GRR

The history of Range Rover

16th June 2020
Henry Biggs

If there is any car that can genuinely be said to be in a class of its own, it is the modern Range Rover. Its combination of all-round ability and out-and-out luxury has never really been matched by mainstream rivals from the likes of BMW, Audi or Mercedes and arguably even the latest crop of supercar-SUVs fail to enjoy the same cachet.

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This wasn’t always the case, however, as the initial sales concept for the Range Rover was really a slightly more civilised Series Land Rover for the well-to-do farmer. It initially came with a hose-able floor and vinyl seats after all. Here we take a look at how the original classless icon evolved into an upper class off-road-capable limousine.

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Range Rover concept and development

The Range Rover had its genesis in the early 1950s when Rover, fearing that the popularity of the rough and ready Series Land Rover, introduced in 1948 (the company was founded that year by brothers Maurice and Spencer Wilks), was likely to be short-lived, sought to broaden its appeal. The company’s first attempt, the 80-inch Station Wagon of 1949, was coachbuilt by Tickford and proved too expensive, with only a few hundred sold.

So in 1951 Rover decided to try and capture the rugged nature of the Series cars while basing it on the two-wheel-drive P4 chassis. A high-riding estate car with long travel suspension and some limited off-road ability (but not as much as its looks suggested), you may recognise this as the formula for every single crossover ever. The car was in continuous development for so long it was actually replaced with a second series prototype and was scheduled to go on sale in 1960. Alas in those less status-obsessed times the Road Rover failed to persuade Rover’s management and was eventually shelved in 1958. 

Fast forward just under a decade and Rover, mindful of the success of cars such as the Ford Bronco, International Harvester Scout and Jeep Wagoneer in the US, decided that the time was now right to resurrect the idea of a less tractor-like Land Rover model. So in 1966 Rover engineers Charles Spencer King and Gordon Bashford began developing the Range Rover formula. Despite being Rover’s new vehicle engineering head, King was Land Rover through and through.

 

A unique combination of comfort, style and ability

According to King, “The idea was to combine the comfort and on-road ability of a Rover saloon with the off-road ability of a Land Rover. Nobody was doing it.”

It was to be coil sprung all-round with long travel to ensure both comfort on-road and wheel articulation off it, and would be the first car to offer permanent four-wheel-drive as it needed to better the by now almost 20-year-old Series Land Rover. The necessary power would be provided by a lightweight, all-alloy 3.5-litre V8 licensed from General Motors which, as an aside, was the first ever production engine to be turbocharged in the 1962 Oldsmobile Turbo Jetfire. Construction was modelled on the Series Land Rover with a steel box frame hung with aluminium panels.

David Bache, designer of the sleek Rover P6 saloon, was appointed with the task of designing the new car. His initial drawings and models show something unfortunately akin to a Marina but, fortunately, a happy accident occurred. Bashford and King had developed some simple, straight-edged panels to clothe the mechanicals for testing and upon sighting these Rover management insisted that Bache merely refine the two engineers’ efforts.

Rover having become part of the British Leyland behemoth in 1966 it wasn’t until the following year that the project was officially greenlit and 10 prototypes hit the road badged as the ‘Velar’ after the Italian ‘Velare’ meaning to cover or veil. Internally the car had been known as the 100-inch station wagon in a nod to the earlier car.

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Range Rover Classic – 1970-1996

After a couple of years of extensive testing around Europe and North Africa, the ‘Range Rover’ –coined by stylist Tony Poole – was revealed to the press on 17th June 1970 in Cornwall, allowing them to be tested off-road in nearby tin mines at St. Austell. In its first review, The Autocar noted: “Eagerly awaited, the new Range Rover has fulfilled and even surpassed the high hopes held for it.”

The car’s off-road credentials were soon put to the ultimate test in the Range Rover British Trans-Americas Expedition. Between December 1971 and August 1972 a team of soldiers from the 17th/21st Lancers, led by explorer John Blashford Snell, campaigned two left-hand drive Ranger Rovers from Anchorage, Alaska, to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. Modified with winches, protection, roof racks and larger tyres, the cars were otherwise stock and crossed the infamous Darien Gap, 250 miles of what was reckoned to be impassable rain forest and swamp situated between Colombia and Panama. A Range Rover also won the inaugural Dakar Rally in 1979 and again in 1981.

The car was an instant success, even being sold on by their first owners for a quick profit such was the demand. It was no leather-lined luxury cocoon, however. The floors were level with the sills to allow sand and dirt to be brushed out, and covered in rubber mats that could be hosed. The dash was plastic, the seats velour and the rear number plate was hinged to remain visible even if the tailgate was open, too.

 

Moving upmarket

It became such a hit with the well-heeled however that its utilitarian trimmings soon began to be replaced with slightly more luxurious touches such as a carpeted interior. Early feedback came right from the top, leading to the boot space being trimmed and the tools covered after there was concern from the palace that the latter might injure a corgi…

The Range Rover’s status as a staple of the establishment was summed up as early as 1974 by What Car which stated: “One feels that it has almost come to the stage now where no country house worth its salt is without one.” The following year Motor added: “It is the only vehicle that is equally at home in Park Lane, the Sahara, the Darien Gap, a cart track or a ploughed field.”

Clearly the choice of upmarket families rather than farmers, the Range Rover surprisingly didn’t gain the added practicality of a second set of doors until 1981, the same year an ‘In Vogue’ limited edition was launched, in collaboration with the famous fashion magazine. An automatic transmission broadened the car’s appeal still further the following year and in the middle of the decade a diesel engine was offered for the first time. In order to counter criticisms of its performance and refinement the DERV-powered ‘Bullet’ Range Rover was used to set 27 diesel speed records, including one where it averaged more than 100mph for 24-hours.

Increasing levels of refinement followed with larger engines, leather and wood trimmed interiors and luxury features, which in the late 1980s meant electric seats, windows and sunroofs. Early in the next decade, a longer wheelbase model with electronically controlled air suspension went on sale introducing what would be key features of its replacement. This would be introduced in 1994, although the original, now rebadged ‘Range Rover Classic’, would remain in production for a further two years with a production total of 317,615 units.

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Range Rover P38A – 1994-2001

Elegant, classy and increasingly luxurious, after nearly a quarter of a century on sale and having effectively created a new category of car, the replacement for the first generation Range Rover was always going to be a hard act to follow. With the Land Rover Discovery in the works, the new Range Rover, codenamed ‘38A’ after the building the development team worked in, needed to move upmarket and become a true luxury vehicle while still retaining the ruggedness which was vital to its success.

The original was immediately hailed as a masterpiece – it was displayed in the Louvre in 1970 as a leading example of industrial design – and Land Rover’s styling director George Thomson was aware that its replacement would be a difficult second album problem: “Recreating a classic like the Range Rover is a great challenge – but not an easy one… We had to produce a familiar, yet contemporary design that would delight existing customers and attract new luxury car lovers.”

In addition to Thomson’s team, the challenge was thrown open to the great design houses with Bertone, Pininfarina, Italdesign and the British design duo of John Hefferman and Ken Greenley (who went on to design the SsangYong Musso) all submitting concepts. Eventually it was just the in-house design and the Bertone work which were worked up into full-size clay models for customer clinics. It was one of these, in France, which proved crucial when a member of the public taking part complained that the Bertone Range Rover had ‘lost its Wellington boots’.  

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Pegasus takes flight

Thomson’s design, codenamed ‘Pegasus’, was lightly reworked with what were determined to be essential Range Rover styling cues taken from the original – clamshell bonnet with front corner castellations, horizontal feature lines along the flanks and a floating roof above black pillars – was chosen and the resulting ‘P38A’ greenlit for production.

Stiffer and stronger than before for greater safety and refinement, the second generation Range Rover was bigger and heavier – although also more aerodynamic – car than its predecessor. While the V8 petrol engines, now in reworked 4.0-litre and 4.6-litre capacities, were still up to the task, a sturdier and more refined diesel powerplant was needed, eventually taking programme director John Hall to BMW to broker an agreement to use their turbodiesel straight-six.

Having sold Land Rover the rights to use its engine, BMW promptly turned round and bought the Rover Group, of which Land Rover was then a part, making the 1994 P38A the first car to be launched under the new ownership. As well as riding on air suspension, the new Range Rover also included a number of new technologies – it was the first Land Rover product to be offered with built-in satellite navigation or a TV system for instance – and the company tried hard to raise the bar on luxury and quality.

 

Ultra-luxury

The P38A was the model which introduced the Autobiography service to Range Rover buyers, offering them bespoke, hand-finished interior colours and trims and exterior paint choices. In 1998 the Vogue SE trim was launched, pushing a production Range Rover above the £50,000 price point for the first time, and its popularity sealed the future of the car as a luxury, go-anywhere icon.

Under the stewardship of Wolfgang Reitzle, there were plans to move the Range Rover still further up the luxury ladder to double the price of the Vogue SE. To do this, the 5.4-litre V12 from the BMW 7 Series would be shoehorned under the bonnet, creating a £100,000 Ranger Rover and the first V12 powered off-roader since the Lamborghini LM002 ‘Rambo Lambo’. The extra cylinder count necessitated an extra six inches added to the nose of the model and although two running prototypes were built, with fresh styling, it was thought it would compromise the car’s off-road prowess too much.

In fact it was Reitzle who was responsible for the P38A’s relatively short production life, ordering work to begin on developing its replacement as early as 1995. The story has it that he sat blindfolded in a P38A and performed a ‘touch test’ on the interior materials to assess their quality, strength and durability, coming up with 70 individual areas for improvement. As a result Reitzle, recognising the importance of the Range Rover to the company, canned a midlife refresh and placed development of the second generation Discovery on the backburner, prioritising the P38A’s replacement, the L322.

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Range Rover L322 – 2001-2012

A new Range Rover for a new millennium; the team working on it – helmed by director of design Geoff Upex and lead designer Don Wyatt – was told to work from a clean sheet rather than base the car on the P38A’s by then superannuated underpinnings.

As well as the in-house team, BMW and Design Research Associates (the company started by Roy Axe who had succeeded David Bache at Rover) also submitted concepts for the BMW and Rover boards to assess. An initial 12 sketches for project L30 – named using Rover Group conventions – were whittled down to just four models presented as full-sized clay models in 1997, two from Land Rover and two from BMW.

It would be the concept created by designer Phil Simmons – which he said was inspired by the first generation car and the Riva speedboat – that got the nod for production. Featuring again classic cues from the first generation, the result was an acknowledged design success, recreating the simplicity of the original while moving it decidedly upmarket. Simmons would later become chief designer for Ford of Europe.

 

Modern manners

The L30 was envisaged as a luxury car from the outset and as such was designed and engineered to share components with BMW’s flagship 7 Series range. It also became the first Land Rover product to be designed as a monocoque, greatly improving refinement and on-road manners. Air suspension provided not only a comfortable ride but also allowed the sort of axle articulation required for the Range Rover to remain king of the hill among luxury SUVs, which were by then beginning to proliferate.

There was no V12 but the car was designed around the BMW engine range with a 4.4-litre petrol V8 and 2.9-litre turbodiesel straight-six under the crenelated clamshell bonnet and putting power to all four wheels via an automatic-only gearbox. Electronics, an Achilles heel of the P38A, were taken from the BMW 5 Series and the interior, described by famed Ford design boss J Mays as ‘the best I have ever seen’, was based on designs for the Discovery replacement that Reitzle had postponed. Fully laden with wood, leather and aluminium, all the controls were designed to be operated by gloved hands to accommodate the extreme conditions Range Rover owners were capable of finding themselves driving in, even if they rarely did.

Development, although jointly undertaken by teams from both Rover and BMW, was based in Munich up until the final pre-production stage, at which point control returned to Solihull. By which point BMW had divested itself of the Rover Group, keeping Mini for itself but selling Land Rover and Jaguar to Ford with an agreement to continue to supply powertrains and components for the newly renamed L322. On its launch the car re-established the Range Rover as a unique offering, surpassing both the luxury and ability both on and off road of its rivals.

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Performance pick

The L322 received its first update in 2005, the BMW petrol engines and electronics being replaced with V8s and wiring from Jaguar. One of these engines was the supercharged 4.2-litre V8 from the Jaguar XJR saloon and it gave the Range Rover performance to embarrass hot hatches of the day, creating yet another niche, that of the performance luxury SUV. A Ford V8 turbodiesel replaced the underpowered BMW straight-six in 2007. Intended for the forthcoming F-150, the Range Rover eventually became the only car to use this tremendously torquey motor in 3.6-litre and later 4.4-litre guise.

The same year the Range Rover received the revolutionary Terrain Response system from its sister Range Rover Sport model in 2007 – a dial allowed the driver to select the type of terrain the car was tackling and electronics wold reconfigure the drivetrain and suspension to suit. A monster 5.0-litre supercharged petrol engine and a facelift followed in 2010 for the last two years of production before the current generation L405 debuted.

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Range Rover L405 

If the Classic was a tough act to follow, replacing the L322 would be equally challenging, that car being held in almost as high regard as the original whilst having substantially moved the game on in terms of luxury and performance. Other marques were also well-established in the luxury SUV sector by now with offerings from BMW, Audi and even Porsche rivalling the L322 on the road even if none could approach it in the rough stuff.

Land Rover and its sister company Jaguar, combined as the JLR Group, were sold by Ford to Tata Motors in 2008 and with the backing of one of the world’s largest conglomerates the resources were available to push the Range Rover even further upmarket. Larger in every dimension the new car nevertheless shaved over 400kg from the weight of the L322 by adopting all-aluminium construction, a hallmark of the latest Jaguar saloons and sports cars.

 

Back to the future

Unveiled at the 2012 Paris Motor Show its imposing design was the work of an in-house team and continues over the clamshell bonnets with its mini ‘turrets’ on the leading edges, horizontal side body lines and floating roof. Launched with two petrol (including the 5.0-litre supercharged V8) and two diesel engines the weight loss programme allowed the L405 to be positively sprightly in comparison to the L322 and, helped by better aerodynamics, substantially improve on its sometimes startling fuel consumption. 

Clearly a luxury limousine first and foremost the lower weight helped improve the Range Rover’s on-road manners, with the electronic air suspension programmed to reduce bodyroll during cornering and enhance high speed stability during continent-crossing journeys. A long wheelbase model – nearly two and a half feet longer than the Classic – can be had equipped with business class style airline rear seats with tables, a champagne chiller and touchscreen tablets.

A long way from the hose washable, vinyl interior of the original, a planned two-door tribute to its original forebear was planned for limited production but cancelled as part of JLR cost-cutting measures. While the new model would be anathema to Charles Spencer King – who said in 2004 that the Range Rover was “never intended as a status symbol but later incarnations of my design seem to be intended for that purpose” – it remains unrivalled even against competitors from Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Lamborghini.

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