Class Act

Social mobility, across all-terrain.

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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.

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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

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

14 thoughts on “Class Act”

  1. Good morning Eóin. One thing always strikes me when I look at pictures of the original Range Rover, and that is its enduring modernity. The rigid and pure functionalism of the design has dated hardly at all and, I’m sure, helped it to appear both classless and timeless. It’s interesting to compare it with the original Jeep Wagoneer, a vehicle identical in concept that predated the Range Rover by seven years:

    Apart from the slightly fussy front end, the original Wagoneer shares a lot of the Range Rover’s functionality. Somewhat unfortunately, Jeep subsequently chose to ‘decorate’ it with extra chrome, fake wood and chintzy alloy wheels (with white-wall tyres!) which had the effect of dating the design:

    This is how the Wagoneer really should look:

    1. I had the old guy down the street plow my driveway (snow for those wondering) for over twenty years – its over 50 metres long. That would be 1986 to 2008 when he reached 80 and “retired”. About 12 to 15 times per winter, plus all the other contracts he had in his literal little black book.

      He had the same 1977 Grand Wagoneer all that time. Plowing snow is hard work for a vehicle when there’s over a foot of heavy white stuff, uphill, across the gravel ruts and the bumps, the big blade dropped to kiss the ground, being an eight foot wide 300 kg attachment with hydraulics to be both carried and pushed, and hanging off the front of the chassis. He’d often take a run at it. Just brutal to watch the stress the vehicles are put to. It had a 401 cubic inch V8, that vehicle, and the hot smells coming off it as I paid my fee afterwards were a mixture of hot engine and hydraulic oil. Welding up broken blades and chassis happened now and then. And sorry, it was the chrome one with plastic wood, Daniel! Still really rugged no matter the tinsel.

      Never saw anyone here kit out a Range Rover with a proper snow plow. Don’t think it would have the power and speed to do the job, the engine was far too small, the whole thing too lightweight. Sometimes blacksmith’s anvils are needed to do do the really heavy work. I salute the Grand Wagoneer as a really tough old bird. Our family had an Austin Gypsy with a snow plow (much smaller) twenty years earlier, and that’s the grade of tough you need for real work, even if it was quite overwhelmed at times.

  2. The Range Rover lost much of it appeal to me when it got the four door treatment. Mostly because of the door handles. Are these Harris Mann items?

    The Wagoneer is an (to me at least) interesting vehicle as they’re more rare than the Range Rover over where I live. I’m sure everyone has heard the (to my knowledge unconfirmed) story behind the faux wood panelling to cover up imperfections of the stampings. That said the Wagoneer Roadtrip Concept in your post looks great, Daniel.

    1. Good morning Freerk. Ah yes, those (in)famous door handles:

      They were indeed designed by Harris Mann for the 1971 Marina and were subsequently used for the Allegro, TR7, Range Rover Mk1, Discovery Mk1, AC 3000ME (later versions), Lotus Esprit, Elite, Eclat and Excel, Reliant Scimitar GTE (SE6) and GTC, as well as a number of low-volume and kit cars.

      I think their ubiquity was due to the face that, although a flush ‘safety design, they fitted into a simple rectangular aperture and didn’t need a contoured recess in the door for your hand.

      Strangely, those handles were replaced with a different, horizontal design on the 1980 Morris Ital (the facelifted Marina) which fitted the same aperture, but the new style was not used for the 1989 Discovery. This is probably because the new design was a cheap and nasty plastic item:

  3. I rather like the infamous door handles. I also recall that the Peugeot 305 had an apparently identical looking handle. Italian cars of the era: Alfetta GT’s, Alfasud Sprint, Beta Coupe’s and even some Ferrari’s look to have shared a slimmer more elegant flat blade door handle. In occasional moments I wonder if anyone ever fitted these door handles on the inside too (Perhaps a kit car maker ), as the shape suggests they could serve both purposes.

    1. Hi Richard, there was a similar design of interior door handle that was fitted to lots of BMC and BL cars, including the 1100/1300, 1800, Maxi, Marina/Ital, Sherpa van and Defender, as well as certain Lotus and Reliant models.

      I really need to get out more…oh, wait a minute…

  4. Just a note about the © Pinterest credit for the article picture.
    Pinterest don’t really have the copyright on any of ‘their’ images.
    Put simply – they just hoover up pictures that their users save and then regurgitate them back onto the web as their own. It’s not the most ethical of practices – I avoid their site if I can as it’s a terrible rabbit warren where none of the images recieve credits/attribution from their original source.

    I’d plead with you to find images via Google or Bing wherein you can always find the source and credit (for which I applaud your diligence) the image owner accurately.

    1. huwgwilliam: Thanks for this. Not being particularly au fait with social media, I don’t use sites like Pinterest, instagram or their ilk directly, so have no real idea how they operate. I try to be as diligent as I can with regard to image sourcing, but as you can perhaps understand, it’s something of a minefield and getting worse in this regard by the year. Time too is often an enemy. The images appended here came from a standard image search on one of the better known search engines. But having taken your point on board, I will endeavour to avoid using images from such platforms in future.

  5. I’ve never tried posting pictures before and it’s early…

    A couple of pictures from my copy of Eric Dymock’s Land Rover File book on how to see the Range Rover progressed

    Top picture is Spen King’s prototype followed by my favourite as a child, the “Jam Sandwich” for not only the name but the robustness and incredible looks.

    As for the name VELAR, Mike Dunn from Alvis was the inspiration for using the Spanish-Italian word for hidden and setting up a “company” to conduct secret trials.

    When public gatherings are no longer illegal, check out the Solihull factory tours called the Range Rover Experience where original drawings, excellent period photos and comparison bodyworks and chassis are there to be examined in detail. You can probably tell I was quite smitten.

    1. Good morning Andrew. I had always assumed that ‘VELAR’ was simply made up using (some of) the letters from ‘LAND ROVER’ so that the prototypes could simply be branded using existing lettering. Now I know better!

  6. That’s an interesting find, Charles. Thanks for sharing.

    Once the design of the Range Rover was explained to me in four horizontal lines: roof, bonnet and bottom of DLO and the two creases on the side. Not sure what happend to the bottom (fifth) horizontal line. To me connecting the two lower horizontal lines with a vertical element, the door handle, is very pleasing, especially as the reces for the fuel filler cap has been given more or less the same treatment. The Harris Mann door handles are fine on their own, but compared to the door handle of the three door look like an afterthought to my eyes.

    In the third and fourth generation the vertical element has been brought back in the shape of a faux air vent on the front wing or front wing. Needless to say that’s not to my liking.

  7. Daniel, you’re right about the use of the letters that were available from Land Rover. I think it was then discovered (by those with a much better command of languages than what I have got) that velar would be perfect for the reasons that Andrew gave.
    (And don’t tell anyone but I like Harris Mann’s handles).

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