50 years of Range Rover: Mk1 prototype meets latest generation

The first prototype was built in July 1967 and had the silhouette of a Range Rover but not the details (see the Ford Transit bumpers). And all-important coil springs aside, it traded heavily on Land Rover hardware, using axles, selectable four-wheel drive and drum brakes from the utilitarian workhorse. There was prototype full-time four-wheel drive, a Boge Hydromat self-levelling strut to maintain ride height at the back – allowing both suppleness and stability, regardless of payload – and all-round disc brakes. A third prototype emerged in July 1969 and replaced the original exterior design with a more refined aesthetic that was instantly recognisable as the production model, which nowadays is known as the Range Rover Classic. So as not to arouse suspicion, these cars were branded ‘Velar’(referencing the Italian velare – to veil) and registered miles away in Croydon. It’s one of these cars we’ve come to drive on the estate surrounding Land Rover Experience London at Luton Hoo. Best known by its reg, YVB 166H (or just ‘166’), it is now owned by Richard Beddall, co-founder and trustee of the 143-strong Dunsfold Collection of Land Rovers that was founded in 1968 to preserve the marque’s history. Crathorne bought 166 from Rover for a trifling £400 in 1972, and thereafter used it as his family car, including holidaymaking trips to Spain and Greece. The car was sold on in 1979, but Beddall rescued it from a shipping container in a Welsh forest eight years ago. In a sorry state, it had been stripped of its engine, which he replaced as part of an immediate restoration.Its body and chassis are original, as is the gearbox – a production-spec manual with integrated dual range (co-developed for a military Land Rover project) and offering eightforward ratiosand two reverses. Inspired by the Rallye des Cimes in the Pyrenees, it was sponsored by Senior Service cigarettes and became the first speed-based off-road event of its kind in the UK, scaling mountains, galloping along tracks, grappling through bogs and fording rivers across central Wales. Having completed its core engineering duties, 166 was chosen for the task, although a fear of failure in some company quarters led to it being entered for the event by the Rover Owners’ Association. Despite the misgivings, the seriousnessof the entry was not to be doubted, as technical director Peter Wilks gave the green light to use non-OEM Dunlop tyres for the event. There was also hesitance from Crathorne himself, who prefers to treat the natural environment more carefully: “The most important thing is to get from A to B as safely as possible without breaking the eggs,” he tells me. Meanwhile, the leaf- sprung Land Rovers bucked and dived across the terrain, their occupants – and sometimes their panels – regularly escaping their moorings. In contrast, 166 loped along, its languid springs absorbing the landscape’s ire, leaving the crew in superior control and relative comfort while the sturdy V8 roared away. Bad weather made for tougher conditions: half the field didn’t finish and a works Ford Bronco 4.7 shed its rear axle. Today, 49 years later, that trophy is sitting proudly in 166’s load bay alongside the hammer that Crathorne used to bash the steel Rostyles back into shape after any unfortunate clatterings. While thankfully not over-restored, the car looks unexpectedly handsome – lithe, even – next to its modern heir, the absence of bulky skirts and bumpers lending an almost athletic stance. Making a mockery of its entry-level status, our Vogue-spec interior is a mosaic of luxury finishes with aspirational names straight from Prince Harry’s travel schedule: Windsor leather, Kalahari wood, Morzine headlining. But one glance at 166’s cabin confirms that Range Rover was not originally a watchword of opulence: it’s a festival of faded black plastic and fracturedbeige vinyl, while the lashed-on rev counter signals the paucity of standard-fit niceties. Autocar’s 1972 description starkly illustrates how much the nameplate’s attitude to swankhasshifted since, as these words from the time attest: “It is a car for the man who has no time to attend to carpets, walnut facings and luxurious hide upholstery.” But 166’s skinny pillars and expansive glazing offer a lovely feeling of light and unfettered visibility the current model can’t touch, while the high seating position lets you plot the course of that square-set clamshell bonnet with ease. The wand-like gearshift has a throw that’s absurdly long by modern standards, especially laterally, but it docks pleasingly into each nook with a gritty thunk. The stubby range selector lever is quite the opposite, needing the briefest shove to engage, while the centre differential lock is a simple vertical organ stop. Adding the handbrake by my left leg, the area between the front seats is a mass of black tentacles, all the functions of which have been subsumed intounseenelectronics in the new car. We won’t be calling upon 166’s power reserves, but the production Range Rover was launched with 156bhp and 205lb ft – good enough not only for serious off-road duties and towing up to 4064kg, but also 0-60mph in 15.2sec and top clip of 95mph. Beddall reports that 166 still happily maintains motorway speeds, however, and I can feel the engine’s lustiness and keen throttle even on the estate roads. The styling is functional but elegant, the powertrain charming and the breadth of ability, from rock-crawling rally-winner to long-distance family cruiser, is made only more remarkable by its age. We drive the Vogue 90 minutes to the British Motor Museum at Gaydon to meet some of the Range Rover’s forebears, giving a chance to ponder its polished dynamics. From dual-carriageway to subsident B-road, there’s comfort and composure that are alien to 166 thanks to engineering leaps such as independent suspension, air springs, adaptive damping and hydraulic roll control,not to mention a surfeit of urge and an eight-speed auto ’box whose shifts are as disposable as the original’s are physical. Truth is, this very car could probably have won the Senior Service Hill Rally without a single modification (save perhaps the tyres). It has the hardware for the job: twin-speed transfer box, locking centre and rear e-diffs and up to half again the ground clearance of the Classic.Then there are the electronic traction aids that make heroes even of off-roading novices. “We put a lot into ride and handling and tyre development was also important – we needed it to run gross vehicle weight at 90mph-plus. Here are three earlier efforts… Land Rover Station Wagon (1948-1951): Borrowing the American ‘station wagon’ label, this multi-purpose 4x4 people carrier was outsourced to Tickford, which applied a mahogany-framed aluminium-alloy body atop a reinforced 80in Series I. It featured four folding, inward-facing rear seats and the split tailgate later assumed by all Range Rovers. Matt Saunders: The Range Rover is inextricably linked to one my happiest memories of driving, primarily because it was the first car I actually drove. I was on holiday with my folks and we were staying in the kind of French rural idyll where you can drive a 10-mile round trip to the nearest village for your daily croissants and pain de campagne and not see another car. Rarely had that lad felt greater freedom than when spinning that oversized, deliciously raked, chubby-rimmed beige leather steering wheel through turn afterturn oflock andgently feeding the heavy clutch in so as not to make the old man uncomfortable. By lucky hap there just happened to be a Range Rover LSE complete with air springs and a 4.2-litre V8 hanging around the Autocar & Motor offices. James Ruppert: It would be wrong to believe that the Chelsea Tractor is a recent social phenomenon, when in fact there were early adopters in the ’80s.