“Mike Gould studied Rover Group archives at the University of Warwick to find the real story behind the development of the ‘100-Inch Station Wagon’ that became the Range Rover. It reveals that the model’s gestation was a troubled one…”
At the start of the sixties the Rover Company was in expansive mood. The P6 saloon car, the Rover 2000, was in development with the promise of garnering a larger share of the passenger car market for the brand. But the company was keeping an eye on its profitability, aiming at a target of2.5 million per year which, its accountants estimated, would require an output of50,000 vehicles.
With Land-Rover taking up the lion’s share of this output, this part of the company needed new products to boost sales.
The Land-Rover model programme included the development of the 2¥-litre engines and the eventual installation of the 2.6-litre six-cylinder to give a much-needed power increase. The military market was also an important one with effort going into several projects, although not all would live up to their promise.
Overshadowed by an economic crisis in Britain, these ventures were not enough to prevent Land-Rover production going onto a four-day week in 1962. There were also corporate developments with Rover acquiring Alvis in 1965. Two years later Rover was effectively taken over by Leyland Motors, owners of rival car maker, Triumph.
The Leyland merger occurred as Rover was looking again at Land-Rover whose sales were now under threat by a lack of orders from Britain’s Ministry of Defence as the Government sought to cut costs by reducing overseas commitments. A boycott by Middle East countries in the wake of the Arab-Israeli Six Day War gave further impetus to look for new models and markets.
Across the Atlantic, Rover’s American distribution company was also demanding more power for its Land-Rovers to counter the threat from a new type of vehicle. Leisure 4x 4s such as the Ford Bronco, International Harvester Scout, and Jeep Wagoneer were becoming increasingly popular. Rover’s US workshops had even modified an 88-Inch Station Wagon to equip it with the 3.5-litre V8 alloy engine, the design and production rights Rover had recently acquired from General Motors.
While there was obvious potential in this sector, the existing Land-Rover platform was too rustic to compete with sophisticated vehicles such as the Jeep Wagoneer with luxury features including a well-equipped interior, powerful engine, and automatic transmission.
Acompletely new model was clearly needed and the ‘100-Inch Station Wagon’ concept soon emerged as a favourite. Its configuration soon caused a furore with the company.
Rover’s initial market research showed that a four-door configuration, as featured by the Wagoneer, was essential. But the new vehicle was to be built on existing facilities which the planning department determined could only cope with a two-door layout.
By now Donald Stokes, chairman of Leyland Motors who were now effectively Rover’s owners had decided that the company wasn’t profitable enough. With the possibility of conquering new markets, the 100-Inch Station Wagon project was given priority and a new leader, chief engineer, Charles Spencer ‘Spen’ King.
With new Federal regulations forcing the Series II Land-Rover from the US market, development of the 100-Inch Station Wagon project gained pace. A first prototype was promised in mid-August 1967, barely four months after approval with a second following in November. And, while being initially configured around Rover’s old-fashioned side valve, six-cylinder engine, the 100-Inch Station Wagon rapidly acquired the new V8 as a power unit.
Alongside the 100-Inch Station Wagon prototypes, development work was being undertaken using Land-Rover 88-Inch Station Wagons equipped with V8 engines. The work, which included off-road testing at Eastnor Castle, quickly revealed that the standard Land-Rover driveline couldn’t handle the torque of the V8 engine.
It was therefore decided that the vehicle should have the same integrated gear and transfer box as the 1-tonne Forward Control vehicle being developed for the Ministry of Defence. The transmission was noisy with aclunky gear shift and more suitable for a military vehicle rather than for something destined for a more sophisticated market.
But it would give the 100-Inch Station Wagon permanent four wheel drive, a feature then the province of esoteric cars like the Jensen FF. The system required a centre differential with an automatic limited slip device being specified, rapidly replaced by a simpler open differential with a vacuum-operated lock.
The suspension would be equally innovative. Rather than the stiff cart springs of the Land-Rover, the 100-Inch Station Wagon would have long travel coil springs to maximise articulation cross country while giving car-like handling on the road. While said to have been inspired by Spen King driving a coil sprung Rover 2000 across a ploughed field, elements of the design owed much to the Ford Bronco set-up.
In the late 1960s Rover was working on several major projects in addition to the 100- Inch Station Wagon. These included the P8 saloon, designed to replace the Rover 3500, the smaller P9 saloon, a mid-engine sports car, codenamed P6BS which was slated to be launched as an Alvis, and the 101-Inch 1-tonne Forward Control. There was also a major upgrade to the Land-Rover which would emerge as the Series III.
This array of projects placed huge strain on Rover’s resources, especially in the styling department. Getting more and more concerned by the delay in the project, Donald Stokes by-passed the design stage, dictating that the prototype styling, with minimal refinement, would have to do.
Leyland was not only worried about timing delays. The Rover 2000, while a technical marvel, was expensive to build with a parade of modifications causing runaway cost increases. A member of Rover’s Value Analysis department was assigned to the project team to keep costs of the 100-Inch Station Wagon in check. With the design of the body and driveline already firmed up, the main area for cost reduction was the interior. The project team compromised with cheap interior materials, making a virtue out of necessity by lauding the easy cleaning aspects of the plastic seat and floor trim.
Atits launch, the vehicle, now named the Range Rover, was a sensation, its dual character emphasised by the oval ‘By Land-Rover’ badge on the tailgate and the marketing strap line ‘A Car For All Reasons’. With permanent four-wheel drive, a powerful V8 all-alloy engine, and innovative safety features including a dual-line braking system and a collapsible steering column, its shortcomings were overlooked. It would be another decade before a four door model would be available and it would begin its upward trajectory towards the world’s leading luxury 4×4.
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