The original Range Rover enjoyed a 26-year production run, during which time it was almost unanimously regarded as the best off-roader in the world – bar none. And now it’s 50 years old and its influence on the world is there for all to see.
To see just how well the Rangie held up during its 26-year production run as well as today, we compare a 1971 original with one of the nicest 1993 cars around. Does purity of design win over luxury equipment levels? Read on…
Range Rover: Design purity or evolution?
Range Rover: the back story
Land Rover’s post-Range Rover Evoque era has been a story of continuing success. Although the effects of the dash away from diesel, strong opposition and the aftermath of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have had a negative effect on once-booming sales, the Range Rover image remains well and truly at the desirable end of the scale.
Younger readers might think this is a new phenomenon for the maker of the ‘world’s best 4x4xfar’, but similar success befell Rover’s Land Rover product range during the early 1970s in the wake of the launch of the original Range Rover. At £1998, it offered a unique combination of power, torque and all-round ability that no other car at this price point came close to matching. As well as being unstoppable off-road, it enjoyed a classless image on it – here was a car that was at home just about anywhere, and buyers joined long waiting lists to get their hands on one.
The V8-powered, all-weather Range Rover defined the SUV class for many (even though the term wasn’t coined until the 1980s), and charmed two generations of monied owners thanks to its effortless looks and performance. Our 1971 example perfectly encapsulates the ambitions and desires of its Engineering Team led by Spen King and Gordon Bashford, as well as its lead Stylist David Bache. And it should come as no surprise that minimalist examples such as this are the ones that everyone seems to want – enjoying burgeoning values, and massive demand from classic buyers who’ve recently switched on to its charms.
For the first TEN years of its life, as our timeline reveals, very few changes were made to the Range Rover – not because its maker didn’t want to make them, nor because buyers didn’t want them. The Range Rover remained largely untouched as it was a product that was selling well as it was and, as a consequence, parent company British Leyland spent money elsewhere (not least on the Rover SD1 and the Austin-Morris range as a whole). However, because of the sheer inherent brilliance of the Range Rover, when those improvements – five-doors, automatic transmission – were belatedly introduced in the early 1980s, buyers lapped them up anyway.
And the 1993 Range Rover Vogue we have pitched against the ’71 original is pretty much the ultimate product of the Range Rover’s extended Indian summer of sales. All its missing is the 108in wheelbase stretch, air suspension and soft dashboard of the very last cars… It comes with four-speed automatic transmission, air conditioning, power steering, windows and central locking, features which the 1971 car lacks. So, a car you could happily use today, and way more kitted out than its 1971 ancestor – so why is the older car worth so much more these days, and is it case that you’d be better of saving money by buying younger? Time to find out…
On the road
Jumping into the 1971 Range Rover, it’s easy to appreciate what it was about this car that so enraptured buyers back in 1970. The lofty driving position that’s now seen as quite normal really was something new back then – enjoyed by truck and bus drivers and farmers, and certainly not those with Bank Manager-sized budgets. But that one aspect of the Range Rover driving experience really is central to its appeal – you sit high, enjoy near unimpeded visibility with the steering wheel pretty much in your lap. The view over the castellated bonnet is still unique.
The Rover V8 (below) fires up with a lazy, slightly uneven, rumble. Engaging a baulky first via a long-throw gear lever and heavy clutch, driveaway is smooth, but not for those who dislike heavy controls. The cumbersome feel of the ’71 Range Rover isn’t improved come the first corner – without power steering, the huge, spindly wheel is quite an effort to turn, especially at parking speeds. But not only is it heavy, it’s also indirect and woolly. And once you’re in the corner, be prepared for lots of body roll (see above). It’s not as bad a situation as it might appear, as the damping is superb, and you never feel like you’re not in control.
The sloppy steering and soft ride might be necessary for those needing to bridge the Darién Gap, but it’s far from ideal when cruising up the King’s Road. Once underway and out of the city, though, you’ll love the cosseting suspension and comfortable seats. This is clearly the perfect car for covering long distances – even without the benefit of overdrive or a five-speed gearbox.
By 1993, when our Vogue (below) rolled off the line, the Range Rover was a very different beast. It had been developed very much as a luxury car, and one that any Jaguar XJ40 owner might not feel too alienated by. So there’s a plushly-trimmed cabin, plenty of equipment, a good sound system and, if you’d plumped for the SE model, leather seats. Since the company discovered that buyers were more than happy to pay a premium for class, the price went up, as did the Range Rover’s aspirations.
Although when you jump into the 1993 car, you’re undergoing the same procedure of stepping up into the car and settling into a firm captain’s chair with that wonderful view forward, somehow it all feels much more homely, and – dare we say it – usable. And it also feels reassuringly familiar. But you can also appreciate the huge improvements that have been made along the way. Thanks to fuel injection, you start it up, and the 3.9-litre immediately settles into a smooth, near-silent idle. Then you slide the T-bar selector of the ZF autobox into ‘D’, lift your foot gently off the brake and onto the light, adjustable throttle, and smoothly set off. It’s so dignified compared with its more agricultural forbear. It’s much easier, too.
Thanks to lightweight power steering and a small thickly-padded wheel, the 1993 car is a whole lot more manoeuvrable, feeling more lightweight on its toes. Come the first corner, it still suffers from body roll (see below), but far less so than the early car – and, because of steering that’s more road-biased, you always feel just that little bit more in control. There’s enough acceleration and agility here to mean that you never feel that the car is out of its depth in modern traffic conditions – a shove of the throttle sees the nose rise accompanies by a gentle kick in the back, and regal progress.
And that’s what really marks out these two cars. The original Range Rover is brilliantly conceived, but the refined 1993 version allows you to enjoy all the best bits without the suffering from the failings.
Let’s not beat around the bush here. The Range Rover is brilliant. As a piece of design, it was – and is – so brilliantly fit for purpose, and looks so good, that we can completely understand just why a quarter-scale model of it was displayed in the Louvre, and why it also went on to enjoy such a long and fruitful life. As an off-roader, it was unrivalled – and yet, on the road, it was also masterful. A rare combination that few cars – even to this day – manage with quite so much verve.
And with that in mind, it’s easy to declare the 1993 car the better of the pair. How could it not be? After all, it’s more usable, more comfortable, better equipped, faster, better-made (yes, really), and thanks to much improved colour palettes, more timeless to look at, too.
But then, the original is just so unsullied as a piece of industrial design; as a concept; as a piece of art, that we can fully understand why the hose-clean 1970s car has so many classic car fans. However, we’ll be happy to buy a later car and enjoy the creature comforts that we all enjoy in our cars today, because – let’s face it – few of us will be venturing too far off-road in our classic Range Rover. Leave the early cars to the truly affluent, as they head towards investment-grade status, get the best you can, keep it clean and well-serviced, and enjoy years of pleasurable motoring ahead.
Happy birthday, Range Rover!