POWERFUL CLIMBER

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By Stuart Grant and Mike Schmucker behind the lens

Range Rover: the chosen vehicle for city pavement parking, tender meetings and royal weddings. But a drive in a beautifully original 1979 model reveals that the big Brit is at the sharp end when it comes to off-roading and introduced the idea that one can off-road in luxury.

For many people, heading off the beaten path is all about roughing and toughing it… but why? Surely the more the comfort and ease of use, the better? Although perhaps not intentional, this is what the Rover Company spawned when, in 1951, it started planning a model that could do the hard work on a farm in the week and then, with just a quick wash, double as a comfortable family car on weekends. The result, under the guidance of Gordon Bashford, was the Rover P4-based two-wheel-drive ‘Road Rover’ project. In ’58 the idea was parked, and remained so until 1966, when Bashford and fellow engineer Spen King cracked the nod to once again look into a multi-purpose vehicle a level up from a traditional Land Rover in terms of road usage.

It was a closely guarded secret, with prototypes given the name ‘Velar’ (development engineer Geof Miller used this as a decoy for registering pre-production prototypes). Derived from the Italian word velare, meaning to ‘veil’ or ‘cover’, the first 26 mock-ups even wore Velar badges.

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Form ever follows function – the line from American architect Louis Sullivan that is often misquoted as ‘form follows function’ – implies that the style of design should reflect its purpose. So what better way to design a machine with purpose at the core than for the engineers to set about making a body by banging it out of steel and aluminium before sending it off to the styling department? The engineers’ handiwork saw a shape with very little front and rear overhang, slab sides and square sections knocked into the front corners of the bonnet (known as Castilians, like the rook on a chessboard) – the perfect engineering solution to the problem of knowing the perimeter of your vehicle when off-roading.

Prototype roof pillars were left black (supposedly to save on painting) but gave the roof a floating look, which went on to be a notable styling cue on later Range Rovers. Massive, vertical black door handles made large enough and with plenty of room behind them that allowed hard workers to open the doors without removing their thick gloves, were clever and again became symbolic. The tail gate, which opens in two halves (with the top operating like a hatchback and the lower a traditional bakkie tail gate) took its dimensions from the need to load hay bales and a sheep or two. And the interior was designed so one could easily hose out any muck left by the livestock.

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With the basics knocked out by the engineering team the styling team, headed by David Bache, immediately felt that the vehicle looked as it should and simply tarted up a few details like grille and headlight treatment, before declaring it good to go in 1969. Now known as the Range Rover, a real multi-purpose machine and the first to offer permanent four-wheel drive, it was launched in 1970 to massive acclaim. It even made it into the Louvre in Paris as an ‘exemplary work of industrial design’… not bad for a bunch of engineers.

South Africa waited close on a decade for the Range Rover’s arrival, but when it did, the cars proudly sported ‘Built in South Africa’ plates in the engine bay – once again assembled by Leyland’s Blackheath plant in the Cape alongside Rover and Jaguar. Car magazine announced its arrival in October ’79 and in February 1980 tested one of these Range Rovers with raised bonnet lettering which, like our second-owner test vehicle, indicates it was a ’79 car (from 1980 the nose wore flat decals). Clearly bowled over by it, they opened with the line: “There are a good many capable four-wheel-drive vehicles but there is only one Range Rover!” Probably because no other 4×4 tested had ever topped 150km/h – and done it in such a comfortable, cocooned environment.

Local cars were all built to the highest specification available, with thick carpeting (laid over the original rubber mats and easy to remove for cleaning) and side-supported individual front seats decked out in fashionable herringbone-finished upholstery. To let passengers in or out of the rear seating area, the front seats tip and slide from a lever on either side, the inertia-reel seatbelts retract into the seat rather than against the bodywork, and door handles can be found at both the rear and front of the armrests. Air conditioning was also standard fitment, as was a heated rear windscreen, and for that harsh South African climate there was also subtle glass tinting. One more thing – the exposed tool/jack housing area in the back-right part of the boot on early Range Rovers was hastily fitted with a fabric cover when, it is rumoured, the Queen’s Corgis got covered in grease. 

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All very high-end and car-like, and even on our 40-year-old test unit, this theme continues to the ride – it is firm, comfortable and free of major body roll. On the rough stuff it soaks up the bumps and climbs over serious obstacles with minimal effort, and the directness of the power-assisted steering is a revelation. Front suspension is of live-axle layout and features coil springs and cast-iron forward arms, while the rear sees a live axle kept under control with trailing arms and coil springs with gas-filled self-levelling shocks that automatically adjust ride height depending on load weight. There’s 43cm wheel travel, with each axle able to operate independently of the other and for safe off-road practice, dual steering linkages and brake lines are fitted, along with heavy-duty guards covering the sump and petrol tank.

At the heart of the matter is a 3528cc V8 lump fed by a pair of Zenith Stromberg carburettors. If you’d asked me if the car was carb or fuel-injected before I looked under the hood, I’d have bet on injection because the V8 burst to life with less than half a click of the key or stab on the loud pedal. Clutch action is light and car-like, but finding a gear on the long-throw wand takes some getting used to – not that it matters much as I’d bet you could pull off in any of the four gears, with 250Nm of torque available from 2500rpm. There’s a handy locking hand-throttle under the dash that also takes advantage of the low rpm torque to keep the 1 724kg hulk trundling on the ups and downs while on a game drive.

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To cope with the harsher South African climate, our Range Rovers got a pair of electric cooling fans in addition to the standard viscous unit; to stop any strain on the system the pair were set up to come on one after the other. Other function-driven niceties included an auxiliary power point, complete with multi-wired adapter to power additional electrical camping equipment, and a collar with filter gauze that extends out from the fuel filler pipe for when you’re using a jerry can to top up the 82-litre tank. So just how thirsty is the luxurious off-roader? Surprisingly it’s not that bad when compared to the rest of the 4×4 clan, with a drinking rate of about 13.5 litres per 100km of 93-octane juice – the low-compression ratio of 8.13:1 found on early models was built with this low-octane rating in mind.

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The early 1980s saw the addition of a four-door model to the Range Rover line-up and the offerings evolved into what we see today, but to the aficionados the original series two-door V8 is the one to have. It is, after all, the vehicle that combined class leading off-road ability and hardworking skills with the comfort and driveability of a luxury sedan or wagon. If you were a brain surgeon operating Monday to Friday but living for the weekend jaunt to your remote fly-fishing spot, Range Rover was – and still is – what you want. It’d look the part at a gala dinner and even on the school run.

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All this style and versatility would have cost you R18 400 in 1980. That was double the cost of a six-cylinder Land Rover but similar to a manual Mercedes-Benz 280E, so the way I see it, you’d have saved a decent amount of cash and prime garage space by just splashing out on the vehicle that does the jobs of both those cars.

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