When Rover introduced the Range Rover in 1970, it combined the luxury of the company’s saloons with the unparalleled off-road ability of the workhorse Land Rover. In so doing, it created a new category of transportation, the SUV or sport utility vehicle. It has led that category ever since, obliging other manufacturers to follow.
Rover already had the aluminium 3.5-litre V-8, bought from Buick in 1965 and Range Rovers have always been powered by V-8s, except for turbo diesel options from 1984. They feature permanent four-wheel drive, four-wheel disc brakes, coils springs all round with self-levelling suspension, separate chassis with alloy body panels, and four doors from 1981. A five-speed gearbox replaced the basic four-speed in 1983 and mandatory automatic transmissions since 2002.
Designers Spen King and Gordon Bashford drew the first plans in 1966, following reports from researcher Graham Bannock who had been studying US developments, such as the International Scout, Jeep Wagoneer and Ford Bronco. The design of a 100-inch station wagon was finalized by 1969, and Tony Poole coined the term Range Rover. Permanent four-wheel drive was adopted because it enabled the V8’s 130bhp to be evenly shared between two lightweight axles.
The first 26 Range Rovers were badged as Velar, from the Italian Velare (to conceal) and the new car met with widespread acclaim, due to its elegant design and capabilities. In 1972, Range Rovers of the British Trans-America Expedition were the first vehicles to travel from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in Patagonia - including the road-less Darien Gap.
When British Leyland was nationalized in 1975, Range Rover sales subsidised numerous mediocre saloons, and no new development occurred until 1980. Meanwhile, luxury models were offered by coachbuilders, and 1981’s new four-door model soon outsold the basic two-door workhorse. Rover aimed the luxury Range Rover at Europe and America, which would become the main markets.
Range Rovers were sold in the US through the grey market until 1987, when the vehicles were officially imported by Land Rover North America. They were the only model imported until the Defender arrived in 1993. The 3.5-litre Buick V-8 was fitted with fuel injection from 1984, boosting power to 155 bhp, then bored out to 3.9-litres in 1990 and 4.2-litres in 1993 for the 108-inch wheelbase Vogue LSE.
The 1970-1995 models are referred to as Range Rover Classics and the second generation Range Rover was launched in 1995, with electronic air suspension, and traction control. A 134 bhp BMW six-cylinder turbo diesel engine was now offered as an option to the four-litre 190 bhp V-8, and the 4.6-litre V-8 in the high-performance HSE. The SUV market had become increasingly competitive, so Rover introduced the Discovery as an entry level vehicle, and increased the luxury options on the Vogue and County Range Rovers, including navigation for the first time. This was the last model with Connolly leather.
The original Buick V-8 was finally discontinued in 2002, with the advent of the third generation Range Rover, which was available in numerous limited editions. BMW now owned the Rover Group, and the Range Rover moved further upmarket with Bosch electronics and the 4.4-litre BMW 7-Series V-8 engine. The manual gearbox was finally discontinued. In 2004 the Range Rover Sport was launched. A fourth generation Range Rover was introduced in 2012 and a hybrid in 2014.
Range Rovers have been produced in a dizzying number of special editions over the years, practically a coachbuilding exercise. Early models often went in harm’s way and such workhorses are prized and difficult to find. Values of 2-door Range Rovers still clearly outperform those of later 4-door Range Rovers.
Original owners usually took very good care of progressively more sophisticated vehicles but be aware that any deferred maintenance can be catastrophic. Insist on a thorough pre-purchase inspection and examine complete records in detail, before committing to a purchase.
Alternative vehicles from the era include the more Spartan Land Rover, the Toyota Land Cruiser and the Mercedes G-Wagon.