It started out as an idea to produce a lifestyle vehicle at the end of the 1980s but, by the time of its announcement nearly a decade later, the Land Rover Freelander was meeting a very real challenge issued by the Japanese.
Despite a fair bit of parts-bin engineering, the Freelander emerged as truly capable and helped bolster the growing success of Land Rover.
Land Rover Freelander: New frontiers
The Freelander changed the course of Land Rover’s destiny and yet much of its design and concept came via LR’s close links to Rover Cars. Had it not been for the Rover Engineers, Designers and Stylists at Canley and Gaydon, the Freelander would never have happened.
To trace the ancestry of the Freelander, one does not go back to 1994, when project CB40 was officially christened, but way back to the late 1980s, when finishing off the Discovery programme, the idea of a developing a smaller brother to it was first put forward.
The idea was a simple one: according to ‘Meet the ancestors’, by James Taylor, Land Rover executives liked BMW’s way of doing things: the 3 Series to entice younger people to the brand, the 5 Series for they get more affluent and perhaps gain a family, and the 7 Series for when they finally make it to the top of the tree.
All the way through the customer’s career (and life), there would be a BMW to match their needs and desires. Not only that but, with such a strong family identity through the range, there was upward aspiration without the pain of feeling second-best for owning a lower model in the range.
With the soon-to-be released Discovery and the eternally desirable Range Rover already in the fleet, Land Rover would have its 5 and 7 Series cars; what they needed if they were to adopt the BMW plan was a ‘3 Series’.
In 1989 Land Rover and Rover had become closer than they had been since the 1960s – the days of The Rover Company. The re-unification followed a period when LR’s interests seemed to be quite separate to those of the rest of the carmaking part of the business, perhaps as it was considered a niche product.
In the 1970s, Land Rover was starved of funds, Michael Edwardes then gave it the autonomy it needed, severing it from the cars side of the business. It was during these years that the Range Rover really blossomed, and LR pressed a successful course forwards, like Jaguar.
As the car business contracted to become Austin-Rover, LR remained separate, under autonomous leadership as part of the Truck and Bus business. No doubt this was to facilitate the easy selling of LR to any interested party in the heights of the privatisation era.
From Trucks to Rover
As a near-autonomous business (it was controlled by David Andrews, who was also responsible for the Truck and Bus division), any sell-offs could be made without affecting Austin-Rover. In 1986, this almost happened, when General Motors put in a bid, but the deal floundered at the last minute, when Margaret Thatcher had a change of heart.
Following this debacle, the companies were re-shuffled under the leadership of Graham Day, and fell under the all-encompassing Rover Group umbrella. This is how the company looked in 1988 when British Aerospace picked it up for £150 million and, thanks to economies of scale and a shared management structure, LR and Rover Cars were effectively one and the same.
An undoubted benefit of this pooling of resources was that the production of a ‘small’ Land Rover was a great deal more attainable than it could have been.
Developing a new lifestyle vehicle
So, in 1989, the decision was made to develop the small Land Rover made, under the codename, ‘Lifestyle’. It soon became apparent that this was a major technical turning point for the company, and a team comprising of Rover and Land Rover Engineers was put together to develop the new car.
This caused much discussion within both companies at the time. Technically, ‘Lifestyle’ was a real ‘bitza’: according to a project insider it was, ‘originally designed to take the 2.0-litre O-Series engine or Perkins Prima engine, allied to the PG1 gearbox reworked to give four-wheel drive.’
He added: ‘The power take off was designed to give a lower final drive ratio to the front and rear axles and hence was expensive and heavy. This was necessary as the PG1 gearbox did not have a big enough ratio spread to cope with the larger wheels.’ To give an idea of the gestation period of what was to become the Freelander, he chuckled, ‘this car was started before P38!’
Given that all Land Rovers to this point had been old school off-roaders, comprising of a boxy body atop a supremely able ladder frame separate chassis, ‘Lifestyle’ was to be a radical departure. Therefore, a monocoque chassis – Land Rover’s first – would be required.
Enter Oden and Pathfinder
Before long, ‘Lifestyle’s’ wheelbase had been lengthened and the project was renamed Pathfinder.
Because the development of the new car was very much a joint Rover Cars/LR effort, it eventually evolved into two distinct forms. The thinking behind this was simple: the company wanted to see which marque would be ideally placed to sell the new car and. as a result, the two versions were different enough to warrant distinct styling and engineering of the same body and platform.
Pathfinder originally started out with a plethora of MPV-like features, such as swivelling seats. It was given a utilitarian look, and conceived in quite different three- and five-door guises.
Various styling themes were tried, and the Rover theme was particularly interesting: styled with the Rover family face, from the front, it is a cross between the 1995 Rover 100 and 1993 Rover 600. The Canley-built prototype was tried with varying mechanical configurations and, according to James Taylor, these were two- as well as four-wheel drive. The simpler car used Maestro/R3-style rear suspension.
According to a project insider, Pathfinder became the object of a degree of controversy and political in-fighting. Land Rover’s people felt that a more complex four-wheel-drive car was the product of their company, and so fought hard against the Rover version making headway in the company’s forward plans.
He also stated, ‘Land Rover decided they needed the (smaller) car for its fuel consumption (fleet average fuel economy was on the horizon in Europe by now, similar to CAFE in the US), which forced a restyle to a Land Rover.’
Getting the nod from management
As the programme continued at Canley, it was shown to management for its appraisal. Given that the BAe years were marked by a sense of financial constraint, it comes as no surprise that the decision to go with Land Rover over Rover was mirrored by the Board, which felt that only one of these models should be developed into a production car.
The Board’s decision was an easy one and, in effect, it had already been made: the Land Rover had it. It was the more established brand for niche vehicles, and as it was a four-wheel-drive car wearing the badge, a healthy premium could be charged for it.
This moved the product away from Rover. The Land Rover Pathfinder was always going to have an easier ride up to Board level (than Rover’s), given the more prestigious marque name it was going to sell under – profit margins were higher… By this time, the Discovery had been launched to wide acclaim, and confidence was high that the trick of opening new markets could be repeated further down the scale.
Rover gets the boot
That left Rover’s Pathfinder high and dry, which is a shame. The high-bodied estate car, with two-wheel drive, differing three- and five-door bodystyles and MPV features was definitely a vehicle ahead of its time. Back in 1989, this was a radical concept: it had been tried before in the dim and distant past by Chrysler with the Matra-Rancho – that car had sold steadily (56,700 units in seven years) and had never really been copied by any rival manufacturers.
However, with the benefit of hindsight, and the fashion towards higher bodied cars from the late-1990s, the Oden could have found a ready market.
Now that the programme was purely Land Rover, it was renamed Oden. The two LR body styles, which had been set early in the Pathfinder programme remained, and it is heartening to see that they remained largely unaltered through to the launch of the final car. So, the Rover Pathfinder had been left out in the cold and, with it, another fascinating historical might-have-been…
From Pathfinder via Oden to CB40
Although the Board had given a direction for the Design Team, it had still to approve it for production. Styling and marketing might have been on its way, with the full-size clay models and engineering prototypes having made a big impression, but the engineering of the new car still had some way to go. Like so many other projects developed by Rover during the early 1990s, Rover Special Products (RSP) became involved.
Up to this point, Pathfinder had been undergoing some growing pains – whether to use the Maestro or 800 platform as a basis? How much engineering to carry over? What engines? What drivetrain? It was a slow process, and was part of an exceptionally fertile period in Rover’s history.
RSP decided it was time to give the Board something concrete to look at. According to James Taylor, ‘eventually the team decided to put together a concept vehicle, which would embody their thinking. As the Rover Board had still not formally agreed to go ahead with this new Land Rover model, the group hoped that their concept would provoke a response.’
Cyclone blows in
The vehicle was called Cyclone, and it ended up being vitally important in the development of the new car. It had intended to do little more than whet the appetites of the Board: to show them what the company should be building. ‘Cyclone was a reworked version of one of the development tools nicknamed the “Cut-and-Shuttle” created from a Honda Civic Shuttle. It had a raised ride height care of machined blocks of 3in steel bar stock and was used as proof of concept,’ according to a project insider.
Cyclone was bristling with youth-oriented styling features, such as a funky interior and OTT side graphics. When shown to the Board, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive, and so it was decided there and then – the car would be going into production. Project Director Dick Elsy recalled: ‘I have fond memories of Cyclone, because our Sales and Marketing Director of the time, John Russell, got really excited about it, and said he’d like to be selling it now…’
So, although Pathfinder had been in development for four years by this point, it was only Cyclone’s appearance that galvanized management into action. Perhaps it was also the product situation that helped them make up their mind.
The project gains pace
LR Project Director Dick Elsy summed-up the situation thus (when speaking in 1997): ‘When we stood back and looked at the situation, it became more and more obvious that there was a blank space in the Land Rover product plan about three years ahead. So we set ourselves the rather ambitious target of plugging it with the definitive leisure 4WD vehicle.’
Elsy had been made Project Director following Cyclone’s appearance, and his Canley-based team were given six months to finalize the car’s specification and get it ready for production – something of a contrast to the more leisurely approach up to this time…
Now that the Board gave the car the go-ahead, it could be given a new title: CB40. This signified the start of the major push to get the new car into production, and, as Dick Elsy had been behind the Cyclone model, he was chosen to head up the productionisation process. Given that all the Rover models in development at the time were given ‘R’ codes, it seems odd that Freelander was called CB40. Simple really: according to Dick Elsy, it was named after the room in which it was created, Canley Building 40. It has since been demolished.
Calling in the contractors
Echoing the manufacturing arrangement between Mayflower and Rover, which had MGF bodyshells produced by an outside contractor, Rover management devised a similar plan for the CB40, but took it one step further. Rover formed a 50-50 partnership with Finnish company Valmet, and the production of Freelander’s bodies would be the responsibility of the Finnish. Completed shells would then be shipped to Solihull, where final assembly would take place. Why was this arrangement put in place? Rover were simply too strapped for cash to prepare a third line at Solihull, and this seemed like an elegant solution to a BAe-imposed problem.
BMW steps in…
While all this was going on, BMW and BAe were finalising a deal, which would see the Germans buying the Rover Group for £800 million. The takeover officially took place in January 1994, and the first many of the company’s staff knew about it was when they saw it on the BBC.
The day after the takeover, Bernd Pischetsrieder and Wolfgang Reitzle took a lightning tour of the British facilities to see what the current situation was at Rover, and what was coming in the pipeline. To say that they were delighted with the CB40 was an understatement: one thing the Germans truly appreciated, was the value of Land Rover, and anything which would increase Land Rover volumes, without damaging its reputation, was a godsend.
The CB40 was one such godsend. According to Dick Elsy, Pischetsrieder made one suggestion regarding the design of the CB40, something which he demonstrated using black tape… the suggestion was implemented.
Using the money that flowed in from Germany, development was quickly ramped up and, thanks to improvements in CAD/CAM technology, the process was accelerated. The situation was complicated somewhat by Valmet deal and, in the end, BMW negotiated its way out of it.
There would be implications in terms of costs, but it was seen as imperative that the additions to the Solihull factory (finally fully utilising the old SD1 factory, mothballed in 1981), which included the installation of a third track were imperative. A new Paint Shop was also opened, and was heralded as the largest of its type in Europe at the time of the Freelander’s launch in 1997.
Luckily the engine choice had become a no-brainer by 1994: the ideal unit was the light and torquey K-Series, which had been developed into a 1.8-litre version for the upcoming MGF and HH-R models. The diesel engine decided upon was the newly-developed L-Series unit, which had only seen service in the Rover 620 at this time. These units were mounted transversely in the aid of packaging and centre of gravity, and were mated to the ubiquitous PG1 gearbox.
BMW renamed it as L20 as part of the new model designations across the company, but strangely this nomenclature did not stick, and it continued to be referred to as CB40 by everyone, including the press at launch time.
Freelander: That certain style
Gerry McGovern was brought in to oversee the transformation from Pathfinder to CB40 and, following his work on the MGF and various versions of the big-selling R8, he might not have seemed the ideal choice, given his sports car pedigree. However, the results speak for themselves.
Speaking to Autocar magazine in 1997, McGovern was clear about how the Freelander’s identity had been evolved: ‘We’re very protective of our images. The challenge with Freelander has been to create a look, while reminding people where it came from.
‘On the outside, we’re talking the general solidity of the shape, the muscles under the skin. Other cues are the castellations on the bonnet (a clamshell type, like Range Rover). Then there’s the vertical front end, the equal depths of glass and the metal in the doors, the ‘command’ driving position and the straightness feature lines along the sides. You’ll see them on other Land Rovers. On the station wagon, there’s even the suggestion of a raised rear roof, so typical of the Discovery.’
According to McGovern, it was also easy to identify what defined the style of the Freelander: ‘It’s the screen angle. And the way the doors slope in at the tops, the tumblehome. It’s also the rounded shape of the car. Most of all, it’s an absence of gimmicks. Look at the cars we consider classics: the proportions are right from all angles, and they don’t need much ornamentation. That’s the secret – no gargoyles.’
Rover had real trouble finding a suitable name for its new small Land Rover. Project Manager Peter Kinnaird recalled: ‘It was in a long list of possibles for a relatively long time, but the choice was made only a few months before its launch. I guess you could say we agonised over it a bit. The name, ‘Highlander’ (also considered for Discovery), which so many people believed we would use, is actually owned by Volvo.’ A tough choice then, but one that proved clever.
In the end, Elsy’s target was met, and the Freelander was first shown to the press at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1997 (above). The press loved it: here was a car that could stand toe-to-toe with the Japanese SUVs that had begun to flood the market from the mid-1990s, and beat them at their own game. Most importantly, it possessed more badge kudos than the rest.
The buying public also found it a hit, thanks to its styling and competitive pricing. Sadly, it soon became apparent that those getting into customers’ hands were not as tightly screwed together as they could have been, and stories of reliability gremlins soon became widely known. Even so, this did not affect sales drastically, and the Freelander remained the best-selling SUV in Europe.
These reliability issues were attacked systematically by Land Rover (thanks to BMW’s financial input) and each successive year saw increasingly dependable Freelanders leaving Solihull. BMW never reversed Rover’s decision not to homologate the Freelander for the American market, and this meant that the company’s masters could not fully capitalise on the Land Rover’s good name in the world’s biggest market. However, considering the unreliability of early examples that might perhaps have been a good thing…
Sadly, Land Rover was a casualty of BMW’s pull out of Rover in 2001: the company was sold to Ford for $1.5 billion, which meant that the bright star of Rover’s mid-range now belonged to the Americans. Even so, it did not drastically change the Freelander during the early years of its tenure of Land Rover – instead, it continued the process of tightening up build quality and reliability.
It was heartening to see that the Freelander 1s were still littered with mid-1990s Rover switchgear… Still, thanks to Ford’s design staff re-shuffles, Gerry McGovern joined Land Rover as the head of its Advanced Styling Studio in 2004 – and so the man who created the original’s style would end up being responsible for evolving the next-generation models.
So, the Freelander was responsible for Land Rover becoming more of a volume player, through playing the Japanese at their own game. Ultimately, although it is a Rover design through-and-through, it was BMW and then Ford which ended up benefitting. How sad…
Footnote: The Honda connection?
It was often said that the Honda CR-V (above) and the Freelander were separated at birth. According to various unnamed sources, this is not the case: the Freelander and CR-V shared no development, although Honda was aware of the car in its early stages of development.
According to a project insider, ‘before BMW took over from BAe, Honda had a 20% shareholding in Rover Group, this allowed them to see the full proposed model range of the company together with technical details. Honda senior management were shown the vehicle some six years before launch and this allowed them to beat Rover Group to market.’
Sadly, because Honda’s development strategies were not limited by budget (and were, therefore, quicker), although the CR-V started later, it hit the market before the Freelander.
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