L-R: Range Rover Classic (1970-1994), Range Rover P38a (1994-2001), Range Rover L322 (2001-2012) and Range Rover 4 (2012 - )
Range Rover today is a brand which conjures images of sporting utility that few automotive brands can hope to match. Range Rover is the original Luxury Sport Utility Vehicle, a vehicle which created, defined and refined the concept. In many ways, Range Rover remains true to the original premise:
"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."
Charles Spencer 'Spen' King – the father of the Range Rover.
Charles Spencer 'Spen' King was the Rover car company's engineering chief for new vehicle projects, not Land Rover (at the time, Rover's 4x4 division). He was the nephew of the Wilks brothers – Spencer and Maurice – who jointly founded Land Rover in 1948, and so Land Rover was obviously in his blood. In his own words, "Nobody was doing it at the time. It seemed worth a try and Land Rover needed a new product."
And so the genesis of the idea…
America was in the 1960s and still remains the largest car market in the world, and Rover engineers while on a market research trip to the United States, came across popular vehicles such as the Jeep Wagoneer and Ford Bronco, large ‘station-wagons’ as the Americans called them. These station-wagons had big, torquey engines, lots of interior space, and optional four-wheel drive. They were the perfect car for American families who loved to travel, towing a caravan with ease.
To Rover’s engineers however, these vehicles appeared neither as capable as their own Land Rovers in true off-road conditions, nor were they as plush on-road as Rover saloons.
A fact-finding mission by Rover engineers to the USA in the 1960s inspired the original Range Rover Classic
King takes up the story. "The Range Rover turned out to be quite a different vehicle. The goal was to launch a 4x4 with similar comfort and on-road capability. At the same time, I really thought it must be possible to offer much greater comfort than a Land Rover without sacrificing the off-road ability," says King. "Then the V8 engine came along (which Rover bought from General Motors). It all came together and nobody stopped us from doing it. Our American importers also told us that the 4x4 leisure market was going to be big."
It took Land Rover another 17 years (until 1987) before the Range Rover was launched in North America, due to the initial success of the vehicle elsewhere in Europe. "I don't think there was any real urgency to get into America. The US's unique new safety and emissions legislation were too expensive to engineer," he added.
King chewed on the idea further, and the more he thought about it, the more he began to evaluate the technical feasibility of the project. In his opinion, coil spring suspension was important for ide comfort, a view not shared by Tom Barton, Land Rover’s engineering chief. He steadfastly maintained that an off-road vehicle should only use leaf springs. But King had further ideas; an aluminium body (like the original Land Rover), all-wheel disc brakes and an aluminium engine for lower weight. The ideological differences and the fact that King was the head of engineering of the Rover road car division didn’t help matters between the two, and the project was left on slow burn for a while.
The sales department (separate ‘marketing’ departments didn’t exist back then) were also sceptical about the product. They weren’t sure who such a vehicle would appeal to, but King was convinced. According to Spen King, target customers were 'senior officers in the army, head guys on building sites, well-off farmers, that sort of person'. In retrospect, how right he was!
Only 10 prototypes were built before the first production vehicle came down the Solihull production line. Early prototypes carried 'Velar' badges, jointly from the Spanish 'velar' (to look after, to watch over) and the Italian 'velare' (to veil, to cover). The actual Range Rover name was coined by stylist Tony Poole, after other model names – among them Panther and Leopard – were rejected.
The ‘Range Rover Station Wagon’ was officially launched on June 17, 1970, and was touted as a ‘car for all seasons, equally at home on a ranch in Texas as in the fast lane on a motorway in Europe’. Indeed the sales brochure touted it as the ‘most versatile motorcar in the world’. It went on to reinforce the Range Rover’s target audience as well. 'Business and professional people with a leaning towards the great outdoors, who want a purpose-built vehicle instead of an adapted one, the real thing instead of a compromise'.
Nothing much has changed in over the 42 years since, with the Range Rover still holding true to that premise.
Spartan interiors a world away from modern Range Rovers
The focus on luxury wasn’t too strong on the original model, however, with basic vinyl upholstery and a hose-down rubber and vinyl interior. Plush carpeting, wood trim and leather upholstery, which one takes for granted on a modern Range Rover didn’t exist on the original. Former chief project engineer Geof Miller has an interesting anecdote to add: “The boot are – which had been bare metal on prototypes – was soon trimmed, including a cover for the toolkit. This was partly because of feedback from Buckingham Palace. A man from the palace said the exposed tools could hurt a corgi.” Corgis are the Queen’s favourite dogs, and accompany her often!
The original Range Rover, known as the Range Rover Classic, was available as a two-door only, although a four-door prototype was built. The car remained unchanged for a good 11 years, with the four door version finally entering production only in 1981. Automatic transmission – a basic 3-speed Chrysler-sourced gearbox – was offered from 1982. In 1985 a more modern four-speed ’box from transmission specialist ZF was offered. ZF continues to supply gearboxes to Land Rover and Jaguar today. These refinements were essential to the model’s success in the all-important market, where it went on sale in 1987.
Technical improvements and enhancements to the interiors continued as long as the Classic remained in production. The original 3.5-litre aluminium V8 was enlarged to 3.9 litres in 1989 and further to 4.2 litres in 1992. The interiors were continuously upgraded, with high-quality leather and wood trim to rival luxury sedans of the time. A long wheelbase version, dubbed the LSE was launched in 1992, along with height-adjustable electronic suspension.
The second-generation P38a was born while Rover was under BMW's watch.
The second-generation Range Rover, now known as the ‘P38a’ because it was developed in building 38A of the Solihull factory, was launched in 1994. The P38a was more ‘evolutionary’ rather than ‘revolutionary’ with styling that that was close to the original. However, it was luxuriously appointed, with burr walnut trim and leather upholstery. Three engines were offered, which included a BMW-sourced 2.5-litre 6-cylinder diesel, and two versions of the aluminium V8, displacing 3.9 and 4.6 litres. The electronic height-adjustable suspension was offered from the off, and the second gen Range Rover P38a was a strong seller globally.
The third-generation L322 was a pioneer in its own right, and could lay claim to being the first SUV contructed on a monocoque platform.
Range Rover knew however that the second-generation model was more of an interim offering, and a scant 7 years later launched the third-generation Range Rover, in 2001. This model, designated L322 was a big step forward, offering monocoque construction in place of the traditional ladder frame chassis. The L322 also had fully-independent air suspension at all four corners. These air springs were interconnected as well, not only offering superb wheel articulation but excellent body control as well, making the Range Rover supremely capable both on road and off. The new Range Rover also debuted the current signature look, including the jewellery inspired headlights and front grille treatment. The simple, elegant line and boxy look were retained, which are arguably timeless, making the Range Rover’s silhouette as instantly recognisable as that of other iconic vehicles such as the Porsche 911 and the Volkswagen Beetle.
Now however, Range Rover has taken the next big leap forward, with the all-new Range Rover 4. The designation 4 pays dual homage to not just the car’s all-wheel drive system but also to its significance as the fourth-generation Range Rover. This new Range Rover is expected to go on sale in India early in 2013, and will form a very significant ‘halo’ model for the brand, which has diversified and broadened its customer base with the Range Rover Sport (launched in 2005) and the latest Range Rover Evoque (which was introduced in 2010). Range Rover today is more than just one model from Land Rover, but is fast evolving into a luxury brand in its own right.
Significantly, Land Rover, now married to fellow British car maker Jaguar, continues to adapt and evolve. The most significant aspect of the new Range Rover 4 is its bonded aluminium construction, first developed by Jaguar. This construction technique not only makes the new Range Rover lighter, and therefore better performing and more fuel efficient, but also more rigid as well, further improving its performance and abilities, no matter what the conditions.
The all-new Range Rover 4 sets new benchmarks once again.
Not only that, Range Rover will also debut the latest iteration of its trademark Terrain Response System, or TRS, first introduced in 2006. This system uses pre-programmed algorithms to control the vehicle’s behaviour on varying terrain, and manages the suspension, brakes, throttle and steering systems in conjunction with the traction control, stability control and what have you. The latest TRS in the new Range Rover 4 takes this breadth of capability further still, with an ‘auto’ setting which automatically detects the terrain the vehicle is traversing.
Three engines, including a 3.0-litre V6 diesel, a 4.4-litre V8 diesel and a supercharged V8 petrol will be offered, mated to an all-new 8-speed ZF gearbox.
Of course, all the luxury one can expect and hope for will be standard. Indeed, so confident are Land Rover, they claim the new Range Rover 4’s cabin has NVH levels that will rival a Mercedes S-Class and Bentley Continental Flying Spur.
This vehicle has come a long way from the Spartan interiors and basic appeal of the priginal, but it is heartening to see that the essence has been retained.
The most capable, versatile vehicle in the world? Absolutely.
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