The Range Rover proved to be a massive and enduring hit for British Leyland. In effect, this was the last product of The Rover Company, and it demonstrates how Spen King and Gordon Bashford could devise and refine a concept to perfection…
Produced from 1970 and living on to the mid-1990s, the Range Rover remained a classless yet classy conveyance, at home anywhere in British Society.
The original and the best…
WHEN Spen King and Gordon Bashford commenced work on what would become the Range Rover in 1964, little could they have suspected just how it would affect the buying habits of the middle classes in later years. 1964 marked the point in Rover’s history when it had the world at its feet: the Rover P5 had become the archetypal upper-management car, the P6 swept all before it, and the Land Rover continued to sell in huge numbers as the ultimate off-road tool. Planning a future strategy was not without its pitfalls though: Solihull was cramped and nearing full capacity, and although the cars were selling well and generating profits, there was a feeling within the company that in order to survive, it needed to generate significantly more export sales.
So, looking across the Atlantic to the USA and the world’s biggest market, Rover identified that the up-and-coming cars were produced in the SUV market. These vehicles, typified by the Ford Bronco, offered off-road ability along with a degree of comfort that a Land Rover owner could only dream about. The Rover Company had already investigated an upward extension of the theme with their “Road Rover” proposals, but these came to nought as it could not be decided whether it was a car or an offroader that they actually wanted. What made this upmarket push more viable was the addition of the V8 engine to Rover’s armoury: here was an engine that could offer high torque, high power and sweet running in a light and ready-made package. With the engine, there was nothing to stop the company – and the Bronco rival was conceived under the codename “100-inch station wagon”.
Six years later, and the world had changed for Rover. Forever. No longer did The Rover company exist anymore; first it was taken over by The Leyland Motor Company in 1966, then in 1968, became part of Lord Stokes’ sprawling empire, called British Leyland. During these intervening years, Rover may have gone through a maelstrom, but it did not stop the company’s gifted engineers, headed by King and Bashford devising the new car. Conventional in specification, a Land Rover-like chassis, long, long suspension travel, massive axle articulation, the V8 engine upfront, permanent four wheel drive, and a boxy three-door body, it is hard to imagine Rover’s management envisaging this as anything other than a massively competent off-roader. Certainly not a world-beater. Yet it was.
Following its launch, AUTOCAR and MOTOR magazines both found it difficult to categorize the Range Rover. It was too civilised to naturally compete in the off-road class, so both magazines tended to pair it up with upmarket estate cars, such as the Volvo 144 and Triumph 2500. Even in this light, the Range Rover performed and drove well enough to be considered a player, yet it had all-weather ability and a wonderfully commanding driving position, which endeared it to just about everyone who drove it. Only the heavy fuel consumption and lack of rear doors marked it down, but as it had no competition whatsoever, it mattered not.
Almost immediately after launch, everyone wanted one. A waiting list built up as Solihull ramped up production to meet demand, and as a result, a healthy premium was commanded by and secondhand models that hit the market. On one hand the traditional farming market loved it because of the elastic power delivery, seemingly endless off-road ability and hose clean interior, whilst the middle classes took to it because of its undoubted style and presence.
That a four-wheeled box could be so good looking must lay at the door of Rover P6 (and subsequently SD1) designer, David Bache. The 100-inch station wagon may have been planned and largely finished Spen King, but it was David Bache that added those vitally important finishing touches; the tell-tale side swage lines, workmanlike headlamp/grille arrangement, clamshell bonnet feature lines and a subtle re-arranging of the car’s proportions. Simple, yet effective, it is hard to appreciate just how little effort it seemed to take in order to produce automotove perfection. There is no one area of the Range Rover which could be improved (and this was proven when they tried to facelift it).
Such was its strength, that during the 1970s, at BL’s absolute nadir, the image of the Range Rover remained largely untarnished: the company could also sell every one it built, and still have a waiting list. BL may have been falling apart at the seams, thanks to the combination of industrial unrest and indifferently built cars, but the Range Rover seemed to stand above it all; a beacon of hope for anyone who may have felt that the company was heading for immediate implosion.
In reality, this was a good thing: there was very little money floating around the system with which to develop the Range Rover, and as a result, it was neglected by BL throughout the entire decade. Luckliy, none of the company’s rivals had an answer to the Range Rover, and its success continued unabated. It was when the 1980s were well upon us that any meaningful development took place, and that was down to Michael Edwardes’ insistance that Land Rover should become a separate company to Austin-Morris and Jaguar-Rover-Triumph within the BL empire. Once autonomy was achieved and there was a little money to be spent, the improvements to he Range Rover came thick and fast.
In the space of a few short years, luxury equipment was added, an automatic option was introduced and a five-door version showed its face. Soon it became apparent that the Range Rover was good enough to stand a relentless push upmarket. Even by the mid-1980s, it seemed that the opposition had still to wake up. CAR magazine’s GBU entry for the Range Rover was telling: “Sum-up: Simply the best.”
As the 1990s approached, the Range Rover soldiered on. Rivals from Mitsubishi and Toyota had began to dent the Range Rover’s sales, thanks to an appealing combination of purchase prices coupled with that legendary Japanese reliability. However, Land Rover still had it covered. In 1989, the company unveiled the Discovery, a lightly facelifted, simplified Range Rover with a much lower purchase price and a clever interior. The result was foregone: the Range Rover based car was so good, that it fought the Japanese opposition at its its game and won convincingly.
The entry of the Discovery allowed Land Rover to push on with the Range Rover’s move upmarket. As top-of-the-range Vogue models breached the £30,000 barrier, sales continued to flourish. New territories were conquered, and the market that it was conceieved for way back in the 1960 – the USA – fell for it hook line and sinker during the late 1980s and early 90s.
Still, time waits for no man, and despite its healthy sales and strengthening reputation, Land Rover forward with its replacement, the P38. Everyone within Rover knew that this car faced a monumental task: the Range Rover was fast becoming immortal, and although it had faults, customers loved it. And probably the car’s greatest assest was its styling, which looked as good, if not better, in 1990 as it did in 1970. In the end, Rover went all conservative; the P38A may have been a massively competent car, better in almost every way than the car it was designed to replace, but because of the play-it-safe styling, it lost a fair amount of the original’s appeal.
During the reign of the P38, the opposition caught up: Mercedes-Benz and BMW entered the market, trading on similarly exclusive reputations, and more modern (and some would say more appealing) products. Undaunted, the company launched a new Range Rover during 2001, and thanks to BMW’s vast development funds, and styling inspired by the original Range Rover, the new car grasped the mantle of the 1970 car and moved forwards into the 21st century. The legend lives on.
But where does that leave the original? Without it, would any other manufacturer have come up with the idea of producing a civilised offroader? And if it had, would The end product have looked so good? It is doubtful. Thanks to the Range Rover, the idea of middle- and upper-class England driving an off-roader ceased to be a ludicrous idea. With it, came a whole new world of customers who would never dream of wearing wellington boots, let alone drive through a muddy field, was introduced to Land Rover. The 1970 Range Rover is one of those rare products that got everything right from day one: it looked good, sounded good, went well, invited a commanding driving position and offered such a towering advantage over all of its rivals, it was effectively uncontested in the marketplace for over ten years.
Its creators, Spen King, Gordon Bashford and David Bache should be immortalised as geniuses for creating it…
Spirit of the original lives on: January 2004 saw the launch of the sublime Range Stormer concept. It does not take a genius to work out where its inspiration came from. Expect production before 2007.
Spen King: …the extraordinary thing about the Range Rover was that it lasted – seeing as it was tooled up for hardly anything at all. It was engineered from nothing, made a hell of a lot of money for a long time without being updated or improved at all. Which was a pretty big achievement…
Thanks to Spen King for his contribution…