What is the best car you have ever owned? The answer may not have much to do with speed, handling, reliability and all the stuff of practicality. The car that pushes to the front is more likely to be powered by emotion. Even unreliable money-pits can drift into abstraction when old favourites are fondly recalled. And so it will be for me early next year, when a new Range Rover goes on sale. One of its predecessors was the best car I ever owned.
The new Rangie will be a tad bigger, posher and—starting at £71,295 ($114,000)—more expensive than ever. It needs to be better, because other producers, like Bentley and Maserati, harbour ambitions to knock it off its perch with capacious ultra-plush models.
To many city dwellers, the Range Rover is an object of scorn, the archetypical Chelsea tractor. Living in the sticks, I am more forgiving, having known this car on and off throughout its 42 years. This will be the fourth generation of Range Rover. When cars survive this long, it shows how right their original designers got things. There are a number of long-lived vehicles around, including the Volkswagen Golf (now 38), the Porsche 911 (49) and the Ford Transit (47). But these vehicles set out to be what they still are—a family hatchback, a sports car and a hardworking van. The Range Rover is different. It began as one sort of car and turned into another.
That accident of birth goes back to the 1960s, when Land Rover started exploring the idea of a more civilised version of its old four-wheel-drive warhorse, now known as the Defender. This new car, the management thought, might appeal not just to farmers that wanted a bit more comfort but also families. In America, people were beginning to buy bigger truck-type cars. They would go up into the mountains, tow speedboats and do other outdoorsy things. The idea of making cars to suit lifestyles was just beginning.
It is clear that Land Rover had the country-house set in mind when the first Range Rover was launched in 1970 at £1,998 (which then would buy three Minis; now the multiple is six). It was revolutionary: permanent four-wheel-drive, space for five people, plus a couple of Labradors in the back, a punchy V8 engine delivering a top speed of more than 100mph (160kph) and able to lug a big horsebox. There were just two doors, so it wasn’t easy for three of the passengers to get in, but with a plastic interior and rubber mats it was practical and could be washed out with a hosepipe.
The moment of transformation began in 1973 when, in order to muffle a noisy gearbox, a carpet was fitted over the transmission tunnel. This looked smart, buyers liked it and it was all upmarket from there. But change came slowly: it took 11 years for a four-door model to appear and 17 before the Range Rover finally went on sale in America.
Putting on airs and graces was natural for this vehicle. Mine came in a fine 1979 shade of light beige, with a black vinyl roof. It was the ride-height that was its secret weapon. My dad liked being able to see the crops over the top of the hedges in the lanes. "I feel like Lord Muck sitting up here," he would say. It did feel rather regal looking down on other cars, most of which were smaller back then. Land Rover even has a name for this: "Command Driving Position".
As more luxury and gadgets were piled on, Land Rover played up the aristocratic tendencies to the full. The 1984 press launch for the upmarket Range Rover Vogue was held in the grounds of Althorp Hall in Northampton, seat of the Princess of Wales’s family, the Spencers (who were in attendance). A quick blast down the M1, and everyone went off-roading around the Duke of Bedford’s place in Woburn Abbey. Once Americans got their hands on them, they were left in no doubt that this was the car the Queen drove. And still does—she was photographed in one this year on her summer holiday at Balmoral.
In the 1990s, while under BMW’s ownership, Land Rover’s engineers had to fend off what had become an obvious question: if the Range Rover is now a luxury car, why bother with all this sophisticated off-road kit that most owners hardly ever use? The kit stayed, because the go-anywhere ability was integral to the car’s character, and if it was there then it had to be as good as the best off-roaders. So the new one is even more competent at churning through the mud, traversing rocks and wading through deep water. Only now you don’t even have to press a button for sand or ice, as the car detects what the surface is automatically. And it can do all this while you are cocooned in an interior which many have rated as the best in the world.
Land Rover is now Jaguar Land Rover, owned by the Indian firm Tata. The management finally have the freedom, and the investment, to make the cars they want. The new F-Type Jaguar is also going on sale next year, the first classic two-seater Jag since the legendary 1960s E-Type. Ratan Tata, the boss, likes cars and he likes Range Rovers, as do many of the wealthy classes in developing countries. So the new Range Rover is designed with an eye to them, with more room in the rear seats in case the owner has a chauffeur. And with a lightweight all-aluminium body, it is also less of a gas guzzler: the V6 diesel version claims to deliver 38mpg (7.4 litres per 100km). Old petrol V8s managed just 16mpg.
The problem is, it would be bad form to shovel sand and gravel into the back and chuck sacks of cement onto the rear seat, as I used to do. My old Range Rover was up for that, with its showy but happy-to-get-mucky nature. It felt special. Sadly, when its gearbox blew up in Barnet one night the cost of having it fixed meant she had to go. There are some classic ones remaining on the road and they still look good up against their posher descendants, not least because the proportions of the car have hardly changed. This got me wondering: was my old one still around?
There are various ways to trace old cars, often through car clubs which sometimes keep registers of the survivors. I never got that far, as the DVLA website showed that mine was last taxed in October 1998. It hadn’t been declared as being kept off the road, nor was it insured. So it has probably gone. It did, though, manage 19 years of service. Even my local garage man says I should have kept it, although he knows of a nice one still running. You know where this is leading.
THE RANGE ROVER’S RIVALS
Toyota Land Cruiser V8 Beloved of the UN (in white, of course) and tough as old boots. Less showy than a Range Rover. From £63,900
Volkswagen Touareg Like a pumped-up Golf GTi. Roomy, with good performance. Related to the Audi Q7. From £39,500
Porsche Cayenne Sports car and luxury SUV rolled into one. Surprisingly sparky in mud. From £44,400
Mercedes-Benz GL-Class A big off-roader that can seat seven in full-tilt Merc comfort. From £58,900
BMW X6 Developed from the X5, but with beefier looks. More for road than field. From £46,740