Range Rover: father of the breed

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The first production Range Rover is back on the road; Simon Charlesworth gets an exclusive preview and meets its descendants.

Unable to resist rarities and curios, I crane my neck and gawp because these exhibits have a particular relevance. We’re at the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust to see the recently restored first production Range Rover, YVB 153H, and the vehicles at the Trust’s Gaydon Heritage Centre chronicle the story behind Britain’s first luxury 4x4. Amid a large Land-Rover display, there’s a Tickford Station Wagon – one of less than 650 examples built of Solihull’s ill-fated first attempt at building a more civilised off-roader. Nearby, looking slightly sorry for itself in solitude, there’s the 1957 Road Rover prototype – the Range Rover’s twice-removed cousin. Seeing these vehicles together makes you realise the belief that Rover’s Wilks brothers had in the concept of a utilitarian station wagon. If only they could get the details right.

Following the failure of the Tickford, and subsequently the two aborted generations of Road Rovers, everything fell into place in the mid-’60s. Unlike the Road Rovers, the new ‘Interim Station Wagon’ (later to become the 100 Station Wagon) would be a Land-Rover New Vehicles Project (NVP) rather than the work of Rover’s car arm. The new concept would feature permanent four-wheel drive, low-rated coil springs and long suspension travel for optimum off-road capability, plus a box-section steel chassis and aluminium body panels. When it came to power units, the old 2.25-litre Land-Rover engine and the Rover P5’s 3-litre were evaluated, but the recently acquired, Buick-sourced 3.5-litre V8 arrived at Solihull just in time. It proved ideal for a machine that combined rugged off-road ability with P6 saloon comfort.

Joining Land-Rover’s Gordon Bashford on the new project was Charles Spencer ‘Spen’ King. Indeed, it is reasonable to suggest that without King the Range Rover might not have become such a success. Not only did he have significant input on the car’s engineering, but also its styling. Rover stylist David Bache wanted to emphasise the road-friendly nature of the project by moving away from traditional Land-Rover lines towards contemporary road car design. Plausible though the idea arguably was, some of the exploratory concepts weren’t quite so well resolved. Because time was at a premium and the Styling department was busy with other projects, without Bache’s knowledge King and Bashford ‘borrowed’ designer Geoff Compton for two hours to come up with a simple-bodied mule for testing. Yet it looked so right that when the Rover board saw the mule, it insisted the car should be developed by Bache for production.

“It was only arm-twisting later on that persuaded Bache to tidy up King and Bashford’s body,” recalls Range Rover project engineer Geoff Miller. “The first two prototypes were designed for functionality rather than style and were called ‘clinker-built’ because King had been inspired by boat building.” The flanks of the original mock-up featured two horizontal creases, referred to by King as a “waterfall section”, which created a pair of unfortunate parallel shadows. “One of the clever things Bache did was to change the lower crease above the sill to an outward step,” says Miller, “turning the lower shadow into a highlight. It made a big difference to the appearance of the vehicle.”

Aside from this, plus a few other details such as the frontal aspect and the rear lamps, Compton’s design was effectively the shape we recognise today as the original Range Rover. By 1968, the new car’s styling was completed and signed off for production. Instead of the heavy-handed plastic cladding and adhesive tape so beloved of today’s prototype engineers, development Range Rovers bore a suitably minimal ‘disguise’ – they were simply rebranded ‘Velar’ to throw the media off the scent of this vital new car.

Registered in London by its Leyland parent company, the Velar name was first used on the prototype Rover P6B Sports which, prior to cancellation, was intended to become an Alvis. Derived from the Italian verb velare, meaning to veil or cover-up, the identity was concocted by Alvis engineer Mike Dunn and was worn by  seven Range Rover engineering prototypes, 27 pre-production cars and 20 press vehicles before production proper started in 1970. Velars featured many experimental interior treatments and aluminium bonnets that were intended for production, but were axed due to tooling issues.

Following a successful Cornish press launch in June 1970, and priced at £1998, the pioneering Range Rover became a huge commercial success. Strictly speaking the concept was a niche model, but it soon became obvious that buyers were choosing the Range Rover over more conventional luxury models and so began its move up-market. “I thought it would be successful, but not that successful,” says King, “people loved it. It was never intended to be a luxury car, it was a work vehicle for builders and farmers, but it was dragged up by customer demand.”

Even being replaced didn’t stifle the market’s desire for the old Rangie. When its successor, the P38A, was launched in 1994, the original car was rebadged ‘Range Rover Classic’ and continued to sell strongly until the end in 1996. During those 26 years, the Range Rover underwent many changes and improvements: a five-door joined and eventually supplanted the three-door, the upmarket Vogue was launched and a diesel engine became available along with, latterly, the long-wheelbase LSE (County in the USA).

Joining the BMIHT Velar are two other historically noteworthy Range Rovers – the first production P38A and the first L322, its third and current iteration – to show how Land-Rover has updated the bloodline. First to arrive is the P38A, the vehicle that had the unenviable task of replacing an original that even by the late-’80s was rightly recognised as a design classic. Created under the supervision of Land-Rover styling boss George Thomson, the P38A picked up on traditional Range Rover styling cues – floating roof, large glasshouse, minimalist flanks, castellated clamshell bonnet – but updated the design to make it more luxurious and appeal to a wider customer base. The long-wheelbase Classic LSE’s chassis was updated to meet the latest safety requirements and powertrain options included the stronger, stiffer, cross-bolted ‘Thor’ Rover V8 in 4- and 4.6-litre guises, plus BMW’s excellent 2.5-litre turbodiesel straight-six.

As you’d expect from a Gaydon exhibit this Epsom green 4-litre is beautifully preserved, yet my boat remains unfloated. Is it because its styling is mere evolution compared to the revolution of the original? Perhaps it’s because some of the flavour was lost when the first car’s design ingredients were rehashed and reheated? A more likely explanation is simply that the P38A is currently loitering in automotive purgatory. Too old to be regarded as desirable, too new to possess the character of a bona fide classic.

Next to arrive is the L322, the Range Rover that you can still buy today. Launched in 2001, the L322 was created under Geoff Upex during BMW’s custody of Land-Rover. It was an all-new design that abandoned a couple of traditional Range Rover practices: the ancient Rover V8 was dropped in favour of BMW petrol and diesel engines, plus the beam axles and separate chassis of old made way for independent suspension and monocoque construction. Rumour has it that, at launch, the L322 was the most expensively developed vehicle there had ever been.

The L322’s styling is more dependent on the Velar than the P38A – its wing vents even resemble the original door handles – yet it looks bolder, cleaner and more modern. Perhaps Land-Rover was stung by those unflattering wags who suggested that the P38A strongly resembled the Metrocab London taxi, so they went back to what they knew worked. Either way, the L322 may be five years old, but to these eyes it’s the most stylish current 4x4 by far.

At last, after battling a militant alternator and a flat battery, YVB 153H arrives. It’s fashionably late and immediately steals the limelight, relegating the L322 to the role of upstart. The relaxed, refined exhaust note makes you question the age of the V8. Seeing the sun run its rays over the freshly restored Tuscan blue bodywork, it’s easy to see why a Range Rover was exhibited at the Louvre, Paris for its design flair.

Strictly speaking, YVB 153H is chassis three but because head of publicity Bill Beresford deemed a blue vehicle necessary for brochure photography and the launch film, it was prioritised and so became the first Range Rover to be completed. Along with the other surviving Velars it was sold sometime between mid-1970 and 1972 to the first of many private owners, but its survival was guaranteed when it was acquired by a Range Rover Register member. He sold YVB on to a Danish journalist, who in turn persuaded BMIHT to swap it for a new P38A in 1995.

By then the Velar had seen better days. When the car was acquired it had been seriously neglected and its restoration wasn’t at the top of the Trust’s priorities so it deteriorated further. Its bodywork was tired, it had been fitted with many incorrect parts – it had even managed to change colour. Steve Kite is the man responsible for YVB’s rebuild and he has been living and breathing Velars for the past two years. Kite is quick to point out that, were it not for the sponsorship of Land-Rover Classic Parts, the car would still be slowly turning into dust. However, even with such assistance the restoration of YVB called on Land-Rover’s old boy network – an early dash-top came from L-R manager of technical communications Roger Crathorne, who was on the original Velar build, and a steering box was donated by Spen King.

“We’ve called in a lot of favours from a lot of people,” says Kite. “Locating bits for Velars is a problem because there were parts made for them which are no longer available anywhere. So there were some instances where we had to make do with what we’d got. I’ve enjoyed working on it, but it has got on my nerves, too.” Like most restorations, the Range Rover still has a few irritating niggles here and there – although the refurbished alternator’s refusal to charge at low speed and the sticking thermostat are somewhat puzzling because YVB behaved itself perfectly during a recent cavalcade in London.

Frustrating episodes included the original Buick-spec V8 having been replaced by a dying SD1 Vitesse unit, so a hard-to-find period replacement had to be located. The car also had the wrong door shuts – the sculpted later ones instead of the flat Velar type – so these had to be substituted with later door skins and original frames, plus a later single-piece lower tailgate.
The first 500 cars came with a central limited-slip differential and this car’s was, inevitably, completely shot: a rusty second-hand unit was eventually found and reconditioned. Even the chassis, which had started to resemble a couple of giant Cadbury’s Flakes, was beyond salvation. Because BMIHT uses its vehicles on the road, a 20-year-old replacement chassis was tracked down. Even that, though, needed work.

Naturally such annoyances were amplified by the myriad tiny detail changes on early vehicles: original Velar sidelight/indicator units didn’t feature the later cars’ black outlines; interiors were vinyl, which is now rare and fragile; early waistline door rubbers came in four sections (window, quarterlight and two end-caps), which were later replaced by a single moulding; the steering wheel boss badge uses a smaller typeface than later examples and early gearknobs do without the knurled effect that was soon adopted.

Sit inside YVB and it really is a striking contrast to the later cars. This is a working vehicle which predates the aspirational profile of the P38A and L322. It’s light and spacious and, although the dashboard isn’t up to period Rover material standards, the Bache interior styling – a version of his classic ‘pod on a shelf’ approach – still looks fresh, modern and minimalist. Instead of the wood, leather and thick carpets of its later siblings – high-line trim was originally vetoed by management – the interior is dominated by hard plastics, rubber, vinyl and exposed painted metal, materials that underline the Range Rover’s rugged working brief.

 

“There was a real fear within the company about going too upmarket,” says Geoff Miller. “It had to have Land-Rover characterstics, such as plastic trim that could be washed out by throwing a bucket of water over it. Ironically, this changed as soon as the car was launched because people wanted it to be more luxurious, so that was a slight market misjudgement.”
As you perch somewhat nervously on the precious vinyl seat, the slim pillars of the Velar’s glasshouse add to the impression of relative compactness. Engage first with the long, meandering gearlever and your passenger will flinch,  convinced they’ve just dodged a well-placed left-hook. Move off and you are immediately struck by the refinement of the engine, the lack of squeaks and rattles in the build and the comfortable ride. In fact, the calm feeling of well-to-do is only dented by the tired transmission’s wailing and thrashing  – that’s still on the ‘to do’ list. 

At low speeds this early model’s lack of power steering turns manoeuvring into a low-impact workout, but as speeds increase it lightens up considerably. Corners, as you might expect from the soft, all-coil-sprung set-up, induce roll that can’t hope to match the body control of later air-sprung, anti-roll-bar-equipped models. Such pedantry aside, it’s still hard to equate this blend of on-road talents with an off-road vehicle that is homing in on its 40th birthday – let alone a conventional road car of a similar age – and the efforts of Kite and his team are all the more impressive.

Here and now, the pioneering first-generation Range Rover is the undoubted classic of the group – but who’s to say how the P38A and L322 will be regarded by future generations? As soon as people realise that the trade-off for a reduction in revolution is steady improvement, then the status of the younger duo as classics of tomorrow seems all but guaranteed.

This article was originally published in the January 2007 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images. Click here to see the terms and conditions.

Words: Simon Charlesworth; pictures: Tony Baker

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