190bhp and 236lb/ft torque, whilst the 4.6 developed 225bhp and 277lb/ft torque. For the P38A, it was decided to look for a replacement diesel, as the old VM power unit would not cut the mustard in the larger car. Programme Director, John Hall’s search for a replacement diesel engine took him to six manufacturers including BMW. “I don’t think BMW realised what they had”, Hall recalled, “It’s probably because the majority of the organization was sporty petrol-engine orientated that the diesel engine is so bloody good.” A deal was brokered, and Land Rover gained the right to use the straight-six turbo diesel – some tinkering to the ECU was made in order to give it a more favourable torque curve.
As befitting an entirely new car, the interior was completely overhauled as well – finally putting to rest the 1970 vintage dashboard architecture. The heating controls were simplified, and the adjustable ride-height controls were now totally intuitive. The aim of the P38A programme was to improve interior quality, and bring it up to Germanic standards, as befitting the car’s upmarket role. Certainly, these goals were largely met, although designed-in quality still had a little way to go – put that down to the non-too-generous development budget.
When the Range Rover was launched on the 29th September 1994, it became the first Rover Group product to be launched after the takeover of the company by BMW, and although the Germans had no real involvement in the development of the P38A, Wolfgang Reitzle took a keen interest in it. He would have a great deal of involvement in the future of the P38A as well…
Autocar magazine were complementary about the first Range Rover they road tested, but did not go overboard in their praise. Comparing it with three rivals, they concluded: “It is the Range Rover that is unquestionably the car of the group, and so it should be considering its price. But even taking cost into consideration, its blend of effortless on-road performance and unimpeachable off-road authority means it cannot lose here. Although not a generation ahead of its time like its predecessor, but merely a thorough evolution of a familiar theme, there is no other in its class to touch it.” And that hit the nail on the head. The new Range Rover was undoubtedly a thorough makeover of the original, it did not move on the game nearly far enough. But having said that, this was not it brief – the P38A was conceived to consolidate the Range Rover’s position as the best off-road car in the world. And this it did comfortably.
Wolfgang Reitzle may be seen by many Rover fans as the embodiment of the four horsemen of the apocalypse all rolled into one, but one thing he did understand was the value of the Range Rover – being as it was, the best in the world at what he did. And rather like Autocar, he came to the conclusion that because of the way it was designed, it was not advanced enough to live a long life. One of his first decisions that affected Land Rover, was to abandon the Discovery replacement in favour of building a new Range Rover – which would owe nothing to the P38A.
So, in concluding this, how can the P38A be summed up? It was an almighty car – and certainly deserved to be called the best off-roader in the world at the time of its launch, but one cannot help getting the feeling that it will always be remembered as the one that came between the original Range Rover – and the pace-setting 2001 interpretation. Being remembered in that way probably does not do it justice, especially as it should be remembered as much on the merit of its abilities, too.