June 2020 is the 50th Anniversary of one of the most iconic British cars ever made, the Range Rover. Along with the Issigonis Mini, the Range Rover is perhaps Britain’s only major contribution to the development of the automobile. Products like Ford’s Cortina and Escort may have shifted more units, but technically they were a dead end, and were aimed at the conservative UK fleet buyers, who sustained them in production when the rest of the automotive world was moving on.
In these politically correct times it is unlikely that the mainstream media will celebrate this significant British industrial success story, because like the 2019 centenary of Alcock and Brown’s non-stop transatlantic flight, it is seen as an embarrassing anniversary, celebrating something that is perceived as a catalyst for environmental harm.
This not withstanding, the Range Rover defined a new sector, the Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV), and its concept owed nothing to Ford-style product planning and cost control. Like the Mini, its concept was down to a few individuals, many of whom were related, and it was the last true product of the old Rover company of Solihull.
Fashioned from knee jerks
It appears that much of the genesis of the Range Rover owed a lot to knee jerk decisions by Rover management. William Martin-Hurst, the Brother-in-Law of Spencer Wilks, spotted the Buick V8 engine that made the car possible in Wisconsin, USA and persuaded General Motors to sell the manufacturing rights to Rover. This engine had the right combination of power and weight that were not possessed by the five and six-cylinder versions of the four-pot unit fitted to the Rover 2000 P6 saloon. The original motive for purchasing the V8 was to up gun the P6, and Martin-Hurst found he had to overcome opposition from his nephews, Peter Wilks and Spen King.
Technical Director Peter Wilks didn’t think the V8 would fit in the P6, until Martin-Hurst got Competitions Manager Ralph Nash to create a running prototype, while Spen King, who was in charge of New Vehicle Projects, wanted to develop the engines Rover already had. However, by early 1965 GM had signed over the V8 rights to Rover. Priority seems to have been given to installing the V8 into the P5 and P6 saloons, plus the P6-derived Alvis GTS and mid-engined BS P6, but the first Range Rover prototype was completed in July 1967. Head of Rover New Vehicle Projects, Spen King, wrote a formal Product Proposal for the 100 inch Station Wagon as it was then known.
As well as the V8 version, Spen King envisaged a four-cylinder variant using the overhead cam P6 engine, an automatic transmission model using the Chrysler A727 three-speed box and optional two-wheel drive. The model was planned as a six-seater in both economy and de luxe trim levels. By November 1967, the 100-inch Station Wagon was slated for production in 1970. In the summer of 1968, Spen King was drafted in to replace Harry Webster as Technical Director of Standard-Triumph, where he found that Rover’s sister company also had a V8 engine slated for a car which was to be launched in the same month as the Range Rover.
Getting it into production
With King gone, it was left to Peter Wilks and Gordon Bashford to nurse the 100-inch Station Wagon to fruition. In December 1968 senior Rover executives met to discuss the ‘100-inch Station Wagon’. The meeting was chaired by the Sales Director, John Carpenter. By now the options of automatic transmission and optional two-wheel drive had been abandoned as had the proposal to use the P6 saloon 1978cc engine. Now the smaller-engined model would use the 2286cc Land Rover engine.
The minutes recorded: ‘Mr Carpenter said there were two schools of thought. The first was that the twenty years of goodwill surrounding the name Land Rover should not be discarded, while the second regarded the vehicle as a completely new concept which should be promoted as such. Both Sales and Engineering supported the second school and generally agreed that Range Rover would be a suitable name.’
It is said that the name Range Rover was conceived by Tony Poole, who worked in the Rover Styling Department headed by David Bache. The remarkable thing about the Range Rover development is how much was delegated by Rover’s ageing senior management, headed by Sir George Farmer, to the younger generation led by Peter Wilks. William Martin-Hurst reached retirement age in 1969 and departed the scene.
Making a big splash
And so the Range Rover was launched in June 1970, a week after its stablemate the Triumph Stag. While the Range Rover was an enduring success, the Stag disappointed. There had been hopes of selling 12,000 Stags per year, something it never came close to reaching. Indeed, these sales forecasts seem to have been wide of the mark even before knowledge of the Triumph V8’s reliability woes became widespread.
It could be argued that the Range Rover was the last real success of the British-owned motor industry. British Leyland was invaded by Ford-trained cost analysts, courtesy of Finance Director John Barber, who had recruited many of them while he was working for Uncle Henry.
After the Range Rover, all British Leyland cars not adorned with the Jaguar badge were designed to a price, with cut-price components impairing durability and reliability. British Leyland earned a deserved reputation for appalling build quality, because durability cost money to install and the management were paranoid about costs, particularly after a grim 1969/1970 Financial Year, when strikes, both external and internal, reduced pre-tax profits to £3.9 million.
The Morris Marina was caught out by the arrival of the larger Ford Cortina Mk3 and, because it was made to a price, it was an unconvincing contender for export markets, which were now demanding more sophisticated vehicles. It never matched up to its ludicrous sales projects. Likewise, the Austin Allegro bombed because it was designed to be cheaper to manufacture than its predecessor the BMC 1100 (ADO16), whereas the outgoing model range had been designed to be the best in its class. The European market that the Allegro had hoped to conquer opted for the Volkswagen Golf instead.
Then there was the 18-22/Princess. A stylish car intended to replace an unattractive slow seller, it also proved to be a slow seller. The wedge was a car that seemed to fall apart as soon as the owner took delivery. The former Political Editor of the Daily Mirror told me that the Princess was the worst car he had ever had, and he probably wasn’t the only one who thought that.
The cost-cutting at the design stage also afflicted Rover and Triumph. The Speke-built Triumph TR7 had all robustness of a paper bag and the Solihull-assembled Rover SD1 wasn’t that much better. The Austin Metro sold well, but many buyers were former Mini owners, so the net benefit for British Leyland was not as great as its PR machine made out. The Maestro and Montego repeated the mistakes of the Marina and Allegro, to even fewer takers.
However, the Range Rover thrived through all this chaos to survive into P38 form and then replacement by BMW, Ford and Tata, who invested the money to exploit its potential. It may not be politically correct to own a Range Rover these days, but many people have over the past 50 years and enjoyed the experience.
Long live the Range Rover and here’s to another 50 years!