Love ’em or hate ’em, the premium SUV is a fixture and fitting of 21st century life in the UK.
However, Rover brought the concept to Europe in 1970 – and led the way from there on in …
A new star is born
IT IS an overused expression these days – “market niche” … but back in 1970, and through a desire to compete in the USA, the Rover Company came up with a car that created a new market niche in the UK and Europe. In fact, this statement actually diminishes the Range Rover’s significance in the automotive history, because it was so much more than this … it truly was a completely new concept, one which thousands of people took to their hearts and adopted as their own favoured mode of transport. In time, it also became an icon, a legend within its own lifetime – one which was recognised the world over.
But how did it come about?
The story of the Range Rover really begins in 1948 with the successful introduction of the Land Rover. The Second World War had left the Rover Company with a hugely expanded factory (it was increased in size in order to meet the war time demand for armaments), but the company’s range of quality cars did not sell in large enough numbers to use the vast shop floor efficiently.
Maurice and Spencer Wilks hit upon the idea of producing a four wheel drive utility vehicle, which was bound sell in large numbers, as it was a vehicle aimed at the agricultural and military market. The Land Rover, was inspired by the Willys Jeep, and immediately went on to become a huge international hit – its off-road ability was second to none, and the way it was designed (simple body panels bolted onto a separate chassis) allowed for easy repair by anyone with even the simplest tools.
Everyone was happy – Rover’s management were, because they had significantly raised Solihull’s output – customers were because it was the car for all seasons that this sector of the market needed, and the government was, because in the years immediately following the war, it boosted the country’s exports significantly.
The only thing that concerned the Wilks brothers was the fact that demand for the Land Rover was bound to slow down as the economy improved, and the only way to maintain demand in this climate was to make the Land Rover a more habitable place for the driver and passengers. This concept was investigated pretty much as soon as the original was created, and the first station wagon version of the Land Rover was developed before the standard car even hit the market. With a modicum of extra equipment and less spartan interior fittings, the 80-inch Station Wagon, as it was called, was offered for sale at the end of 1948. Thanks to a high purchase price, however, the car was a sales flop (641 were produced) and it was withdrawn from the market in 1951.
The Wilks brothers did not give up on the concept and the idea of a more civilised off-roader was pursued further with the 1951 Road Rover. This car’s priorities were changed somewhat over the 80-inch Station Wagon, as sheer off-road ability was seen as a secondary consideration, compared with durability, practicality and on-road driveability. Gordon Bashford was the brains behind this car’s technical configuration, and it was he that decided against the use of the Land Rover’s chassis, instead choosing a shortened version of the Rover P4 platform – retaining its rear wheel drive transmission. Where the 80-inch Station Wagon, had a coachbuilt body, the Road Rover, as it was called, used simple, flat body panels (as did the Land Rover) in order to keep down production costs.
The Road Rover idea might have been a good one, but the development programme was conducted in a more controlled manner than its predecessor. The reason for this was quite simple: the Land Rover’s sales were proving to be a sustained success story, and the concerns raised by the Wilks brothers iin the late 1940s was beginning to prove unfounded. Also, the development of the P4 saloons was taking most of the R&D department’s resources and so, the Road Rover tended to be overlooked.
That is not to say it was ignored: Gordon Bashford continued with the project – and by 1955, it was being honed into a viable concept. It is said that Gordon Bashford even used one of the Road Rover prototypes as his own road car. In fact, in 1956, the Road Rover was developed into a Series II iteration, and because of Rover’s success with their new P4 model, it was decided to align it with the saloon models, as opposed to the Land Rover.
The main difference between the new Road Rover and its older counterpart was the body style: out went the utilitarian look, and in came a smooth, sophisticated look that tied it in nicely with the upcoming P5 model. Technically, the Road Rover also changed: the wheelbase was increased to 98-inches, the front suspension was independent (like the P5) and the front brakes were now discs. Prototypes were built and the Road Rover got tantalisingly close to production – during 1958 productionisation took place with a view to series production in 1960–61, but it never happened.
Sales forecasts were not overly optimistic, although this is probably not the reason for the Road Rover’s demise: complexity, and a raft of new models, allied to the continued success of the Land Rover probably all played their part in the decision. Either way, the demise of Road Rover showed that Rover would not market a new utility-based model line unless the management were completely sure that it would not harm the company’s reputation.
The idea never went away, and although Rover focused their efforts on getting the P6 into production, and continuing their research on the gas turbine cars, a more urbane utility vehicle was still on the cards. By 1964, and with forward development programmes now in flux (thanks to the success of the P6), the company turned their attention to the American market, with the intention of developing a product that would significantly increase Rover’s penetration over there.
The conclusion was that, thanks to the success of the newly-launched Ford Bronco and Jeep Wagoneer, the big growth area was in this market… in other words, the market that the Road Rover had been aimed at. By this time, Spen King had joined Gordon Bashford at the Rover Company, and it was both these men that put their minds to developing a car that would compete in this market.
Technically, any such project would be an interesting one because it would involve a number of compromises. Unlike the Road Rover with its two-wheel-drive layout, management favoured a full four-wheel-drive system in any new car aimed at this market – but it needed to offer a favourable on-road/off-road compromise … something that the original Land Rover did not need, as it was still viewed as an all-out utilitarian model.
One thing that King felt in developing a suspension system for any car designed for this market, was the need for massive wheel travel and low-rate springs (which went against the thoughts that Brian Sylvester had in the direction of interconnection) because it would offer excellent bump-absorbency. More importantly, long suspension travel also ensured that the wheels would remain in contact with the ground more of the time, something essential for good off-road ability.
Engine-wise, there was no contest: the V8 engine had been recently bought into the fold, thanks to William Martin-Hurst, and it would prove to be the ideal power unit for the new car. Torque characteristics favoured the bottom end of the rev-range, and because of its aluminium construction, it weighed 200lbs less than the in-line 3-litre engine that would have been used had it not been for the introduction of the V8. This was early 1966, and the project was still very much in its infancy, and yet it looked so promising that Peter Wilks gave the project the go-ahead for further development.
Gordon Bashford devised the finer points of the car in the following months: a box-section chassis, which had long-travel suspension, low rate springs and the V8 engine. Unlike the Land Rover, the new car would have its four-wheel-drive system permanently engaged – primarily to ensure that the massive torque of the V8 was split evenly between two lightly loaded axles. The wheelbase of the new car was 99.9-inches, which was rounded up in the car’s name – in a nod to the earlier project, it became known as the 100-inch Station Wagon.
The body was designed for simplicity of construction – being comprised of simple aluminium panels bolted to a steel skeleton. Throughout 1966, this concept was developed, and the first full-size mock-up was ready for January 1967.
As can be seen in the accompanying photograph, it was this prototype formed the basis of the eventual design, and although it had been pretty much styled by Spen King and Gordon Bashford simply to clothe the mechanicals, they had received assistance from the styling department in order to give it acceptable proportions.
As recounted many times elsewhere, 1966 marked the time when the Rover Company was bought out by the Leyland Motor Corporation, but it was not until the early months of 1967 that Donald Stokes’ team actually scrutinized the new car. On the first viewing, Donald Stokes and John Barber were both tremendously excited by the 100-inch Station Wagon (as they were the Rover P8, that was also under development at the time) and gave it the green light for further development. From this point, the future of the car was sealed – and while Peter Wilks’ engineering department knuckled down to the task of finalising the mechanical specification, David Bache’s studio was given the task of tidying the King/Bashford style into something more stylish.
By September 1967, the first full-size running prototype was built, but because it was based entirely on Bashford and King’s original design, it looked spartan in the extreme – however it proved very capable in testing. The concept was good – and everyone within Rover knew that this time, they had got everything right. David Bache, meanwhile, worked on his task of cleaning up the design, but as can be seen in the styling photographs, very little was changed, and certainly nothing fundamental.
By early 1968, the David Bache restyle on King/Bashford design was finalized, and signed off for production. Prototype testing was undertaken all over the world, and most of the time, the cars ran undisguised. The only acknowledgement to disguising its origins were the badges that it wore: VELAR (The name was originally used on the P6 BS. Mike Dunn was asked to make a name using letters from Alvis and Rover, and came up with the now legendary moniker. The Spanish word Velar, and Italian word velare, which means to keep secret or hide away, was the inspiration behind the name. When it came to registering the prototype Range Rovers, they were badged as Velars to keep the press away, but also registered as Velars on the V5. When the tax was renewed on the cars, they were all changed to Rover Range Rovers on the V5.).
Testing went well, and although it did not go quite well enough to meet the April 1970 deadline that British Leyland had wanted for its introduction, it still did extremely well – not only in off-road testing, but also in customer clinics.
Finally on 17 June 1970, the Range Rover was launched to the press. It has passed into history that they loved the car one and all, but that was probably down to years of defining then refining the project, whilst sticking to the design they had arrived at, without undue modification. The result was that demand was immediate and sustained – customer waiting lists were drawn up as soon as the Range Rover appeared. The situation was simple: the Range Rover was launched at a price of £1998, and at the time, there was no opposition that could offer the breadth of ability that the it possessed.
Not only was it a very accomplished off-roader, but it was also a commodious estate car and (as Rover would soon find out) something of a status symbol. People liked the high driving position, and although farmers and commercial vehicle drivers might have been used to this, to the buyers of prestige cars such as the Volvo 145 or Triumph 2500, it was a completely new experience. Very soon, Rover realised that people were buying their new baby for many other reasons than its off-road capability.
After the Earls Court motor show in October 1970, British Leyland received the best working exhibit award at the show for the Range Rover chassis, whilst the Institute of British Carriage and Automobile manufacturers awarded it a gold medal for ‘best utility coachwork’. CAR magazine commended it in their 1971 car of the year issue (it came second behind the Citroen GS) and soon after, it won the Dewar trophy for ‘Outstanding British technical achievement in the automotive world’.
It seemed that everyone did indeed love the Range Rover – even the French – who exhibited one in the Louvre art gallery during 1970 because of it being an, “outstanding piece of modern sculpture”. Autocar magazine loved it as well, and in itsNovember 1970 Autotest, they concluded that, ‘We have been tremendously impressed by the Range Rover, and feel it is even more deserving of resounding success than the Land-Rover.’
British Leyland knew they were on to a winner, and ensured that the price of Range Rover soon exceeded the rate of inflation. The demand for it did not abate, and even though during the first ten years’ of the Range Rover’s life, there were no real modifications to the design, people continued to clamour for it. To give you an idea of how slow other manufacturers were at taking up the Range Rover challenge, when Motor magazine tested it in 1975, they were quick to point out the fact that the Range Rover remained unique in the market. “As we said at the beginning, the Range Rover is unique but not just because of the concept but also because it is a brilliant blend of compromises – it does so many things so well. It isn’t perfect, but there are so few cars which even begin to compete. We love it!”
However, the Range Rover was a success in spite of British Leyland’s involvement. The company’s lack of development on the Range Rover was shocking – but in reality, and rather like the Mini at the other end of the model range, its underlying excellence would allow the company this neglect. It had to be this way, because British Leyland were fighting a huge battle in the middle of the market, where the majority of sales were – the Range Rover would have to fend for itself.
Customers continued to buy it, however, and did so because it was such a unique car. In 1979, the tide began to turn, thanks to Michael Edwardes – and with it came some long awaited development. Following Edwardes’ reversal of the Leyland Cars one-badge-fits-all policy, it was only right that Land Rover should be separated from Austin-Morris and Jaguar-Rover-Triumph – so the formation of Land Rover Limited, as a separate and autonomous company in 1979 marked the beginning of some real investment in the company.
Outwardly, the first signs of change came in 1980, when the marketing effort behind the Range Rover was increased, and whereas before, it was sold alongside the Rover SD1 in the past, this was changed so that it became a bedfellow of the Land-Rover. Special Editions would also become increasingly important in the Range Rover strategy in the short term, but many engineering developments would finally filter through during the next few years.
With the cash injection following the re-organization, much behind the scenes work was done on the engineering and marketing side of the Range Rover. Land Rover prepared three specials that would pave the way for full production versions if they proved successful enough. Rather cannily, Land Rover developed these models with the assistance of outside specialists, so as to minimize their own expenditure, and act as an insurance against failure.
1980 saw the introduction of the Monteverdi five-door conversion, and although Land Rover had approved the FLM Panelcraft version of the five-door Range Rover, it was the Monteverdi version that they liked the most. Despite the slightly truncated rear passenger doors compared with the final product, the overall view was that this Swiss theme was pretty slick and well executed.
Land Rover Special Products approved the car for production, and offered it for sale through their own dealerships. Of course, Land Rover cannot have been encouraged by the Monteverdi’s pitiful sales (it was painfully expensive though), but the reaction to the five door concept added impetus to plans to introduce their own version.
The next special was produced with the help of Schuler – and appeared in late 1980. Ever since the development programme of the 100-inch Station Wagon back in 1967-’68, it was always envisaged that an automatic version would be launched. Because of lack of finances and other priorities within the company, the self-shifter never appeared.
Thanks to the specialist market, however, Land Rover could test the market’s reaction to this (by approving it). Schuler actually prepared their automatic Range Rovers to include a transfer box and anti-lock brakes… Once it became clear that the market would stand an automatic, Land Rover pressed forwards with their own development programme based around the venerable Chrysler Torqueflite transmission.
Finally, the third significant Range Rover special of the time was the In Vogue model, which was developed with the help of Wood & Pickett. The idea was a classical one: up-specify the interior and offer a range of special colours to make it stand out from the standard models. The choice of name followed the interesting marketing plan that involved lending a car to the glamour magazine Vogue and have them use the car as a backdrop for one of its high publicity photo shoots.
Although the five-door and automatic specials sold in tiny numbers, they were followed onto the market in 1981 and 1982 respectively, by the full production versions – and the Range Rover story moved forward into its next phase. Careful cost management and canny use of external contractors saw the five-door conversion, for example, completed at a fraction of the cost of what it could have done, in-house (Carbodies, for example, would order in the front door lower panels for its ill-fated CR6 Taxi-cab project)
Throughout the 1980s, the Range Rover was now developed constantly, and in response to the demands of its customers. Arguably, the five-door model looked as good as the three-door model, bit more importantly, it proved to be an infinitely more practical proposition. Buyers bought it in large numbers, and within months, it was outselling the original version significantly. Certainly, it was a very effective version, and stylistically more balanced than the Monteverdi version thanks to the superior execution of the rear doors and their shutlines. Next came improved transmissions, and the 4-speed gearbox was replaced by the LT77 five-speed ‘box used in the SD1, XJ6 and TR7 – this allowed for more peaceful motorway cruising, and slightly improved steady speed fuel consumption figures.
The automatic duly followed in July 1982, which proved to be better than most commentators had been expecting. Further In Vogue models were produced to showcase the new models, and thanks to their success (and higher price) the Vogue became a production model in its own right in 1984
Throughout the rest of the 1980s, the Range Rover continued to be improved year on year – trim was constantly upgraded, equipment levels improved and refinement increased. Sales continued to hold up well past its fifteenth birthday – and the introduction of the 3.9-litre engine and revised dashboard in 1989 ensured its continued appeal.
In 1992, and just two years before its replacement was due, the long wheelbase version appeared. This model with a 108-inch wheelbase (similar to what Gordon Bashford wanted when he sketched out the five-door model for Land Rover back in 1979) had its length added in the rear door area only, but to many people’s eyes, it was an improvement over the original. It certainly looked more balanced…
This longer model, denoted the LSE also benefited from the addition of an entirely new air suspension system known as ECAS (Electronically Controlled Air Susupension) sported some very sophisticated features. Apart from the added refinement afforded by the removal of steel springs, the system afforded the benefits of variable ride height, which could be used to great effect at high speed (when the ride height was dropped over 50mph). It also made loading and unloading a doddle because the vehicle dropped to its lowest setting when the car was at rest.
The Range Rover continued in production for some time after its replacement, the P38A Pegasus model was launched, in September 1994, and one can only surmise that even after the introduction of the new car, the Classic Range Rover continued to sell well because it was a tried a tested model which still looked so very, very good. In its time, the Range Rover has been called many things, including the ‘Best 4x4xFar’ and, ‘The Rolls-Royce of off-roaders’ but one legacy it did leave was the trouble the company would have in replacing it. Certainly, the P38A was a better car, but somehow it never quite looked as good – a fact that can be seen in the two car’s production runs: over 25 years for the original, seven years for its replacement.
At the beginning of this story, the Range Rover was described as iconic… in many ways it was. Its contribution to automotive history can be seen in the multitude of posh off-roaders available today such as the BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz M Class… before the Range Rover, the idea of a luxury off-roader would have been laughable; now it is accepted as much as front wheel drive is for small cars. Indeed, the Range Rover was an important car and it still is… another car, of which the British should be justifiably proud.
Thanks to Peter Melville for clarifications about the VELAR name
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.