King of the hill: driving the Range Rover CSK

| 10 Feb 2022
Classic & Sports Car –  King of the hill: driving the Range Rover CSK

The phrase ‘special edition’ tends to conjure an image of a not-very-special car loaded with every possible optional extra.

It is an old sales and marketing sleight of hand designed to divert attention away from the fact that the vehicle in question is well past its prime and probably about to be usurped by a younger, sexier model.

All of the above could, to a certain degree, have been levelled at the 1991 Range Rover CSK, a fully loaded version of a then 20-year-old car.

Yet this 200-off reboot of the three-door Range Rover was always going to be much more than an exercise in marketing gloss, bearing as it did the initials of Charles Spencer ‘Spen’ King, the brilliant engineer who had conceived and (mostly) styled the genre-defining Range Rover in the late ’60s.

Classic & Sports Car –  King of the hill: driving the Range Rover CSK

Just two cars were tweaked by Overfinch in period

His concept of a V8-engined recreational station wagon with full-time four-wheel drive had come a long way since 1970, with 250,000 examples having found eager buyers in the ensuing 20 years.

For the first 10 of those, parent company British Leyland had been caught napping by the huge demand for the car; it was left to a more independent Land Rover to capitalise on the vehicle’s continued popularity in the 1980s with the long-awaited four-door version offering increasing levels of sophistication and luxury. 

The new four-door Range Rover outsold the two-door from the off in 1981, so when UK availability of the original body style ended in 1984, nobody really noticed.

Classic & Sports Car –  King of the hill: driving the Range Rover CSK

The two-door body was revived for this limited run of Range Rovers

Six years later, when the first CSKs were finding customers, only far-sighted collectors were starting to think of the early Range Rovers as something to be cherished.

But its overall historical significance as a design was already well understood, and its combination of versatility, elegance and off-road ability were still virtually unchallenged.

This go-anywhere, four-wheel-drive estate had single-handedly created a market for luxury off-roaders that hadn’t existed before, at least not outside the USA.

Not even King could have imagined how dominant this type of vehicle would become on our roads across the following few decades, and he was rather sad that his widely imitated Range Rover had been the catalyst.

Classic & Sports Car –  King of the hill: driving the Range Rover CSK

Range Rover legend Charles Spencer ‘Spen’ King was honoured in this special edition’s name

There had been limited-edition versions of the two-door model before – such as the In Vogue of 1981 – but the CSK amounted to far more than just a picnic hamper and a special paintjob.

Land Rover had been ruminating on a ‘sporty’ version of the Range Rover for some time, and it was from this train of thought that the CSK concept emerged.

The choice of the two-door shell was a homage to the 1970 original, not a ploy to use up leftover bodyshells – in any case, they were still in production for certain export markets.

An important difference was that the CSK body frames were welded together like those of the latest four-doors, rather than bolted together like the previous two-door versions.

Classic & Sports Car –  King of the hill: driving the Range Rover CSK

Like most CSKs, car 142 has the more sporting five-speed manual

Previewed at the Birmingham motor show in 1990, the CSK was mainly intended to act as a showcase for Land Rover’s newly devised suspension set-up, comprising front and rear anti-roll bars for the first time on a Range Rover to arrest the epic (if safe) angles of lean an ambitiously driven example could adopt.

In combination with firmer springs and dampers, the improvements were immediately evident on the road yet neither the ride nor the famous mud-churning off-road axle articulation suffered.

Six months later the four-doors received these tweaks as standard along with the CSK’s vented front discs and anti-lock system.

Classic & Sports Car –  King of the hill: driving the Range Rover CSK

These downswept exhaust tailpipes were added by Overfinch

Powered by the latest 3.9-litre, 185bhp version of the all-alloy Rover V8, the 114mph CSK was the fastest factory Range Rover yet.

Conceived as a five-speed manual (there was a less popular ZF four-speed automatic option, for £1324.32), it had a more aggressively mapped ECU and no catalytic converter.

Apart from the ‘CSK’ script on the sides and tailgate, supposedly representing the great man’s signature, you could spot a CSK by its chrome bumpers, silver pinstriping and black-rimmed five-spoke alloys shod with T-rated tyres.

At the front, the spoiler had integrated foglamps and there were driving lights ahead of the grille.

Classic & Sports Car –  King of the hill: driving the Range Rover CSK

Halogen headlights are augmented by driving lamps and foglights

With its perforated beige leather and light-grain American walnut trim on the doors, console and fascia, the CSK was trimmed to Vogue SE specification with detail features usually only seen on US-market Range Rovers.

Central locking, air conditioning and a tilt/slide sunroof were standard, plus the stereo had six speakers and even the door mirrors were heated.

A specially etched plaque next to the radio told you which of the 200 CSKs you were driving, although it has since been discovered that these numbers do not equate to the VIN sequence, probably because they were all parked in a compound and simply allocated numbers as they came to hand.

Spen King, for instance, was presented with number 200 but, according to the chassis number, his was actually the fifth built.

Classic & Sports Car –  King of the hill: driving the Range Rover CSK

Power-assisted recirculating-ball steering and Boge self-levelling for Range Rover’s CSK

All 200 cars were produced in 1991 with VINs beginning ‘GA’. They were mostly registered for road use with a ‘J’ prefix, although there are a few Hs – and at least one K – among the 74 identified survivors.

Most remained in the UK but CSKs were exported to worldwide right-hand-drive markets including Australia, New Zealand and various African countries.

Today the Holy Grail for CSK anoraks is the original black wooden presentation box with a special plaque, brochure, authenticity certificate and signed note from Spen King, but few of these have stayed with the surviving cars.

Pieter Van Der Walt of Walt Motor Company in Newbury is probably as keen on classic Range Rovers as he is on Mercedes W123s. His glossy showroom is awash with gleaming examples of the latter, all scooped up from his native South Africa.

Classic & Sports Car –  King of the hill: driving the Range Rover CSK

The 3.9-litre V8 produces 185bhp

His CSK, however, is a true UK barn-find: unused since 2003, it was unearthed by Van Der Walt in 2018 after a long wait.

“I was disappointed when I first saw it,” he recalls. “It was in a terrible, rusty state and I realised I had probably paid too much because I got so excited about it being an Overfinch.”

Van Der Walt has since acquired two further CSKs as he continues to scratch an itch he first acquired as a lad in South Africa, although by then his home 4x4 market was dominated by the more reliable Toyota Land Cruiser.

The car-mad former accountant recently sold his white ‘Suffix A’ two-door to the CEO of a major luxury-goods retailer, who wanted it to be a Christmas present for her husband.

Classic & Sports Car –  King of the hill: driving the Range Rover CSK

Each of the CSK Range Rovers has a special plaque in the cabin

CSK number 142 is one of just two examples modified in period by Overfinch (the other has since disappeared), and has just emerged from a two-year, 1000-hour, nut-and-bolt restoration by marque specialist Phil Holland of Twenty Ten Engineering in Redditch. 

During that time Holland not only struggled with the supply issues thrown up by the pandemic, but also suffered a catastrophic workshop fire that destroyed all his spares and melted several Range Rover project cars to the ground.

Holland has grown up around these machines, as he explains: “My dad still owns the two-door he bought before I was born, and in 1995 I got a job at the factory – which was only five miles from where we lived at the time – when they were still making the Range Rover Classic.”

The Overfinch contribution amounts to the original sports exhaust, with its downswept twin tailpipes, and still further uprated suspension plus wider-than-standard Bentley Turbo R-sized Avon Turbospeed rubber.

Classic & Sports Car –  King of the hill: driving the Range Rover CSK

“Viewed from the outside the CSK looks as if it should heel over, but it never quite does”

Tracing its history back to 1975, the Range Rover specialist was most famous for its 5.7-litre Chevy V8 engine swaps but these were not obligatory: this car still has its original unit, rebuilt by acknowledged Rover V8 guru John Hills of JE Developments in Lutterworth.

The gleaming underbonnet results are easily better than new, something I can say with some confidence because I actually had a CSK press car for a few days in 1991.

The interior, with its plush carpets and the smell of soft leather, is a far cry from the austere hose-out minimalism of the early cars.

Getting the correct shade of leather was a challenge but Holland’s neighbour, Nationwide Trim, has done a cracking job. 

The brittle Airfix-style dash has been banished in favour of a classier finish and more comprehensive binnacle that looks suspiciously as if it has escaped from a Maestro or a Montego (it hasn’t), and in the rear you get sculpted seats in a bench split one third/two thirds and a substantial cover over the load area.

Classic & Sports Car –  King of the hill: driving the Range Rover CSK

Sculpted seats for the CSK’s rear passengers

Early two-door Range Rovers are fun to drive, but only in relatively small doses. They are not really in their element on long, high-speed trips even if you are lucky enough to have overdrive.

The CSK, with a 50bhp advantage over the low-compression 1970 original, is naturally much more brisk; even more noticeable (and appreciated), however, are the lower noise levels from the road, wind and transmission.

The views out are the same through those big picture windows, but you get a much less skewed appreciation of the horizon when corners are attempted at speed, so it is possible to press on without upsetting your passengers or alarming other motorists, who are no longer accustomed to seeing cars cornering on their doorhandles.

Viewed from the outside the CSK looks as if it should heel over, but it never quite does, and it steers confidently and accurately.

The brakes are light and powerful (too light for me), and the short-throw, saloon-car-like gearchange is a revelation compared to the long-throw, light commercial feel of the old four-speeder.

Classic & Sports Car –  King of the hill: driving the Range Rover CSK

Parts supply can hamper restoration of these models

The finish in this particular car is better than new, but then expectations are high with these vehicles today.

Typically, Holland is restoring classic Rangies for people who want a two-door to go with their modern version because they fancy turning up to a shoot in something different.

The truth is, this CSK is likely to be the cheapest car in its next owner’s collection.

Something about the construction of the Range Rover tends to imply that they are like giant Meccano sets to restore, but that is not really the case.

Classic & Sports Car –  King of the hill: driving the Range Rover CSK

All CSKs are painted Beluga Black and trimmed with beige leather

“Even standard cars are quite involved,” confirms Holland, who has three CSKs of his own, “but with these you have the added complication of all the extras, such as the electric roof and the central locking.”

Surprisingly, parts supply is patchy, too. “A lot of the time, ‘new’ parts are not really new – they have just been in a box for a long time,” says Holland, “and people are not prepared to tool up for stuff.

“Secondhand bits are okay if you are just putting together a usable car, but you can’t use them on a £100,000 restoration.”

At nearly £30k apiece, and with no choice of livery other than Beluga Black with beige leather, CSKs were not an easy sell 30 years ago, when most buyers really wanted high specification four-door Range Rovers.

Today, as the rarest, fastest and most sophisticated of the two-doors, the CSKs are a cult within a cult, and a lot easier to find homes for – even at the £150,000 being asked for this one.

Images: John Bradshaw

Thanks to Walt Motor Company and Twenty-Ten Engineering


Classic & Sports Car –  King of the hill: driving the Range Rover CSK

Range Rover CSK

  • Sold/number built 1991/200
  • Construction steel chassis, steel and aluminium body
  • Engine all-alloy, ohv 3947cc V8, with electronic fuel injection
  • Max power 185bhp @ 4750rpm
  • Max torque 235Ib ft @ 2600rpm
  • Transmission five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, 4WD
  • Suspension live axles, long-travel coil springs, anti-roll bar and Boge self-levelling units f/r
  • Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
  • Brakes ventilated front, solid rear discs, with servo and ABS
  • Length 14ft 8in (4470mm)
  • Width 5ft 10in (1778mm)
  • Height 5ft 10in (1778mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 6in (2590mm)
  • Weight 4435Ib (2012kg)
  • Mpg 15-21
  • 0-60mph 9.5 secs
  • Top speed 114mph
  • Price new £28,995
  • Price now £50-150,000*

*Prices correct at date of original publication


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