Social mobility, across all-terrain.
Britain has always enjoyed a somewhat elastic relationship with both the land itself, and those who both own and administer it. Pivoting from forelock-tugging deference to bland indifference during the short years of relative social equality, the more recent austerity-era saw a shift back towards a renewed hunger for the certainties of the established social order – a matter which has been reflected to some extent with the rise of that automotive marker of social (and physical) superiority – the SUV.
Few vehicles personify landed gentry quite like the Range Rover. But to call the original version an SUV is really something of a misnomer. A car designed for the affluent farmer/landowner, hitherto forced to be Ernest in town and Jack in the country by the necessity of requiring two very different vehicles. But following the advent of the Range Rover, he only really needed one.
Like the original Mini, the Range Rover permanently changed the way these islands viewed the motor car. And, like BMC’s diminutive miracle, the Range Rover was both conceptually and in design terms entirely of itself – its appearance the direct result of its package – the brainchild of conceptual engineers, not marketers. Furthermore, when announced, it had the market to itself, largely because like Mini, the RR had defined it.
Conceptually however, the Range Rover was not unique – both Ford and the US Jeep company had successfully launched off-road capable station wagons for the American market. Nevertheless, no European manufacturer of upmarket automobiles had offered a sophisticated and entirely civilised luxury 4×4 all-terrain estate car before.
Rover had examined the concept as early as 1951 when the Road Rover programme was initiated. This took several forms before being shelved towards the end of the decade, owing to changing market conditions and there being more pressing model programmes for Rover’s engineers to prioritise – notably the advanced P6 saloon, launched in 1963.
However, with Rover’s export ambitions to the US being of a high priority, the project received renewed impetus by the latter-’60s. Now, re-purposed as an all-wheel drive vehicle, Rover’s Gordon Bashford and Spen King fleshed out the layout, employing a stout box-section steel chassis, long travel coil sprung suspension employing low rate springs, with an even torque split between front and rear axles. Having initially considered using Rover’s existing 3.0 litre IOE in-line six, the advent of the lightweight 3.5 litre Buick V8 proved a godsend.
The body style was developed by Bashford and King on a steel frame with aluminium body panels, with assistance from David Bache’s stylists. This would prove pivotal, since they ensured the proportions and overall form were spot-on, so while the first full size mock-up, built at the beginning of 1967 was somewhat rudimentary looking, it was all there in the essentials. Defined by its fore-square stance and tall, glassy canopy, the 100-inch station wagon, still badged Road-Rover was evaluated by Leyland top brass, who insisted on it being produced largely unchanged.
Having initially proposed something more sophisticated and car-like in style, Bache and his team instead were tasked with refining the prototype. And while the finished car proved testament to the initial work they carried out alongside Rover’s engineers, the subtle changes they introduced were masterful, taking an already accomplished theme and raising it to a level of pure product design which still carries its visual impact half a century later. There was so much sophistication in its apparent simplicity, yet such simplicity in its sophistication – few car designs have appeared so inherently correct right out of the box.
The Range Rover’s style, combined with its off-road capabilities and refined road manners made it an immediate hit with both the motor press and buying public when it was officially announced in the Summer of 1970. Undisguised prototypes had been running for months, the only pretence being the badging, which proclaimed VELAR, to throw the curious off the scent. Demand for the car was instant, and unlike most of BL’s subsequent output, never faltered. Almost immediately, the Range Rover became the car to have, imbued as it was with an insouciant air of superiority, but without the aloofness normally associated with such markers of social one-upmanship. For the price of admission, anyone could effect the appearance at least of being to the manor born.
Equally at home on the estate or in the City, the Range became a familiar sight amid the more fashionable streets of Britain’s metropolitan thoroughfares, proving itself a surprisingly capable urban dweller. So while the car had been developed to a very specific brief, much (again) like the Mini, it ended up appealing to a very different type of owner. Despite, or perhaps because of its unwavering sales success, and its lack of meaningful competition, British Leyland allowed it to stagnate, both in developmental and build integrity terms, it being a full decade before any really significant improvements were made.
The most obvious of these being the addition of a four-door version, which quickly supplanted the two-door. The provision of automatic transmission and an improved manual gearbox further aided refinement, while the addition of a four-cylinder turbo-diesel version in 1986 helped further broaden its appeal, especially in export markets. Throughout that decade the Range Rover was pushed ever further upmarket, finally arriving (officially) in the US market in 1987, and proving to be the success story which had hitherto eluded Rover in the land of the free.
As the car grew ever more opulent, it departed further from its original remit and lost the purity of its design intent in a sea of leather and wood veneer. By the time it was supplanted (if not immediately replaced) by the P38A model in 1994, it had grown in length, had gained a complex air suspension system and an uprated 4.2 litre version of the V8 unit.
The P38A was a decent stab at replacing what had already become a design classic, but it failed to match its timeless appeal and was comparatively short-lived. Later iterations would prove more convincing. Today’s Range Rover is an altogether different beast, even if it still cleaves to several immutable styling and architectural absolutes first set down in 1970. Now as mainstream a luxury vehicle as anybody’s S-Class, it’s a world away from the relative compactness, austere grace and unswerving remit of the first generation.
The 1970 Range Rover was and remains a definitive automotive statement. An almost perfectly pitched example of industrial design, a feat of engineering craft, a powerful social signifier and a tool of social ambition – Range Rover was all those things, because in essence it was whatever one wanted it to be. But more than anything else, it illustrated in the most eloquent manner, the richness of simplicity.
More on Range Rover here.
Data sources: AROnline/ Auto-Didakt