Missed out on the classic Range Rover price boom? The underrated P38A could be your second chance
As Land Rover revels in the success of its recently introduced all-new Defender, it seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the first time the British brand tried to replace a much-loved icon.
That was back in the early 90s and the occasion was the need to update the classic Range Rover, which despite a flood of better-late-than-never updates in the late 80s was starting to show its age in the face of more modern competition.
Land Rover had partly shored up its customer base by introducing the Discovery to sit at the bottom of the range, but as the Range Rover had moved further upmarket over the years, it needed to be correspondingly more modern to command the sort of prices Land Rover was asking.
Replacing an icon isn’t an easy task, as witnessed by the lacklustre reception of the Mk2 Golf GTI and Audi Quattro, to name just a couple. In the best traditions of the British motor industry, Land Rover knew it had to get it right with ‘Project Pegasus’ – but it also knew budgets were as ever stretched pretty thinly.
Initial design studies were commissioned from Bertone, Pininfarina and Ital Design, with two more worked up by the in-house studio at Lode Lane. Of the outside designs, it was only the Bertone offering which was developed into a full-size clay model; some of the detailing recalled Bertone’s later Citroën XM, while other aspects gave it the look of an anonymous SUV.
After the design review in November 1988, the Bertone proposal was rejected and George Thompson’s in-house design was taken as the starting point for a production model. Clearly as an in-house stylist he had the inside track on what management were looking for and as Nick Hull relates in his title Land Rover Design, Land Rover top brass was extremely twitchy about replacing the Range Rover, with contemporary quotes from design concept managers suggesting that although they claimed to want something new, the reality was that they would have been happy simply to tweak the detailing.
This may well explain why the chosen design was closest in spirit to the original Range Rover with its bold grille, clamshell bonnet, split tailgate and ‘floating’ roof treatment with blacked-out pillars. The square headlamps were felt to be a requirement for the 90s, although there were some who championed a return to the round style.
Whatever the chosen style, the layout was decidedly traditional: the new Range Rover stuck with a body-on-frame layout. The intention had originally been to retain the 108-inch chassis of the late-model Range Rover LSE, but development changes to achieve improved torsional stiffness and reduced turning circle eventually resulted in an all-new design.
The bodyshell itself was similar to the existing Land Rover products in that it used aluminium outer panels and a steel central section, although for the P38A the construction was modified: rather than riveted panels on a steel skeleton, a steel inner bodyshell was used with aluminium outer skins.
The running gear was pretty much classic Range Rover, with the long-serving ex-Buick V8 carried over for the petrol models, but when it came to the diesels, there was a problem: at this end of the market, the four-cylinder TDI engine from the classic Range Rover simply wouldn’t do and Land Rover’s own five-cylinder TD5 was still a long way from the showroom. The solution was to buy in an engine offering suitable refinement and after considering Mercedes and GM alternatives, Land Rover ended up in Munich where a deal was done to source the 2.5-litre six-cylinder turbo-diesel used in the BMW 3- and 5-Series.
It was a commendably smooth unit, although rather lacking in power at 143bhp, and even when remapped to provide better low-end torque in its Range Rover application (at the expense of output dropping further to 136bhp), it was never really up to the task of hauling the two-tonne P38A around.
As for the rest of the running gear, the use of air suspension on the range-topping LSE model of the classic Range Rover had been well received, allowing the ride height to be lowered for convenience but then raised for proper off-roading when required. This encouraged the development team to retain the system for the second-generation car and rather than the add-on system of the old LSE, the air suspension was fully integrated into the P38A.
On the inside, the change was perhaps even more significant. Thanks to the original Range Rover, the market for this kind of vehicle had been developed to the point where it was considered very much as an alternative to a big executive saloon and Land Rover knew that the cabin ambience had to be up to scratch. Gone then were the crude mouldings and jumbled BL switchgear of the old model, in favour of an upmarket new design owing a lot to the Rover 800 and with a sweeping centre console and soft-feel moulding. It was still a proper Land Rover though: the chunky buttons can all be operated with gloved fingers.
The P38A was launched in September 1994, making it the first new model to be launched under BMW ownership, which had taken control of Rover Group in the January.
It proved to be a success as a stepping stone in taking the Range Rover concept upmarket, although reliability issues with the electronics and air suspension did it no favours at all. The model was continually upgraded and by the time it left production in 2002, the P38A was well-developed.
Despite that, it’s been somewhat airbrushed out of Land Rover’s own official history, which tends to jump from classic to L322 models without so much as a mention of the P38A.
We’ll kick off with this one as it’s the first question everyone will ask you, much like MGF owners and head gaskets. Anyone with even a passing interest in Range Rovers will know that the P38A gained a reputation for unreliability in the suspension department. Afflicted cars can suddenly move by themselves when stationary, sink gradually or simply refuse to lift at all.
Unlike the LSE classic models which used what was essentially an HGV air spring set-up grafted on to the original design, the P38A was designed from the outset to use air suspension, and as a result the system was designed for the vehicle. On the LSE, the compressor and air rams are truck-specification and the compressor lives under car on the chassis where it remains cool; the P38A places it in the heat of the under-bonnet area.
In itself this isn’t a problem but any air leaks in the system will cause the compressor to run overtime and it will soon overheat. There’s also a filter in the system which is often overlooked but should be replaced frequently and costs very little. There’s also a thermal cutout switch in the compressor circuit and a pressure switch to consider, as well as the electronic control module and ride height sensors.
The other problem relates to the air springs themselves. The rubber itself is thick, like the sidewall of a tyre, so only extreme off-roading will see them damaged. However, these tend to perish over time, with the resulting air leaks making the compressor work overtime.
Although genuine Land Rover springs come in at over £250 a corner, the aftermarket replacements are under £60 each, making it easy to perform a complete overhaul. Buy from a reputable source though, as specialists report that the very cheap replacements can present problems with the threaded connectors not sealing properly.
Range Rover specialists are generally agreed that the key to making the sir suspension last is to keep it up to scratch and fix the small problems before they become big ones: an O-ring costing pennies can save you the cost of a compressor in the long term, so listen out for the compressor running constantly: a sure sign of a leak somewhere.
The second area responsible for the P38A’s less-than-stellar reputation as a new car was the CAN bus-based electronic architecture which was a new development for Land Rover – and much more complex than anything it had used before.
Flat batteries were a common complaint, often caused by the amplifier for the remote central locking receiver; a revised part was offered after the P38A had left production. The simple cure is to pull the blue wire off the unit, which solves the problem at the expense of a reduced remote range.
The remote unit was also prone to picking up interference from stray neighbourhood devices from wireless doorbells to Wi-Fi, which would ‘wake up’ the car’s electronics from the low-current ‘sleep’ mode and flatten the battery.
The P38A is at the age where aftermarket alarms, stereos, Bluetooth kits and tow bars could have been fitted – some of them not very well. All too often a live feed will have been taken from the wrong place and an accessory will be staying live after the key is removed, draining the battery.
The electronic system is controlled by the Body Electronics Control Module, which can cause problems when its onboard software becomes corrupted. Most independent specialists with the right diagnostic kit can reprogramme this for you, or supply a rebuilt correctly coded unit for a reasonable price. The unit is located under the front right-hand seat and it’s worth ensuring it doesn’t get wet during a valeting session.
As you might expect, the BMW diesel and Rover V8 are very different animals to live with and it’s the petrol V8 which is generally reckoned to be the engine of choice. A few years ago the diesel would still have been in the running, but they do have to work hard to move the Range Rover and the result is that most have had a hard life. Many units have also been remapped in pursuit of better performance and this hasn’t helped them in the long term.
Assuming you do find a low-mileage, cared-for diesel, it’s worth checking that it starts easily; problems with both hot and cold starting can indicate issues with the main injection pump, which is expensive.
In contrast, the V8 is under-stressed – but it does pay to be on the lookout for evidence of previous overheating. It’s common for the expansion tank hose to get blocked up and for the cooling system to be silted up when anti-freeze hasn’t been kept up to strength. Overheating can also cause the liners to drop in the block with disastrous results.
If there’s a smell of coolant inside the car then check the right-hand footwell – if the carpet is damp on this side but dry on the left, then suspect leaky O-rings where the heater pipes attach to the heater unit. The official procedure is to remove the entire dashboard, but it’s possible to fix without resorting to that.
If the heater temperature or air distribution seems random then suspect one or more failed servo motors. There are three of these – known as heater blend motors – which operate the directional flaps and hot/cold air blending in the climate control unit. Again, the official fix is to remove the dashboard but it’s possible without.
If the air output from the heater/air con seems feeble then check the state of the pollen filters. When they’re clogged, they restrict the flow of intake air. It’s been suggested that this makes the blower fans work so hard that the additional load can burn out the fusebox, although this can also be down to loose wiring connections on the left-hand motor.
As with any ABS-equipped car, the MoT test requires the warning light to come on with the key and disappear with the engine running. If the light stays on, it can indicate a £20 sensor which needs replacing or a more major fault. If the ABS pump continues running for some time after the engine has been started, then the accumulator may need replacing at around £100.
If the vehicle doesn’t stop straight then suspect a seized caliper. Rebuild kits are available but replacements are only £86 each.
Range Rover (P38A): our verdict
These cars were ignored for a long time but enthusiast interest in the P38A is now growing. This means the really nice examples out there can still command a decent value, but there are still huge number of affordable cars around – and some with a few issues which make a terrifically appealing project.
Our suggestion would be to go with the petrol V8 and don’t be swayed by LPG kits unless there’s proper documentary evidence that it’s been fitted professionally. As for the decision between 4.0 and 4.6, we’d suggest buying on condition rather than exact spec. If you want a really well preserved P38A, one option can be to buy a car which has been re-imported from Japan.
These cars are gaining popularity with enthusiasts who recognise their many virtues, but they still represent tremendous value – as well as all the Range Rover qualities you’ll find in the classic model if only prices hadn’t spiralled out of reach. The P38A is your chance to get in on the ground floor if you missed out on the original.