I’m one of those people who will, if the subject comes up (which it usually doesn’t), smugly say: “Oh yes, advertising doesn’t work on me!” Marketing, especially looking at the marketing for cars, is a fascinating insight into the world that created it but I like to think that I know when some advertising men are attempting to appeal to my base instincts. Of course, there is almost certainly a demographic on some pie chart in a West London office labelled ‘people who think marketing doesn’t work on them’, to which advertising is pitched so the target has a feeling of sanctimonious self-satisfaction and yet is influenced just as much as anyone else.
Maybe this is why Land Rovers have been a permanent fixture in my life since before I could actually drive? Nothing represents function over form, and is more free from ‘an image’, than an old Land Rover.
So what am I to make of the subject of this road test – a very early example of the Range Rover? Because, contrary to what you might think, it’s a vehicle that was produced by the marketing department just as much as it was by engineers.
The common backstory to the Range Rover goes something like this – Rover decided to build something that was as capable as a Land Rover off-road while being much more comfortable and with much better on-road performance. Rover built the Range Rover, with plastic seats and an interior you could turn a hose on, and the team responsible for it were surprised when it became the car of choice for Home Counties semi-rural professionals. The car was gradually taken up-market until, by the time production ended in 1995, it was competing in the upper ranks of the luxury saloon market alongside Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and Bentley.
That isn’t quite true. The Range Rover had its origins in 1965, in one of the first ever reports by the Rover Company’s newly-established marketing department, which was run by a former economist called Graham Bannock. Simply by crunching the Land Rover’s global sales figures and breaking them down by market sector, Bannock concluded that “the real growth is coming from people who are buying Land Rovers to tow caravans, to go on holiday, from architects and surveyors who have to go across rough country and from people who are living in suburban houses but want to project the image which most 4×4 buyers today want to project, of being ‘real country types’.”
Far from being a versatile workhorse that was later seized on by the residents of Haselmere and Surbiton, the Range Rover was designed from the outset to appeal, at least in part, to people who didn’t exactly need a 4×4 but liked what owning one said about them.
But the Range Rover was no mere fashion statement. That reputation would come later and was, in no small part, built on the fact that it was one of the most capable off-road vehicles this side of something with caterpillar tracks. Right up to the present day the big appeal of the Range Rover has been that it really can hack it in the rough stuff, or at dozens of other ‘proper 4×4’ tasks.
I need no convincing of the Range Rover’s off-road abilities. I’ve been to enough off-road days in quarries and muddy corners of farms over the years to know that even in absolutely stock form an old Range Rover has few equals. But this is a road test, not an off-road test so today I am, for once, interested purely in how the original Range Rover stacks up when used strictly on tarmac. What was it like for the suburban dwellers of the early ‘Seventies who wanted to seem ‘real country types’ but never needed to take their Range Rover off the road?
And there can be few better ways of getting to know the Range Rover in its original form than this 1971 example, bearing the chassis number 1668 and being built less than a year after the model had been launched.
The Land Rover Centre in Huddersfield was selling this Range Rover for the second time, having purchased it from the original owner, Mr Balme, back in 2002. The Range Rover is definitely a ‘local car’, being bought from Huddersfield’s Land Rover dealer on August 1, 1971 (so not only did the original buyer get the prestige of a new Range Rover, but also one of the very first ‘K’ number plates!). Mr Balme was exactly the sort of buyer Rover had in mind – he clearly wasn’t short of a bob or two, paying around £2000 (£300 more than a P6 Rover 3500 with a few optional extras!) for the Range Rover, which he used as a capable and comfortable caravan towing vehicle for his family holidays in France. In between foreign jaunts the Range Rover was rarely used, which explains how it has racked up only 55,000 miles over its life.
Mark Griffiths, the Land Rover Centre’s sales manager, would be in the passenger seat for the road test , partly to keep an eye on a unique car now worth just short of £50,000 and partly to help me (someone entirely unfamiliar with this attractive corner of West Yorkshire) find some routes to show the Range Rover off at its best.
We climbed aboard, and climb you do with an early Range Rover. There are no side steps, no kneeling air suspension (in fact the ride height is slightly higher on the early versions), no ergonomic grab handles in the dashboard – you grip the big steering wheel and haul yourself onto the tall seat.
Looking at the interior of an early Range Rover gives few, if any, clues that it would one day feature in the ranks of the world’s finest luxury cars. It didn’t take much to be more luxurious than a Land Rover in the early ‘Seventies and the Range Rover doesn’t give you much. The seats, the transmission tunnel and the floors are trimmed in thick caramel-coloured plastic. The dashboard is made from rather featureless moulded slabs of grey plastic and the instrument binnacle is a tiny twin-dial affair bolted on the top. There are spots for four ancillary dials in the centre console but three of them are blank. There are manual winding windows (and quarterlights!), no air conditioning, and a decidedly manual transmission with three gear levers, which we’ll return to in a bit.
Yes, the interior is basic but it manages to look pleasingly functional rather than sparse (it’s the same rather industrial look that David Bache would later use on the Rover SD1) and, crucially, it’s comfortable and spacious. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the specification only looks a bit impoverished to modern eyes; in 1971 the fact that the Range Rover had fresh-air ventilation, a radio, fully adjustable front seats, fully trimmed doors and a 12-volt ancillary socket would have put it a long way above the norm. Although it was a concept of the marketing department the Range Rover couldn’t escape commercial pressures and the interior designers ran out of time to make their proposed ‘deluxe’ interior available. The Range Rover went to market with plastic, rubber and nothing else and it would take many years for the likes of floor carpets and wooden door cappings, which were designed back in the late ‘Sixties, to finally make an appearance.
There’s no denying the inherent luxury of the Range Rover’s powertrain, which was so good that it would remain fundamentally unchanged for the next 15 years. The 3.5-litre Rover V8 is here in rather detuned guise (‘only’ 135bhp) but it manages to sound just as meaty as it does in its more powerful form and this one has the peerless smoothness and the rumbly exhaust beat that you’d expect.
The front seats in the Range Rover sit on plinths attached to the actual floor. Combined with the low-cut early dashboard, which seems to be on a level with your stomach, and the feeling is that you’re sitting on the Range Rover rather than in it. The upside is that you have fantastic visibility. The slim door and window pillars and copious amounts of glass give nearly all-round vision and you look straight down onto the broad, flat bonnet with the distinctive crenellations at each edge to mark the corners. Because you know the Range Rover is square at both ends there is no doubt where its extremities lie.
You’re probably expecting me to follow this up by saying that this makes the Range Rover surprisingly easy to drive in traffic – which it is. But the visibility is only a helping factor here. The real reason why the Range Rover was no struggle to thread through the outskirts of Huddersfield is because it really isn’t that big. It’s a car with a reputation as a snorting V8-powered behemoth but in amongst modern traffic it felt almost compact. In fact the Range Rover is shorter, narrower and only marginally heavier than a current Vauxhall Insignia, and when you’re sitting up high in the 4×4’s glasshouse it is a doddle to thread through traffic. The Range Rover’s minimalist styling not only means you know where the corners are but also help it seem even more sensibly-sized, with none of the bulging, bloating and narrow pillbox-esque windows of modern cars.
In fact my biggest challenge in the first few miles was the Range Rover’s four-speed gearbox. Old Land Rovers of any sort are rather infamous for their recalcitrant ‘boxes but I thought: “I learnt to drive in a Series 3 Land Rover – how hard can it be?” The answer is “very”. The LT95 ‘box fitted to the Range Rover is renowned as one of Rover’s least user-friendly transmissions, mainly because in the early ‘Seventies there was no real way of making a gearbox that could handle the strains of a 135-horsepower V8 towing over three tons off-road while also being a slick shifter. It’s a gearbox worthy of a small lorry, with a massive amount of travel in every direction, a rather vaguely-defined gate and an engagement that needs a slow, firm and definite hand. What took the most getting used to was the fact that the gears weren’t perfectly in line, especially the third-to-fourth shift, which required coming back into neutral, then shuffling the lever across a fraction of an inch (an amount you can’t feel – you just have to learn) before you can slot into top gear.
As we climbed out of Huddersfield onto the bleak expanse of Marsden Moor I was still getting to grips with things. The lower gears are rather low to help shift heavy loads from rest, so when only two-up the Range Rover is positively spritely. On the uphill slog I quickly found myself stretching the engine to the upper reaches of its range in third gear, but going for fourth I kept missing the change and losing speed while I flailed around in neutral (and once slipped towards reverse, with a horrible grinding of gears), so by the time I found fourth the engine was pulling at little more than a fast idle. The V8 seemed quite happy here, but eventually the hill steepened and the engine began to falter and I shifted back to third. The succession of third-fourth-third-fourth changes followed over the next half mile and with practice I was finally able to get into top gear on the first try and we surfed up the final part of the climb on the engine’s wave of mid-range torque.
Once the road levelled off there came a chance to sample the Range Rover’s high-speed credentials. Bearing in mind that the Land Rover of the time topped out at around 65mph and had a comfortable cruising speed (if you can call it that) of around 40mph, all on stiff leaf springs and a painted metal interior, the Range Rover is truly remarkable. It’s not so long since I was behind the wheel of a 1970 P6 Rover 3500 and this Range Rover was very, very similar in its road-going abilities.
You can reach 60mph with no stress and the refinement remains excellent. There’s a certain amount of whirring from the transmission (which sits under its plastic matting in the middle of the cabin), a low-pitch drone from the tyres, a bit of wind noise and an ever-present muted roar from the engine, but they’re all subdued sounds that are characterful rather than intrusive. Although not an option when new this Range Rover has been fitted with the later Fairey overdrive unit. Unlike most overdrives, which are operated electrically by a neat switch, this one is engaged mechanically by a separate gear lever sprouting from the transmission tunnel; you have to depress the clutch and move it forward through a neutral position to engage. The rev drop with the overdrive isn’t massive but I imagine it makes a big difference (especially to the fuel costs) on a long run with a caravan in tow.
The Range Rover’s soft, long-travel coil springs utterly soak up the various lumps and bumps in the surface of a road laid over the top of a peat moor. That much you’d expect from a Range Rover, but what I wasn’t expecting was how composed the car was, and how easy it was to drive fast. Everything I’ve read made me expect that the Range Rover would have secure but rather roly-poly handling; the sort that you have to take some time to get used to before you reassure yourself that you’re not going to end up on your side in a ditch.
Nothing could be further from the truth. From the inside at least the Range Rover seemed to corner respectably flat. I suspect that when viewed from the outside it would show a fair bit of lean as I cruised around a corner at a steady 60mph, but from inside it felt not only entirely safe but entirely natural to keep up this sort of pace. I can only guess that the complaints about the early Range Rover’s body roll come from recent testers driving examples with worn bushes and sagged springs or are the product of contemporary journalists used to more hard-edged sporting fare. This Range Rover isn’t just good for a 4×4, it’s good for any big ‘Seventies saloon.
The steering (power assisted which, while optional at this time, was effectively mandatory given how heavy the manual steering could be) is not particularly good in terms of feedback and is on the light side, but it’s accurate and free of slack or wander, so you make minimal use of the big thin-rimmed wheel. With its V8 flexibility, cosseting springs and easy cornering ability the Range Rover makes covering distances simply effortless, even in this most basic and ‘crude’ form. Before long I was sweeping along the road leading down off the Moor towards Manchester down a route that almost resembled an Alpine pass. The road snaked down the terrain into a deep, green valley that filled the panoramic windscreen, with a rich blue square of water in the form of Dovestone reservoir at the bottom. Mark said it was a pleasure to be out with someone who drove the Range Rover “as it was supposed to be driven” – a lot of the customers he takes on test drives are first-timers to the world of old 4x4s and so are understandably tentative. I was having no such qualms!
What the Range Rover really inspires in its driver is confidence and what makes it so good is the way all of its little details come together to make a superb whole. The smooth, gutsy V8 means you can reach decent cruising speeds. The comfortable suspension means you can maintain those speeds even over uneven roads while the permanent four-wheel drive and girder-like radius arms and Panhard rods mean you don’t have to slow for every corner. The big all-round disc brakes give you the confidence that you’ll be able to stop from any speed the Range Rover can reach. The comfort of the interior and the overall refinement mean you can cover long distances at decent speeds without pummelling your senses to the point of numbness, as a long journey in a Series Land Rover can do.
It all comes together, and that’s without factoring in that the Range Rover can do all this while carrying five people and over a quarter of a tonne of luggage, with a three-ton trailer on the back. Mark and I agreed that if the Range Rover had lacked any of these features – the engine, the suspension, the brakes, the transmission, the interior and even that functional-but-elegant styling – it just wouldn’t have worked.
All too soon the time came to turn around and head back to Huddersfield. By this time I had almost fully mastered the gearbox so the climb back over the Moor was a much smoother and swifter affair than the first ascent and before long we were loping back along the top, across a barren landscape of purple heather, brown grass and grey rock. Odd stony tracks occasionally branched off the road and snaked over the Moor – if I was a surveyor for the North West Water Authority in the ‘Seventies I could easily imagine myself cruising up from Manchester in stately V8-powered comfort then just swinging off the road and heading off to some far-off peak to set up a measuring station without breaking pace.
But the thing with the Range Rover is that you don’t have to set a wheel off tarmac to appreciate it. Rover sold it as the ‘Four-In-One Car’ (probably in an attempt to convince buyers why they should pay so much for it) – a luxury car, a performance car, an estate car and a cross-country car. Only one of those requires leaving the road. The really remarkable thing is that the Range Rover is ‘jack of all trades, master of all of them’. It more than cuts the mustard as a comfortable, if not exactly luxurious, long-distance cruiser. It has the burly nature and effortless power delivery of a V8 performance car and it has the versatility and carrying capacity of a superb estate car. While this may be the first Range Rover road test to never examine its off-road abilities, it still shines as a remarkable car. A rare case of a car being just as good, if not better, than its marketing!