Opinion : Happy birthday, Range Rover

1983 Range Rover

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

1966 Range Rover

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

1970 Range Rover

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 backdrop

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!

24 Comments

  1. I cannot agree that this and the Mini were Britain’s only contributions to the development of the automobile. What about the Lanchester torsional damper ? The disc brake ( also Lanchester’s patent ) ? The first anti-lock system ( maxaret ) ? The Ferguson 4wd system ? And btw the Mini was far from the first transverse engined front wheel drive car, although all previous ones had been 2 cylinder engines only

    • I have to agree with Christopher, Britain has been involved with many industry norms. In fact it was British engineers that have pushed automotive design by being the backbone and leads in F1 design which has eventually appeared in the mainstream cars. However I think Ian’s point is that both the Mini and the Range Rover were the actual cars that Britain gave to the world. Although some will argue that it was probably only the Mini, as it really did revolution fwd cars, as the Rangie only influenced half of the western world, as in the US they had the Bronco, Scout and Wagoneer. However, you could say that it did create the Luxury SUV market, as the others never really matched it in that area, and it has seen everyone from Bentley to Rolls try and match, but still fail. It is still the best 4×4 by far.

  2. I was talking about cars rather than technical innovations.
    My argument is that when international journalists draw up lists of the greatest ever cars, how many are British?

  3. Agreed, although I would say Ado16 instead of Mini, while the Mini may have endured, I think in meaningful change to the market, the Ado16 had far more influence on what and how good a small car should be, than the Mini. Looking at the competition a decade later, you find plenty of compact, well packaged fwd small family cars, but no one else had replicated the mini.

  4. A massively successful and influential model, indeed the whole of Land Rover’s success over the last 30 years has been far more influenced by the Range Rover than the purely functional original Land Rover. Indeed would there BE a Jaguar Land Rover in 2020 without the Range Rover?

    I would agree with the opening paragraph too. They may be different products now from the original (especially the BMW Mini), but it’s no coincidence that you can still buy a Cowley made Mini and a Solihull made Range Rover, as they’re both iconic designs.

  5. The most iconic vehicles are produced by a small dedicated team – discuss.

    When you look at its market share in the early years one could argue that Discovery also was a game changer and created its own SUV market (now squandered?).

    • I think the Discovery was the Land Rover riposte to the Japanese influx, and to allow the Range Rover to move further upmarket. I don’t think it moved the game on greatly, and in reality just filled the void left the range. Still a good car just not a game changer.

  6. I have mixed feelings about the Range Rover. Sure it is a design classic but it also helped start the move to god awful SUVs, which infest our roads.

    My warm feelings especially disappear when one of these tanks is approaching in the middle or the wrong side of a narrow country road. Generally piloted by a women, who is oblivious to her surroundings. Having nowhere to hide, I desperately hope she wakes up, before she crushes my car with her tank.

  7. “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.”

    I am sorry but this is definitely viewing the pre BL years with rose tinted glasses. The Mini was riddled with faults when launched, with the quality control basically being done by the buyers. The idea that British cars of the 60’s were durable and reliable is laughable. A prime example:

    “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 1100 has all the water resistance of an alka seltzer, like an old Alpha it dissolved in real time. There is a reason so few are still around. For all its faults, the Allegro is far more resistance to rot and far more durable than the ADO16 ever was.

    The Allegro bombed because it looked hideous. The same way the Landcrab, designed by BMC, before BL, bombed because it looked terrible.

    You also forget the Maxi, another BMC design which bombed in the marketplace. If reusing the doors from the Landcrab wasn’t an example of penny pinching and cost cutting, I don’t know what is.

    If BMC was such a brilliant company, why did they need bailing out in the first place?

  8. Michael Edwardes recognised the potential for the Rsnge Rover, particularly in America, where V8s powered most luxury cars, and added more equipment and made the car less stark inside. Also the move to a turbodiesel for European markets in the mid eighties countered arguments that the Range Rover was too thirsty.

  9. It’s still the greatest car on the planet, in my opinion – I’m on my third and would never drive anything else if I could help it. Sadly, those irritating little foibles like 16mpg and the potential for colossal repair bills sometimes get in the way! Still, I just buy a sensible car for a while whilst I save up for another one.

  10. Great to see a proper success story instead of the usual ‘might-have-beens’ and ‘if-onlys’ we love to debate on these pages.
    Range Rover was not perfect at launch either, I have a copy of Motoring Which somewhere which complains about build quality of an early example including managing to bend one of the axles.
    But just for once the much maligned BLMC got it right and 50 years later it is a deserved icon.
    Happy Birthday Rangie!

  11. Would it have turned out the same if Rover had remained independent? One reason for it was money for investment IIRC but it sometimes feels they threw money about like confetti and hoped some would land on a winner.

  12. We had a red L regd one and it was great down even to the beige vynil seats.
    2 mentions of politically correct in the article which I really don’t agree with. The whole point of great cars is they are perfect for their purpose. So a mini, 2cv, Renault 16, MX5 are all great cars as they perfectly fit what they were designed to do – and were designed single mindedly.
    The original Range Rover was a great car – and still is – innovative and so fit for purpose. However when it stops being used for that purpose and instead is used for status / mine is bigger than yours / exclusively in a city environment where it is wasteful of resources including limited space, it all goes wrong. I don’t think it’s so much politically incorrect but rather is inefficient, conspicuous and a betrayal of the perfect fitness for purpose that it has

    • I remember one website calling the Range Rover a rare example of a car which missed it’s original target market but still ended up a success because of a new market emerging.

      I’m not sure when the Country Set / Slone Ranger / Chelsea Tractor market started but the Range Rover was a perfect car for it,

    • But surely all luxury cars used in a city environment fall into that category, whether an XJ or an S class?

      Even a Tesla 3 is the same length as a Rover SD1, and wider.

  13. Would the success of the Range Rover had been in anyway diminished had it been available with the originally planned entry-level 1978cc (later 2205cc) P6 engine along with the optional automatic transmission and 2WD, roughly akin to what was available on the later Mercedes-Benz G-Class?

    The same goes with had Rover been in a position to not only acquire the 215 Buick V6 but also the rights to build the thin-wall cast iron Buick V6 (alongside Kaiser-Jeep later AMC who used the V6 in 1965 prior to acquiring the rights to the design in 1967)?

    • Nate, I think the 2.2 would have not seen it been the success it is, as the v8 gave it the caveat of a luxury vehicle, even if was quite utilitarian compared to the later models.

      However, the v6 could have been a useful addition to the range, and it is shame that Rover never went down this route, as it would have given them an engine range for the rest of the 20th century, which could have been built on the same line and saved lots of money wasted on the Triumph designed 6 in the Sd1

      • It depends since the P6 OHC was also planned to be carried over to the P8 as well as the Range Rover, which might have allowed both to fare better in markets where engines above 2-litres were heavily taxed (prior to being superseded by the P10 engine) nor would it have been a complete downgrade as it would have been logical given its use in the successful P6 alongside the P6B V8 (despite attempts at fitting the P6 OHC into the Land Rover).

        A 4-cylinder did not hurt the Mercedes-Benz G-Class either even if it had the benefit of featuring a short wheelbase version.

        Would agree on the V6 being very valuable notwithstanding its 90-degree angle, even if it would have delayed or butterflied away the Land Rover V8.

        OTOH a V6 version of 2.8-litre Project Redcap V8 would equate to a displacement of around 2.1-litres though would assume Rover being able to produce a version displacing below 2-litres given what TVR were able to do with the TVR 2-litre V8S, which would negate the need for the Range Rover (or P8) to use the P6 or P10 4-cylinder engines.

        • GM got around the “wrong angle for a V6” problem by offsetting the crank journals by fifteen degrees each. CAR & DRIVER journalist Pat Bedard scooped this development by spotting a crankshaft on a GM engineer’s desk while talking to him about something else!

  14. “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.”

    Nope, that sounds like sour grapes to me. After all, in the wonderful world of BMC – long before the ‘invasion’ by ex-Ford employees – cars like the Mini (1959) leaked like a sieve from the factory! Brand new cars stood outside dealers where pools of water formed in the footwells, so much for build quality!
    By the way, if you search YouTube you can find old BL training films on the internet, where the most horrendous simple faults on the lines (V8 block wastage 80%) are illustrated to motivate BL factory workers to save costs and improve their products.

    I’m sorry but you cannot blame Ford for designing a product with (communists put your hands over your ears) profit!!!!! If a company first engineers a car, builds it and then looks at the market and decides the price of the product without taking production costs into account, then it is doomed to fail!

    BMC/BL/Austin Rover etc. etc. was kept alive by throwing handfuls of cash at it (which probably would be banned under state aid rules these days). By the way, when the ‘oh so terrible Ford’ took over Jaguar, it completely refitted the productions lines, paint shops etc at Browns Lane and other sites. The reason being was that the equipment hadn’t been renewed since WW2. How the hell can you build quality with 50 year production lines and paint shops???

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