The Range Rover’s place in history is now guaranteed as the world goes SUV crazy – but it wasn’t always the case, as a slow start and lack of development through the 1980s hampered its development.
Here, on its 50th birthday, we raise a glass to this influential vehicle’s rise to iconic status during the 1980s and its subsequent development into one of the world’s most famous brands.
Range Rover: 50 years the hero
Land Rover is making a big deal of the 50th birthday of the original Range Rover – and so it should. ‘The original luxury SUV has defined the market since 17 June 1970 and, five decades on, the Range Rover has evolved to become a family of desirable and capable luxury vehicles. Its compelling blend of design, refinement and engineering innovation has ensured its place as the benchmark for all luxury SUVs,’ it says in a press release timed to coincide with the half-century.
Well, I remain a little uncomfortable with the term luxury SUV and how its use has been changed over the years. That’s a term that came into prominence in the mid-1980s, and coincided with the successful export of the Range Rover to the USA in 1987. When Spen King and Gordon Bashford conceived the 100-inch Station Wagon in 1965 – after years of trying to get their Road Rover concept off the ground – my guess is that they were trying to build a car for the US, one that over here could appeal to wealthy farmers or leafy village-dwelling families. The idea of building a car which would create a whole new market segment and lead its maker to world-leader status never crossed their minds. Nor would the terms ‘Sport’ and ‘Utility’ have been anywhere near their lexicon.
That said, whatever your opinion on the terminology around road-capable off-road vehicles, there’s no denying that the original Range Rover was a stroke of genius. It was a vehicle so fit for purpose in what it did, how it looked and the image it projected while doing it, that its superstardom was guaranteed, even if its creators, marketeers and salesforce had little idea at the time. That might sound a little overblown to anyone not totally familiar with the story of the Range Rover – but, trust me, its influence far exceeds its footprint in the automotive industry.
Technical achievements, a master of adventure
The Range Rover has been the responsibility of several parents – some more capable than others. It was conceived by the Rover Company. Then, under British Leyland, it fell under the Rover-Triumph, the Specialist Division, before Sir Michael Edwardes saw sense and spun Land Rover off into a separate division of Jaguar-Rover-Triumph before allowing it to go alone within the group. Land Rover was nearly splintered off and sold to General Motors in 1986 before the Rover Group (nee British Leyland) was sold in one to British Aerospace in 1988. Then, in 1994, BMW took the reins before selling it to Ford in 2000 – which then sold it to current parent Tata in 2008. Despite all of those changes in ownership, the Range Rover has imperiously done its thing – acting as one of several flagship products for the British motor industry.
During that time, it’s been through four generations – each of which pioneered in one way or another. It has achieved many world firsts and completed numerous impressive feats – it was the first off-roader to feature a permanent four-wheel-drive system when it was launched and, in 1989, was the world’s first to be fitted with ABS. Later, in 1992, it became the world’s first 4×4 to be fitted with Electronic Traction Control (ETC) and automatic electronic air suspension – revolutionising its on-road dynamics and off-road capability. In 2012, the L405 became the world’s first off-roader to feature an all-aluminium monocoque.
There were many other achievements along the way. It has crossed the notoriously impassable Darien Gap (above) as part of the 1971-72 Trans-America Expedition, was the first vehicle (in quarter-scale form) to ever be displayed at the Louvre Museum in Paris, and has even won the Paris-Dakar Rally – twice. That event has been cited as Audi’s inspiration to go four-wheel-drive rallying, following a rule-change to allow 4x4s to compete in the Dakar.
From one to four…
With its clamshell bonnet, floating roof, split tailgate and vents in the front wings, the Range Rover of today can still trace its roots back to the 1970 original. In 2004, the Range Stormer concept was unveiled and previewed the growth of Range Rover from a single model into a range all of its own. It was rapidly followed by the production Range Rover Sport in 2005, the compact Range Rover Evoque in 2010 and the Range Rover Velar in 2017. In the meantime, the original flagship Range Rover evolved into the 38a (or P38 depending on your view), the L322 and the current L405. The lineage is there for all to see.
The original Range Rover model was cited as an ‘exemplary work of industrial design’ when it became the first vehicle to be displayed at the world famous Louvre Museum (above) in Paris in 1971. The first-generation Range Rover, which is now referred to many as the Range Rover Classic (1970-1996) was originally only available as a two door when it went on sale in 1970. During its 26-year lifespan the Classic continued to evolve with the introduction of the four-door model in 1981 and an automatic gearbox in 1982. The first diesel Range Rover arrived in 1986.
The second-generation Range Rover arrived in 1994 and was instantly recognisable thanks to its floating roof, clamshell bonnet, split tailgate and continuous waistline. At the time of its launch, it was criticised for its unadventurous styling, but time has been kind to the design, and it’s emerged as a true evolution of the original without some of the excesses of the later models. It gained a more luxurious interior, troublesome height-adjustable air suspension as well as a 2.5-litre BMW-sourced diesel and 3.9- and 4.6-litre developments of the venerable Rover V8.
The third-generation L322 Range Rover (2001-2012) delivered a wealth of improvements on all predecessors during its 11-year production run. Engineering innovations included a stiffer monocoque body (replacing the traditional 4×4 ladder frame) and fully-independent suspension with interconnected air springs. The interiors of these vehicles were inspired by high-end yachts, fine furniture and first-class airline seats, providing more space and luxury, and the design of the dashboard lives on today.
In 2012, L405 Range Rover debuted. It was the first off-roader to be underpinned by a lightweight all-aluminium monocoque, saving 420kg in weight compared to its predecessor. Featuring a wealth of new off-road innovations such as automatic Terrain Response 2 and All-Terrain Progress Control, and it now ensconced firmly at the top of the tree of luxury SUVs, despite new arrivals from Bentley, Rolls-Royce and Aston Martin.
So, let’s raise a glass to the first half century of the Range Rover – a car that shaped the world around it. Let’s hope that, in these interesting times, it continues to do so for many years to come…