Archive : Rover at home on the Range

CAR magazine‘s Doug Blain gives his steer on the Range Rover, at the time of its launch back in June 1970.

Range Rover 1970
Range Rover 1970

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.

Range Rover 1970

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 Haflinger.

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.

Range Rover engineering

Range Rover engineering

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, Bache was instructed to use only shallow, uncomplicated pressings with external hinging.

Range Rover styling

Range Rover 1970

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, Bache 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.

Range Rover interior

1971 Range Rover interior

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 Bache, ‘and in the end statistics won – 67% 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? Bache 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.

Keith Adams

5 Comments

  1. With this article’s title “Rover at home on the Range”, I could not resist giving you the following: “At home in low range”. Having had a number of illustrated pieces published in Classic Land Rover magazine over the years of its existence, I submitted my lyrical thoughts on “the best four-by-four-by far”.

    There must be something about the American West that encourages four-wheel-drive parodies. After all, think of SUV names such as Cherokee, Wrangler, Tucson, Santa Fe, etc. Oh yes – and the Range Rover. Robin Thompson’s Ghost Drivers in the Sky, in CLR No 85, has led me to write this travesty – based on the classic western folk song Home on the Range; penned with apologies to Dr Brewster M Higley.

    AT HOME IN LOW RANGE

    Oh, give me a home where utilities roam,
    whither Land Rover Series do stray.
    Where often is seen patina’d bronze green,
    and exhausts are not smoky all day.

    Roam, roam in low range,
    when all four is a must in soft clay.
    And double declutch – no crunch, not much! –
    to ensure you get smoothly away.

    O’er mud, slush and grass – we readily pass,
    in low box; or four wheel high.
    But then breaks a shaft – rear axle, long half –
    and Tow Rope!’s the pitiful cry.

    Though, with the winch the job’s quite a cinch,
    then high range with yellow knob down.
    Back home for the night, WD on owt tight,
    ’fore we spanner the bolts with a frown.

    Diff opened and cleaned, cog wheels are preened;
    the new shaft, it now must align.
    The bevels run free; now refill with EP.
    Oil drips? Let us see not a sign.

    Then it’s back to the moor, the less-travelled spoor –
    or a BOAT still open to all.
    To the Welsh Strata Florida – or something horrider –
    to be taken with nous, at a crawl.

    In pick-ups, full tilts – and ten-seater rebuilts –
    let us roar as dragons breathe fire.
    We’ll drive where we dare, give green lanes due care,
    lest we draw untold bitter ire.

    Farewell to tracks strange we so love to range.
    Now our tanks are more empty than brimmed.
    We curse them or praise – Ones, Twos and Two As –
    each time that Solihull’s hymned.

    © Eric C Hayman, 13 May 2020.

  2. Reminds me of what a simple functional design the first Range Rover was and how far the model has gone upmarket

  3. Interesting that they were considering doing a load carrier and/or Haflinger – subsequent experience with the aborted Land Rover Llama project might have confirmed they were right not to bother.
    Also note that they made the Range Rover a 3 door since so many of the US competition were configured the same way – apparently they had been taking notice of the Bronco, Scout, etc, but less so the Wagoneer during RR’s development and were considering USA sales?

    • When I was working in Lesotho, I drove a Jeep Wagoneer in the Maluti Mountains. While a good vehicle on the flat, its long bonnet and car-style driving position meant that when coming to sudden rises and drops (often coupled with sharp bends) it was impossible to see the road/track in front for quite a distance. Its typical American soft suspension certainly made it a gentler ride than that of a Series II or IIA Land Rover. I recall seeing a Haflinger Puch, with its lockable diffs (if I remember correctly). Quite a separate vehicle from any other 4 x 4 I had come across. As for the way the Range Rover has gone since its inception, it is no longer what it was. From a wholly practical vehicle, it has become a plaything, a toy for those with money, a status symbol. I am sure there is still the market for a 4 x 4 that will do what the original did. Is that why Toyota Land Cruisers have done so well over many decades?

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