A reader had a chance to drive a Range Rover some might call "perfect;" two-door, diesel, manual, cloth interior. But he reckons it's a perfect example of the factors that took down the British car industry, despite its beauty and capability.
Now that the news is about the very first Range Rover getting restored and going on auction, it's probably high time I tell you about the day I drove one. It wasn't 44 years old, but it was a two-door, so it's likely the closest I ever get to that $235.000 piece of automotive history. Pretty close, if I do say so myself.
The Range Rover cognoscenti among you are probably crying foul right now, maybe even heading straight to the comments section with pitchforks and torches. Why? Because at first glance this car seems to be a retro-mod: the 2-door was discontinued on most markets by 1984, while the horizontal grille only debuted in 1985. And I didn't even mention yet, that the car has a 2.5 liter VM Motori turbo diesel up front (debut: 1990) and air con. The key to this riddle is that elusive "on most markets" – the 2-door body was in fact produced all the way into the '90s, and sold for example on Mediterranean markets. This one was first registered in 1992, on the sunny island of Mallorca, with this exact specification – contrary to what one would have thought at first, it's in fact numbers matching.
A Range Rover is now considered the quintessential luxury off-roader, which is strange as that was exactly what it was designed to be. The paint hardly set on the first Land Rovers when the idea of a plush variant surfaced in 1951, and though shelved at the time, work restarted with gusto in 1966 – maybe owing to the Jeep Wagoneer. To keep the project secret, a separate company was founded to build the test mules and prototypes, called Velar. Rover secured the right engine just in time – the famous V8 premiered in 1967 – but still had a lot of designing to do. Even though the Range Rover has two live axles and a frame, just like the Land Rover, the mechanicals were built from scratch, because Rover wanted to feature full-time 4WD and coil springs in this application instead of the selectable 4WD and leaf springs offered on series LRs at the time. So when the Range Rover debuted in 1970, it was faster and more comfortable on road, but also at least as good off-road, as the agricultural sister model.
Live axle designs have merits, but a supple ride isn't usually one of them: the huge unsprung weight wreaks havoc on passenger comfort. However, Rover used rubber mountings for the body too, not just for the suspension, in effect doubling insulation. Or something along those lines, I didn't have the chance to take one apart and look at what the engineers came up with. All I know is that this 1992 RR was in deed like a magic carpet. And I mean in all aspects, so cornering is best described as vague – the Range does turn, but you need a lot of belief in that happening, because steering is the opposite of what journalists like to call precise and direct. Also, at speed you have to take care not to wander out of your lane. However, if you think about that in the context of 1970 - I suppose that must have been completely acceptable, I would even wager some contemporary family sedans handled worse. The upside: ride is excellent on road, and feels exactly the same off-road. Crossing fields like you never left the pavement – that's what the classic Range Rover experience is about.
The first installments had pretty basic interiors, plusher than a Land Rover, but still a wash-down affair, ready for working life out on the farms. And that stayed thus for the initial decade of production, the first significant change only coming about in 1981, when the 4-door appeared. This signaled a move upmarket, and during the next decade the Range gradually turned luxury. 1984 brought automatic gearbox and leather upholstery, 1985 a new grille and dashboard, while the engine – originally redesigned to accept a starting crank, something Buick engineers didn't deem necessary – gained injection and a healthy raise in power. In 1988 the first diesel variant got off the line: a 2.4 liter i4 TD producing 112 HP, which was powerful enough to secure quite a few speed records in its category. This was then upgraded to 2.5 and 119 HP, that's the version I drove. So by the time this example got sold, 22 years after production started, a lot has changed – but reading others' views on the car, I would say the basic demeanor hadn't.
Miki, the owner of this gorgeous example, bought it in Barcelona, and drove home to Budapest in it – that's a not insignificant 1200 miles. So you can say it was in running condition, but that doesn't mean no restoration was needed. On the contrary. The cockpit was completely taken apart and put together again, and now looks & feels like new, while the body needed some work too, especially in the rear where there was a small dent. Miki tells me he got brand new parts posted from GB for the rear bumper, but some didn't fit – the famous British Leyland quality still reigns supreme. He also told me that taking the car apart was a good lesson on what this lack of build quality means: interior fittings for example look haphazardly bolted on, and the brakes, though completely renewed, still pull to one side.
Now that he's done the work, the car is what I would call pristine. Inside it feels, for want of a better word: new, and every single thing operates just as it should – bar those brakes of course. The cabin looks special, I simply adore the plush thrones, which are, as custom in Land Rovers, installed very close to the side windows. Driving position is of course commanding, and because the glass panes are huge, there isn't a thing you don't see. Once you figure out the switchgear, it's easy to drive. Even gearchange is light and unopposed – something decidedly not so on Defenders to this day. The 5-speed shifter feels its years and miles, but the lever selecting Low is slick and precise. It needs to be that way too, as the turbo diesel is, how should I put it: ancient. You need to remember this isn't TDI yet, so there are some drawbacks to it that we don't associate with diesels anymore. For a start it sounds so agricultural, some Soviet tractors from the '60s emanate a lighter clatter – the only redeeming factor is that sound insulation is excellent, in the cabin it's an almost pleasant chatter. Then there's the massive turbo lag. VM Motori is Italian, so there is a joke here somewhere about siesta, but the fact remains: nothing happens at all under 2500 RPM. Not a single sign of life. It won't stall, because old TDs just don't do that, but it won't go either. If you release the clutch on green without reving it up first, you move away at the leisurely pace of 3mph, and keep to that until the tacho needle climbs those dizzying heights. And then, once you're on your way, the power band peters out around 4.000 RPM – yes, that's full 1500 revs, all yours to use.
So the engine is everything I don't like about diesels, and it seems Land Rover agreed, because later in 1992 they introduced their own oil burner instead. But I have to say, this didn't really taint the experience, because the Range Rover ain't no rocketship with the V8 either. Cruising along some highways, or dusting it up on some dirt roads and fields is all that I wanted, and I got that, in comfort I didn't think was possible.
As well as being capable, this old Rangie is something else too: a perfect example of the factors that took down the British car industry, and the factors that make us sad it happened. You have to give it to them, in 1970 this must have been a brilliant design, and even in 1992 it mustn't have felt much dated at all. But here's the thing: whatever level of brilliance the engineers showed, the management could easily match that in effing up manufacturing. Capable cars built in shoddy quality – who wants that at all? No wonder the Japanese and the Germans beat the British at this game, and the Range Rover is very lucky to be among the few survivors. Though if I read DeMuro right, they didn't change much about build quality….
I am György Bolla, working as auto journo in Hungary, writing (mostly) about and owning cars from the 1980s. Rattenschule is the name of my future company buliding rides for the demented and brain-dead like myself. You are welcome to follow my tumblr dedicated to this stuff, or just plain chime in here.
All photos in this article by my friend Oliver Hannak, who you'll find in Toronto these days, here.