Classic Range RoverLow-Cost, Go-Anywhere Luxury 1987-1996It hasn't taken all that long for the U.S. new car market to become saturated with luxury sport utility vehicles. Today, without trying hard, you can buy an SUV from everyone from BMW to Volvo, with stop-offs at Mercedes, Saab and Porsche. Many are all-wheel-drive highway cruisers, with 400 or 500 hp, a host of electronic stability control systems and 20-inch performance tires. The suggestion of getting them dirty, let alone taking them off-road creates panic among their owners and confusion among their manufacturers. It wasn't always like this. There was once a unique sport utility vehicle that combined the rugged heritage of real off-road adventure travel with supple Connolly leather, Wilton wool carpeting and burl walnut accents. It was the decidedly British Range Rover.
Right, from the beginningLand Rovers came about in a convoluted way. The two gentlemen who owned Rover Cars in England had, by 1947, worn out their World War II surplus Jeep. They asked the lads in their car factory to build them another and in the process they created a crude farm implement of a vehicle that was christened Land Rover. At first, the rudimentary vehicles found a home doing tractor-like chores on small farms. Soon, adventurous Brits found that the rugged little vehicles could be counted on to travel to the corners of the globe and return safely. Land Rovers became common in Africa and South America, traveling places where roads were often little more than tracks through the jungle. At one point it was said that the first car that the majority of the people on the planet had seen was a Land Rover. With the idea that one shouldn't fix that which is not broken, the Land Rover evolved slowly, gaining a few minor comforts while maintaining its no-nonsense demeanor. Other manufacturers occasionally made inroads; Jeep certainly maintained its rugged heritage, while others like Toyota, with its Spartan and reliable Land Cruiser, took the British company's mettle in places like Central Africa. Land Rover, however, had an ace up its sleeve, an all-new vehicle quite unlike anything else in the world.
EpitaphRange Rovers continued to become more complex, luxurious and expensive. Eventually Land Rover was purchased by BMW, who sold it to Ford. Today's Land Rovers are even more luxurious, even more refined, and yes, even more expensive. They can trace their roots back to the original 1970 Range Rover, but somehow they lack the charm and honesty of that original adventure machine.
The first Range RoverThe Range Rover appeared in 1970 to tremendous acclaim. These early vehicles were not yet the luxury machines we associate with the name today, but they were both stylish and practical. Powered by an all-aluminum V8 engine that could also be found in various British car lines, and which could trace its roots back to an early Buick from the 1960s, the Range Rover was suddenly the vehicle to own if you lived in Great Britain. Because it was built by Land Rover, it could be counted on to be tough and rugged, and yet its modern coil spring suspension made its ride significantly less bone-crushing than the traditional Land Rover. The company quickly set out to prove the Range Rover to be as tough as its sibling, with an expedition crossing the dreaded Darien Gap in Central America (although, in desperation, an old battered and used Land Rover, purchased locally, ended up being the pathfinder for the brand-new Range Rovers during that historic enterprise). The Range Rover, with its powerful V8 engine, became the vehicle of choice for England's horsey set and was considered perfectly appropriate evening attire parked among Rolls-Royces, Bentleys and Aston Martins. But Land Rover was a small company and redesigning the Range Rover to meet U.S. crash and emissions regulations kept it from sending any Range Rovers our way.
Coming to AmericaIt all changed in 1987, when Range Rover of North America was formed to bring vehicles into the U.S. The launch event staged in 1989 was the first ever north-to-south traverse of the Continental Divide through the Rocky Mountains, with waves of automotive journalists doing the driving. Sport utility vehicles of the day were Jeep Grand Cherokees and Grand Wagoneers, Chevrolet Suburbans and Blazers and Ford Broncos, so the luxury and comfort of the leather-lined Range Rover blew away the motoring writers. Success was nearly instantaneous and the Range Rover was suddenly the new target for which luxury-SUV makers could aspire. The 1989 Range Rover came with a 3.9-liter fuel-injected V8 engine (up from the previous 3.5-liter V8), permanent four-wheel drive using a central viscous coupling and a two-speed transfer case, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, and a body that was made primarily out of aluminum. The suspension used live axles front and rear with soft coil springs that allowed plenty of axle articulation over rough terrain and a soft ride on the highway. It was a luxury vehicle, but one that could go almost anywhere.
Problem areasA big change occurred in 1993, when an air-suspension system replaced the steel springs and the wheelbase was increased, dramatically increasing the price and complexity of the vehicle. For many Land Rover enthusiasts, this change was the beginning of a new chapter for Range Rovers, and the ones that are most desirable are those classic steel spring cars (which continued to be available until early 1996).
Range Rovers from the late 1980s and early 1990s have several significant issues. The two-piece rear hatch and tailgate are made from steel and are prone to rusting, even in temperate climates. The steel frames also rust, as do the bolts that hold the body to the frame. The inner fender liners, rocker panels, firewall and front footwells are also prone to serious corrosion. Many body shops shy away from working with the aluminum body, another reason to buy the best car you can find. Parts for the early cars are becoming less common, although a company like Rovers North (www.roversnorth.com) does a good job supplying whatever is needed. The interior, made from acres of leather, is also expensive to repair and if you are looking at a steel spring car, you have to remember that more than 15 years of hard use has probably played a role in creating rips, scuffs, stains and tears. Electrical problems are also very common, and it's hard to find a vehicle of this age that still has all of its electric windows working.
The engine is strong enough, while transmissions probably need a rebuild sometime after they have passed the 120,000-mile mark. Suspension bushings also wear, causing the already vague steering to become more so. Finding a vehicle with a full set of service records is always a big plus. Service at Land Rover dealers is expensive, but there are some independent mechanics who specialize in these vehicles and who can save you significantly.
Why would you want one?Range Rovers were cool when they were launched, and they are still cool today. If anything, as the number and types of luxury SUVs has increased, many of which seem to be styled with all of the subtlety of athletic shoes, the elegant lines and slim window pillars of the original Range Rover have become more pleasing and distinctive. It's hard to be in a hurry when driving an old Range Rover; body roll is ample and the vehicle rocks gently when coming to a stop as its soft springs and gas shocks settle the motion of its significant mass. Off-road the Range Rover is a wonder, with its skinny 16-inch tires, soft suspension and plenty of ground clearance that put modern luxury SUVs to shame. Driving one quickly on the highway takes some learning, as the significant roll-steer of its live front axle contributes its own thoughts on vehicle path during turn-in. Still, it's all a lot of fun, and for not a lot of money, at least in the initial purchase phase. Coil spring Range Rovers built between 1989 and 1995 can be found from anywhere from $500 to well over $6,000, but it's a pittance compared to what they cost new and what you'll end up spending on maintenance keeping one on the road.