Doug Blain on the design thinking, behind the all-purpose Range Rover.
Despite their conservative image, Rover have for long harboured one of the more creative design teams in the British motor industry. This applies equally to engineering and to aesthetics. David Bache, the company’s chief stylist, is also a qualified mechanical engineer and has been a consistent spokesman for his profession at international conferences. Peter Wilks, engineering director, has an even longer personal history of innovation, and together with Spencer King (promoted since the Leyland merger to engineering director of Triumph) has been responsible for most of the original research into safety and dynamics emanating from the company since 1960.
Rover’s problem is that the design team’s pioneering work is slow to reach the public. A small company relies on long production runs to amortise tooling costs. In consequence there has been no wholly new passenger car since 1962, when the 2000 model appeared. This was a major engineering achievement, but its visual background was patchy to say the least.
Interim projects entailing original thought have included the Rover/BRM turbine sports/racing car, its graceful and highly aerodynamic body designed by William Towns (later with Aston Martin, now a freelance): the Leyland prototype gas turbine truck with Michelotti cab design extensively modified by Rover; and the ill-fated BS three seater GT coupe, an exciting mid-engined design which was knocked on the head due to pressure from elsewhere in the group. These projects have become well known to a few outsiders. but are not associated with Rover in the public eye.
The announcement of the revolutionary Range Rover this summer was therefore a major event for Rover and a bid surprise for those who associate the company with somewhat staid family saloons like the veteran 3.5 model, still in production after 12 years. On the other hand, as Peter Wilks explains, the Range Rover’s advent was a logical step forward from the overwhelming success of the Land Rover, which of course continues. The company’s own inclination was to develop either a similarly utilitarian load carrier for commercial or military use, or a much lighter all-terrain personnel carrier like the Austrian Haf linger.
However, research in America persuaded the directors that a large and totally new market was about to open up among families who wished to escape from crowded roads and resorts by taking to forest trails and sand dunes in a vehicle as much like a normal saloon as possible. Says Wilks: “We began to see that it was possible, using modern suspension techniques and a powerful unobtrusive engine such as the aluminium V8 which we had acquired from General Motors, to produce a vehicle that would do all that a Land Rover can do in something approaching comfort. The more we looked into it the easier it became to imagine that such a machine would also meet European requirements.” The Range Rover, a 100mph cross-country saloon selling at £1998, is the result. Significantly, the whole of the first year’s production is earmarked for the British market.
From an engineering point of view the clue to the Range Rover’s versatility, apart from the provision of continuous all wheel drive via a central master differential, is its suspension system. This uses beam axles at both ends, each incorporating a secondary differential. Extremely low-rate, long-travel coil springs are specified in combination with, at the back, a Boge friction strut. This is a German device looking rather like a large shock absorber and energised by the motion of the axle itself. Its purpose is to maintain a constant ride height by pneumatic pressure. The beam axles, meanwhile, prevent bottoming of the chassis on difficult terrain. By minimising shock loads reaching the chassis, this suspension system has enabled the designers to save weight and unnecessary bulk throughout the structure as well as to offer passengers a surprisingly comfortable ride.
David Baiche’s brief on being presented with the Range Rover package was simply to make it as attractive as possible. This might have meant to make it look as much like a normal car as possible, but Baiche realised from the outset, in view of the generous ground clearance and abrupt proportions inherent in the layout, that this would be a mistake. Instead, he interpreted the assignment as a challenge. ”For the first time” he says “I felt I had been freed from the need to design a vehicle in the mainstream of automobile styling development. Most cars, whether their designers realise it or not, follow preconceived public notions of ‘streamlining’, ‘aggressiveness’ and ‘power’. Very often these notions are totally false. The Range Rover, with a drag coefficient approximately half that of the Land Rover, is in fact surprisingly efficient aerodynamically, but it doesn’t look it. It is a pure piece of industrial design on wheels.”
Like the Land Rover, the Range Rover is panelled in aluminium. Superficially it is difficult to think of a material less suited to the knockabout life of a cross-country vehicle, yet low tooling costs, easy assembly and relative immunity from decay are crucial factors in Rover’s devotion to the medium. As part of a general effort to keep down tooling and repair costs, and to help assembly by the relatively unsophisticated methods used in Land Rover production, Baiche was instructed to use only shallow, uncomplicated pressings with external hingeing.
This stipulation has had an influence on the vehicle’s appearance. Indeed, close examination shows that much of the curvature in the body is carried by non-structural components like the windscreen, window glasses and one piece grille. At the same time, the design team have tried to minimise the possibility of unnecessary damage due to the low impact resistance of the major body areas. Front and rear quarters are protected by stout bumpers standing well clear of the surface, and the vulnerable rocker panels beneath the doors, which in an all-terrain design are subject to damage by ‘running aground’, are moulded from flexible polythene self-coloured in black. Similarly, chromium plate has been avoided as a finishing treatment and there is a minimum of applied ornament.
Despite these precautions it was apparent that, of the dozen or so pre-production vehicles lined up outside the factory after an introductory exercise on rough ground in Cornwall, eight had sustained damage to the main body panels – particularly behind the rear wheel arches – thus leading one to wonder why grp and/or abs materials were not given more serious consideration as alternatives for the main body structure.
Inside, Baiche and his team have been at pains to combine a sophisticated appearance with genuine practicality. “We wanted a hose-out interior” he says “in which one could wear either wellington boots or evening dress without feeling out of place.” The result, by and large, is successful, with all wearing surfaces covered in or more often moulded from hard wearing plastics and yet giving an air of restful luxury. The fascia is a single very large polypropylene moulding with a separate instrument block which can be bolted either to the left or the right side depending on the market.
The seats are a special triumph, their cushions moulded from foam filled, vac-formed pvc having a smooth surface deeply indented to suggest the luxury of pleating while providing ventilation, lateral flexibility and a degree of extra location for the passengers. The individual front seats are the first to go into production with retracting safety belts integrated into the design, and this feature is cleverly combined with a lockable tip-up backrest: only the crude feel and unfinished appearance of the mechanism betray the haste in which such details were developed.
The Range Rover is a two door design. “There was the most enormous argument about this” says Baiche, “and in the end statistics won – 67 per cent of the cars sold in America have two doors, and the percentage is growing worldwide. This suited us because it is much easier to make a good-looking two door body. Nonetheless we were determined to tackle some of the traditional problems. The first was the danger of tripping over the front seat harness on the way in to the back, solved by our special seats. The second was the perennial difficulty of access; our very wide doors are a partial solution, and the integral harness means that riders in the front can slide forward without unbuckling.”
And those enormous, vertical handles which look like air outlets and are such a feature of the exterior styling? Baiche is voluble in their defence. ”Everyone is in trouble with the American rollover regulations when it comes to door handle design. To comply, one simply must have a pull-out or drawer-type handle. Yet on a vehicle that is eight or nine inches higher than normal these are difficult to use when they are located on or near the beltline. Our idea was to provide a convenient release that would not open on impact or while the car was forging through brush. The only problem now is with reversing in the same conditions, but then you can’t have everything.”
Perhaps not. But with the Range Rover, aptly described as a cross between a Jeep and a Bentley. you can have a good deal more than usual.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.