It's a matter of some debate as to whether the Range Rover was the first luxury SUV. Jeep had the Grand Wagoneer and Ford had some snazzy Broncos over the years, but it was the Range Rover that defined the concept.
As the Range Rover starts its fifth decade, we figured it was a good time to see just how far it has progressed. Eastnor Castle, on the border between England and Wales, was used as a test facility for the original prototype. It's still used for validation work today and is the headquarters of Land Rover Experience, a global network of centers designed to teach customers the basics of off-road driving.
Land Rover Experience was founded by Roger Crathorne, the engineer and off-road expert who developed the original Range Rover and has had a hand in every model since. "Mr. Land Rover" is here today and has brought along an original Range Rover for us to test alongside its contemporary equivalent.
Birth of the Luxury SUV
The original Range Rover happened almost by accident. It was the brainchild of Spen King, Rover's engineering chief for new vehicle projects. The idea of the "Interim Station Wagon," as it was originally known, was to combine the on-road ability of a Rover car with the off-road ability of a Land Rover. It would be the choice for well-to-do builders, farmers and army captains who needed proper off-road ability. It would be a premium product but it wouldn't be luxurious.
One of the biggest challenges to the car's conception was internal. Land Rover's chief engineer, Tom Barton, openly opposed the project. King and Crathorne were outsiders and the Range Rover, with its coil-spring suspension, was an alien concept. The original leaf-sprung Land Rover that Barton had helped design was selling well, and the company was happy to rest on its laurels. Only when he tried the finished product was Barton in any way convinced.
The vehicle that emerged in 1970 was very utilitarian. Barton wanted the interior to represent traditional Land Rover values, so the seats were vinyl and the floor was rubber so owners could hose it out when it got muddy.
"Before long we put carpet on the transmission tunnel," says Crathorne, "but that was really there to deaden the whine from the transmission. Customers asked if there was carpet on there, why couldn't they have it on the floor, too? The reality was that none of them actually hosed out their cars." As soon as the Range Rover was launched, the company was already seeking to "up-spec" the interior — the age of the luxury SUV had arrived.
Setting the Scene
Our classic Range Rover dates from 1992. Although Land Rover's heritage collection has an original three-door model, it's rarely allowed out of the museum and certainly not to engage in the kind of off-roading we're planning today.
And besides, the three-door was never sold in the U.S. Engineering it to meet U.S. emissions and safety regulations was deemed too expensive and the world's largest 4x4 market was deemed insufficiently important. Such was the standard of management in the British car industry in the early 1970s. The critical five-door version — crucial for the chauffeur market — was mothballed until 1981 and the Range Rover didn't reach the U.S. until March 1987.
Slow and Steady Progress
Our 1993 Vogue also reveals how little the Range Rover was developed over the years. The basic dashboard architecture is still recognizable from the 1970 original. It still feels basic: The wood trim stuck to the doors looks apologetic and the fascia is a collage of plastics that don't really match. It's not very luxurious and the build quality is questionable at best.
The contrast with its contemporary equivalent couldn't be starker. It's hard to believe that just six years (and one disappointing model) separated the "Classic" from the current vehicle, launched originally in 2002 and developed under the stewardship of BMW. It's been updated since with the introduction of Jaguar-sourced engines and ever more luxury.
Our test car came swamped in cream hide and boasted a wood-and-leather heated steering wheel. Crathorne admits that the idea of a Range Rover's cabin being compared to a Bentley's still feels strange, but the comparison is valid.
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Thanks to their independent coil spring suspension offering greater articulation, the early Range Rovers were actually better off-road than the leaf-sprung Land Rover. In contrast to the Landie, they also offered permanent four-wheel drive, a real novelty back then.
The original engine was a Buick-sourced V8 producing 135 horsepower. It would go on to become something of an icon in its own right, being used not just by Land Rover, but also many small-scale British sports car manufacturers, such as TVR.
By 1992, the carburetors had been replaced by Lucas fuel injection and it had been bored and stroked to 3,947cc, with an accompanying increase in horsepower to 185. It survived until 2006 and remains a hugely charismatic power plant. There's something about its lazy delivery and deep sound that made it the perfect choice for the Range Rover.
Proper English Off-Roading
Eastnor Castle is surely one of the world's best off-road venues. Some obstacles have been manmade over the years, but the best challenges remain those constructed by a higher being. If a vehicle can conquer Eastnor, it can pretty much handle anything.
We're in the old car first. On road it really does wallow, but in the rough, that translates into excellent articulation. Our car has a four-speed ZF auto, originally introduced in 1985. It offers two sets of ratios, but there are no other electronic aids.
You need to be deliberate with this Rover, but if you know what you're doing it's more than capable. We wade our way along a stream with the bow wave touching the top of the hood. It seems cruel to treat the old girl in such a way, but Crathorne is unmoved. This is what Range Rovers are built for.
The contemporary car might have a Bentley-esque cabin, but its off-road hardware is still world-leading. The biggest difference is air suspension: Faced with the stream, the new car simply picks up its skirt and dances on. The Terrain Response system that adjusts the engine, gearbox and traction settings to suit the conditions also makes life easier. If you need to make minute adjustments, then it helps to work with a detuned throttle. You no longer need Crathorne's skills to look like a hero.
The new car is an easier drive, but you do notice its bulk. The original was 176 inches long and 70 inches wide, compared with 195.9 and 80.1 inches, respectively, today. That's a dramatic change and while it's resulted in much more cabin space, it does make it harder to place on- and off-road.
We return to Eastnor HQ and park both vehicles side-by-side. The old car might look tiny in comparison, but the David Bache shape still looks great 40 years on. It had a heavy influence on the current, Geoff Upex-designed car, which is also aging well.
Back in 1992, our Vogue sold for £28,969, which is $71,800 in today's money. Our contemporary equivalent retails for $131,400 in the U.K., which is a mark of just how far the Range Rover has moved upmarket in recent times.
We leave the old stager at its Eastnor home and set off for London in the modern car. This is where the biggest difference is revealed. It's still no sport sedan, but the old-fashioned wallow is gone and this huge 4x4 can bludgeon its way across the landscape at a startling rate.
In the future, with the launch of the Evoque, the Range Rover "Range" will further distance itself from its more utilitarian Land Rover siblings. How this is managed will go a long way toward determining the brand's future, but if the Evoque and the new models that follow can maintain the spirit of the 1970 original, then they should be a huge success. Roger Crathorne wouldn't have it any other way.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds with this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.