Range Rover: half a century of the legendary luxury SUV

How a good idea and a chain of coincidences made the Range Rover a cult car.

Vasily Kostin: Last June it was exactly 50 years since the very first Range Rover went into production – a powerful and comfortable all-terrain vehicle, which is often called the ancestor of the entire SUV segment (that is, SUVs suitable for everyday comfortable driving). His idea was born to several people at once, and the very fact of his appearance is a real miracle, given the difficult situation in the British car industry of that period.

Although the Range Rover has always been considered the flagship model of Land Rover, and indeed it was, it was conceived outside – in the parent, “passenger” company Rover. The idea of ​​a comfortable SUV came to designer Spencer King in the early sixties when he was in charge of the Rover for promising developments.

Family business

It is worth telling what the situation was in the company when work began on the new SUV. The Land Rover brand was part of Rover, at that time an independent company: not a very large, but quite successful car manufacturer that produced premium cars.

The Wilkes brothers, Maurice (right) and Spencer, have led Rover for many years. They also designed the first Land Rover SUV after the war.

It was actually a family business, and a family business in the truest sense of the word: Rover was headed by the Wilkes brothers – Maurice and Spencer (it was they who developed a simple SUV after the war, which became the first Land Rover). Spencer King, who came to Rover after working for Rolls-Royce, was their nephew. And the position of technical director of the Rover Company in the early sixties was held by his cousin, Peter Wilkes – also the nephew of the Wilkes brothers.

Not even namesakes

Attempts to turn Land Rover into something comfortable have been made almost from the first days of the brand’s existence. Calling these developments the predecessors of the Range Rover is hardly fair, but it’s worth talking about them.

Land Rover of the first series with a closed wood-metal body by Tickford

Back in 1948, the so-called “80-inch Station Wagon” was created, the “Station Wagon with an 80-inch wheelbase”: in fact, an ordinary Land Rover, on the chassis of which a closed three-door body from the Tickford studio was hoisted. Due to the laborious bodywork on a wooden frame, the station wagon was much more expensive than the usual Land Rover. At the same time, the car retained a shaky spring chassis and a weak two-liter engine. So from 1948 to 1951, only 641 cars were assembled.

The idea of ​​a comfortable Land Rover came back in the early fifties. But the designer Gordon Bashford chose a rather strange concept for the car under the symbol Road Rover. The high body of the simplest design with flat panels in the spirit of the classic Land Rover was supposed to be mounted on the shortened rear-wheel-drive chassis of the Rover P4 passenger sedan. The front independent spring suspension guaranteed excellent ride and controllability, but the lack of all-wheel drive limited cross-country ability.

One of the prototypes of the Road Rover in the late fifties at the factory.

By 1956, the concept had changed – the “second series” Road Rover went into operation. The three-door station wagon, due to the fashionable flowing shapes and panoramic windows, made it look like passenger cars; the wheelbase was increased to 98 inches (2.5 meters), and the suspension and disc brakes were borrowed from the newest Rover P5 sedan. The car was very close to mass production – so much so that the drawings of the body were even given to the toy manufacturer Corgi Toys. Production of the Road Rover was planned to begin in 1960-1961, but in the end, the company chose not to spray forces and focus on the P5 sedan. Most likely, it’s for the best – Road Rover’s failures on the market, ten years later we wouldn’t see a Range Rover.


While working on the Rover P6 midsize sedan, Spencer King thought that replacing the spring suspension with a long-travel spring suspension could radically improve the smoothness of the Land Rover SUV.

He shared his idea with his cousin – Rover technical director Peter Wilkes, and chassis designer Gordon Bashford. Wilkes saw the potential in the idea, and together with Bashford took over the design.

Already in the first sketch drawings, disc brakes appeared along with the spring suspension. After all, the drum mechanisms were enough for a slow Land Rover with a low-power 4-cylinder engine, and a promising model should have received a more powerful engine. Much later, in an interview, Bashford mentioned that he was building on the largest engine available – the 3.0 inline six from the Rover P5 sedan. The unit in a derated version of up to 110 forces was even installed on an experienced Land Rover.

Spencer King played a significant role in the development of the Rover 2000 sedan (in-house designation P6)

In the course of work on the layout of a promising SUV, Bashford increased the wheelbase from 80 inches for the base Land Rover to 99.9 inches, and as a result, rounded it up to one hundred (2540 millimeters).

A marketer is a designer’s best friend

Automotive journalists love to contrast designers and marketers. But it was the marketing department that helped the Range Rover to take place: it is very possible that without their intervention the car would not even have left the stage of preliminary design.

The fact is that Managing Director William Martin-Hirst (another relative of the Wilkes brothers – his sister Barbara was the wife of Rover boss Maurice Wilkes) hoped to strengthen the company’s position in America: then all British manufacturers were betting on the US market – this was called the “export or die. ” For this purpose, Martin-Hirst appointed a new management team to the American division in 1962, and in 1965 sent his man to the United States for reconnaissance.

In the first half of the sixties, several SUVs appeared in the United States at once, clearly leaving the army-economic purpose for family entertainment: this is the International Harvester Scout (1961).

Marketing Research Manager Graeme Bannock on the spot figured out how to please American buyers. The result was a multi-page report submitted to management in July 1966.

We are only interested in a few very apt remarks made by Bannock. In his report, he wrote that the vast majority of American Land Rover buyers live in the suburbs (and by no means in the countryside), and use the car off-road only sporadically. But they love the image of cool adventure seekers that an SUV gives them. Sounds like the logic that led to the crossover boom in the 2000s, doesn’t it?

The marketer noted that American automakers had already grasped this trend, and began to produce more or less comfortable SUVs intended for entertainment rather than work – like the International Harvester Scout (in 1961), Jeep Wagoneer (in 1963) or Ford Bronco ( in 1965).

Range Rover creators (from left to right): Chief Designer David Bache, designers Spen King and Gordon Bashford

Inspired by the report, Rover CTO Peter Wilkes approved the project for the new SUV and ordered a move from paper-based design to building the first prototype. In the nineties, marketer Graham Bannock said in an interview: while working on the report, he did not even suspect that Spen King was already creating such a machine! And the bitter irony is that the Range Rover, conceived with the expectation of America, reached the US market only twenty years later, already in the late eighties …

V8 engine

Long before the report, it was clear that Land Rovers were sorely lacking thrust-to-weight ratio. SUVs were supplied with four-cylinder engines of 2.0 and 2.25 liters, developing 52 or 72 forces.

But this was especially noticeable in the United States with their abundance of smooth and straight highways. The head of the American division, Bruce McWilliams, said: on the highway, Land Rover was so slow that many buyers were forced to drive it to the off-road sortie on a rigid hitch behind a car or pickup truck – as they now carry an ATV on a trailer.

This is the American prototype of the Rover V8. GM Buick has been developing the low-displacement V8 since 1956. The result was a light and powerful engine that developed from 150 to 200 forces, depending on the carburetor model and settings. By the way, it was originally planned to use an all-aluminum block with a special coating of cylinders, but in the end they settled on more traditional cast-iron liners.

McWilliams began to look for a suitable American V8, and in 1963 even looked at the Chrysler engine for this role. But Rover Company managing director Martin-Hirst found a better option. While on a business trip to the United States, when he was trying to attach a Land Rover diesel to an outboard motor, he came across a compact aluminum V8 in the Mercury Marine workshops.

It was a freshly discontinued 215 cubic inch (3.5 liter) Buick engine with an aluminum block and cast iron liners. The motor weighed only 144 kilograms, and was a completely fresh development – mass production began in 1961, and already in 1963, for various reasons, was stopped. The engine was installed on compact models Buick Special, Buick Skylark and some related Oldsmobile and Pontiac models.

And this is an Anglicized version of the American engine: this is clear from the valve covers with the Rover inscription. By the way, in the photo, the engine along with the all-wheel-drive transmission from Range Rover.

It took almost a year to persuade the bosses of General Motors to sell the license. By January 1965, William Martin-Hirst agreed to sell the rights to this engine and move its production to England. Over the next 18 months, the British adjusted its design to the capabilities of the Solihull plant and prepared the production lines.

The prestigious Rover P5 sedan with a new V8 engine received the “B” index in the name (which means “Buick”)

The first, in 1967, this engine received a large sedan Rover P5, which gave it a second youth in the English market. The power was by no means overwhelming: on passenger Rovers, the engine developed 160 forces, for Range Rover it was derated to 135 forces.

Experienced 1967 Land Rover Series IIA, which tested the V8 engine for Range Rover. The historic car has survived to this day and is in the Dunsfold collection

The main thing is that the combination of excellent traction on the “bottom” and a relatively “twisting” character gave the Range Rover the ease of habits that drivers appreciate so much. The high-torque nature of the engine allowed the designers to choose sufficiently “long” transmission ratios, giving the SUV a comfortable character on highways. The maximum speed of the very first Range Rover reached an impressive 153 kilometers per hour – that is, the cruising speed on the freeway could easily be kept at 120 kilometers per hour.

The most notable change to the engine when production was moved to the UK was the switch to Zenith-Stromberg carburettors.

Prototypes: from Land Rover to Range Rover

In the summer of 1966, Rover Company Technical Director Peter Wilkes ordered work on prototypes of the new SUV to begin.

Interestingly, the engineers from the Land Rover division took the rumors about the new car with hostility: either the very idea of ​​an SUV with a spring suspension seemed absurd to them, but rather they were unhappy that people from another division were climbing into their off-road “clearing” … But, as an experienced politician, Wilkes assigned the task to one of Land Rover’s designers, Jeff Miller.

In the course of design work, a simplified version of the chassis with a rear leaf spring suspension was considered and rejected, at the insistence of Bill Martin-Hirst, the frame was strengthened based on the pickup version (which in the end never appeared), and a budget four-cylinder modification with a 2.0 engine from the Rover 2000 sedan or 2.25 from Land Rover (both were eventually dropped).

The first prototype with the factory designation “100/1”, built in the summer of 1967, in proportions resembled the serial Range Rover and immediately had a V8 engine. But technically, he was much closer to the usual Land Rover.

For example, the frame was made in the most primitive way – each closed-section spar was welded from four flat steel strips. The all-wheel drive transmission with a condo gearbox and a rigid front axle connection was entirely borrowed from the Land Rover, as were the axles with drum brakes. The suspension, although it was spring-loaded, was very different in design from the serial one: for example, the British copied the scheme from the Ford Bronco in front. In the very first tests on the high-speed ring, this prototype developed 160 kilometers per hour.

In this photo, behind the wheel of a prototype – the former head of Rover Spencer Wilkes, after retirement, retained the post of president for life. The car was taken to his Scottish estate.

The second prototype “100/2” was already much closer to the serial Range Rover. The frame spars were welded according to the method of passenger Rovers, from two C-shaped profiles (the design was preserved on the serial Range Rover), the brakes became disc brakes, and Panhard’s thrust was added to the front suspension (the Ford scheme had inherent problems with shock steering).

Range Rover got permanent all-wheel drive almost by accident. Designer Spen King was confident that Land Rover’s standard rear gearbox would not handle the thrust of a V8 engine – and would have to switch to a larger and heavier axle, which would inevitably impair ride quality. But his colleague Jeff Miller suggested trying a permanent all-wheel drive – in this case, the thrust is divided in half, and the load on the rear gearbox with axle shafts is reduced (the Niva developers were guided by a similar logic). Miller recalled that the company had already experimented with such a transmission ten years earlier – and, having tracked down experimental units in the warehouse, they were installed on prototype number two!

The rear suspension used a Boge Hydromat hydraulic self-priming strut, which, when loaded, keeps the level of the body unchanged (number 3 in the photo). This allowed us to maintain the high smoothness that long soft springs provide: otherwise the stiffness of the rear springs would have to be significantly increased.

True, the company did not have a suitable gearbox for the Range Rover – it had to be taken from a military truck that was being developed in the same years. This LT95-indexed four-speed automatic transmission didn’t grace the Range Rover at all, but it was put in place for almost ten years until a replacement was found.

Design without designers (almost)

From the very beginning, the Range Rover body was conceived as a three-door – Spen King believed that this was the only way to achieve the necessary strength. There were probably other reasons: the British clearly looked back at the American experience, and most cars of this type (Ford Bronco and International Scout) then had only two side doors.

However, when the time came, there were no more resources for body design – all the employees of the style department were working on other projects. So the engineers had to deal with the bodywork – with the informal help of one of the designers, Jeff Crompton (the fruits of their work can be seen on the prototype “100/1”).

Range Rover could be like this: the photo shows a plasticine model in 1: 4 scale, designed by David Beich

In the summer of 1967, Rover’s chief designer David Beich still found time to tackle a new four-wheel drive. In its embodiment, the SUV looked very passenger-like – most of all it resembled a large three-door hatchback with large wheels: a wedge-shaped front end, a strongly inclined windshield, a steeply inclined third door, horizontal optics inscribed into the rear bumper … (We seem to have motives from today Fiat Ritmo, but this car appeared much later).

But “Range Rover’s father” Spen King rejected the design as not practical enough and not technological. So in the end, instead of creating a completely new look, David Beich had to refine the appearance of the existing prototypes.

Plasticine model, on which two variants of body design were worked out. The right half of the model shows a rib on the edge of the bonnet, which has become an important part of the Range Rover identity. But the serial grille looks more like the option on the left half of the layout.

Perhaps it is for the better: the proportions of the experimental cars were already quite good, and with small touches, the master gave the SUV a recognizable image. The embossed “belt” on the sidewall was visually combined with massive optics and a radiator grille, and the hood was supplemented with ribs along the edges – they served both as a style element and increased the rigidity of the hood.

The Range Rover’s body was made using a very intricate technology – with a steel frame, but aluminum outer panels. The only exception was the hood: it was not possible to stamp a large aluminum part with ribs at the edges, so it was made of steel.

Naming problems

During the work, the new SUV was called Project Oyster, “Project Oyster” – but that was an internal designation.

And when a full-size plasticine mockup was prepared in the fall of 1967, designer Tony Poole came up with the idea: there is not enough logo on the hood! – and from the available letters he typed the inscription “Road Rover” on the end of the hood. The photo even got into the press, giving rise to another myth. But in reality, no one was going to call the car that – King always insisted on this in his interviews.

Double-sided plasticine model recreated for the Range Rover anniversary. ‘Road Rover’ lettering is clearly visible on the hood edge

In fact, the company was going to call the car Land Rover Ranger, and the name “Range Rover” in the fall of 1968 was suggested by the same Tony Poole. Everyone liked this option: the word Range (“range”, “area”, “range”) hinted at long journeys or mountain ranges (another meaning of the word), and Rover (“wanderer”) meant kinship with the parent brand. The only drawback was the gap with the Land Rover brand – all the cars had to be attached with “by Land Rover” nameplates on the stern.

Initially, all Range Rovers were supplied with such a plate, which clarified the genealogy of the model.

But before finally becoming a Range Rover, the SUV received the Velar nameplate. This was the designation for the pre-production cars that were tested in Europe and North Africa – to confuse journalists. And almost half a century later, this name was given to the new Range Rover model.

For testing pre-production Range Rovers, Velar nameplates were installed. By the way, the photo shows the oldest Range Rover that has survived to this day: this is a prototype with the serial number “100/6”, which took part in a race across North Africa.

A decade of missed opportunities

Range Rover work began when the Rover Company was an independent firm. But in 1966 it was swallowed up by the British Leyland state-owned automobile holding, which united almost the entire British auto industry. It includes extremely motley brands: “folk” Austin and Morris, sports MG and Triumph, luxury Rover, Jaguar and Daimler, Leyland cargo …

The mirrors at the corners of the hood are a sign of early cars. They moved to doors by the end of the seventies

Here, the Range Rover story could well have ended before it began – as part of some kind of reorganization, unification, production optimization or cost reduction (as is usually the case with effective managers). But the head of BLMC, Donald Stokes, liked the car – and the fate of the SUV was decided positively.

Seventies, Range Rover assembly at the Solihull plant

One of the consequences of the merger was the postponement of the start of production to an earlier date. The management of the company hoped to set up serial assembly in the early months of 1970 – so that it would have an official premiere at the Geneva Motor Show in March. The reasons were rather political: Lord Stokes, who headed BLMC, hoped to show the effectiveness of the new structure, annually presenting two new products. However, the indicated dates were unrealistic: despite the full exertion of forces, the car was presented to the public in the summer of 1970.

These are impressive footage from the first test drive for journalists in 1970.

Now we can say: given the warm welcome of the Range Rover buyers, an earlier debut was justified. There is nothing more good to write about Land Rover’s stay with British Leyland Motor Corporation. Everything that the company made from the success of the Range Rover went into the bottomless pit of the unprofitable BMC division (Austin / Morris / Wolseley).

The symmetrical instrument panel of simple outlines made it possible to use one part for cars with right and left steering. Rover’s designers have repeated this trick on the Rover SD1 luxury hatchback.

As a result, there was not enough money for anything: they even had to abandon the creation of a luxury version of the interior. The introduction of air conditioning, automatic transmission and other options was delayed for years. But there was effective demand for richly equipped cars! He gave birth to a number of companies involved in the refinement of Range Rover SUVs: for example, in the late seventies, Schuler specialists put on stream the installation of the hardy three-speed automatic Chrysler Torqueflite A727 with a Voith transfer case (although this increased the price of the car by a quarter).

Introduced in 1982, the Chrysler Torqueflite A727 was installed on Range Rovers for only three years. The Chrysler box is easily recognizable by the distinctive angular selector lever and the same style transfer case knob.

On serial Range Rovers, such a box appeared only in 1982 – thirteen years after the debut of the car … And this despite the fact that the machine gun was on Spen King’s plans back in 1967! By the way, in the same “product offer” an air conditioner was also specified – which appeared on production cars only in 1980.

The prototype of the five-door Range Rover was assembled shortly after the model’s debut in 1971. This initiative ended in nothing.

But the most egregious example is the fate of the five-door Range Rover. Back in 1968, people in the sales department in a meeting with developers called the lack of such a version a “tragedy.” At their insistence, the advanced development department, back in 1971, completed an experimental body with four side doors, designed for a serial chassis with a conventional wheelbase. But due to lack of money, the development was put on the shelf!

Five-door Range Rover by the Swiss studio Monteverdi. It can be recognized not only by the nameplates, but also by the beveled edge of the tailgate. However, it is extremely unlikely to meet such a car: in total, about 160 cars were manufactured.

One can imagine what was the unsatisfied demand if half a dozen different firms were involved in the conversion of three-door Range Rovers into five-door ones. Of these, the most famous was the Swiss company Monteverdi, which started small-scale production in 1980. The quality of the rework was so high that Monteverdi products were even approved for sale through an official Land Rover dealer network. And the cars found buyers despite the price one and a half times higher than the original!

At the factory, the five-door version of Range Rover was mastered only in 1982

The British mastered the release of their own, factory version of the five-door only by 1982. And they took the Monteverdi design as a basis – and paid royalties to the Swiss for several more years!

A quarter of a century in the ranks

When the Range Rover was launched in 1969 in Solihull, BLMC marketers predicted an SUV of eight years. They could hardly imagine that its production would last more than a quarter of a century – the last cars rolled off the assembly line in 1996! Over the years, Range Rover has not only become a popular SUV, but a model for all cars of this kind, and in a sense – a harbinger of the crossover boom of the 2000s.

By the way, the legendary “Range Rover’s father” Spencer King condemned this phenomenon. In any case, in those ugly forms that force people to buy ever larger, more powerful, and voracious four-wheel-drive vehicles. “Unfortunately, SUVs have become an alternative to prestigious sedans from BMW or Mercedes for pompous narcissistic drivers. To use them to take children to school, and, in principle, in cities – is complete stupidity! ” – bluntly he told reporters once. Remember Spena, when you choose something brutal for yourself to carry one and only yourself to the office on a three-lane asphalt highway.