Classic Range Rover transformed into a modern supercar

Range Rover Chieftain - classic Range Rover modified by Jensen Automotive International with new supercharged engine, modified running gear and luxury interior
Credit: Andrew Crowley

Just outside Banbury is a boring-looking industrial estate. A few ramshackle buildings, a new housing estate and a nursery garden. Nothing much to set the pulse racing unless you’re into compost. But if you pull left off a newly surfaced road and up a bumpy track, you’ll find Unit D. And this is where the magic happens.  

This is the home of Jensen International Automotive (JIA). You may have heard of it. They’re the guys who started souping up old Interceptors and FFs in 2010. Founded by managing director and engineer David Duerden and backed by Carphone Warehouse mogul Sir Charles Dunstone, the idea was to take the sublimely beautiful but famously unreliable cars and supercharge them.

It doesn’t end there. Add a new 556bhp, 6.2-litre V8 engine, gearbox, suspension, electrics and brakes, as well as a heated windscreen, an Apple Play flat-screen in the front and so on. Modern car inside, Seventies car outside. A year’s work for the mechanics and a price tag of about £280,000 – most are made to order for multi-millionaires, who shrug at the cost. One of the cars currently in the Banbury workshop, a powder-blue number with cream trim, is destined for Mauritius.

They had done 20-odd Interceptors, explains Durran Heslop, the firm’s marketing man, when they started casting around for another idea. What else could they tart up?

“Could we do it to an E-type? No, we couldn’t take the original engine out, that would be sacrilege,” he said. “Can’t do it to an Aston. And then we thought about the old Range Rover, which had a V8 in it but nothing special, it was only the old Rover engine.”

Sophia with the JIA-modified Range Rover Chieftain, with a supercharged V8 engine, uprated running gear and a luxury interior in the bodyshell of the original Range Rover Credit: Andrew Crowley

“What clinched things was when delivering a customer’s Jensen. He said, ‘While you’re here, can you do something about the trim in my Range Rover, it’s a bit tatty.’ I said ‘Of course,’ jumped in and, my goodness, I’d forgotten how agricultural these things are to drive. It’s slow, thirsty, doesn’t handle, doesn’t stop. So I thought, ‘How could we approach that?’”

They bought a 1993 Classic Range Rover on eBay and, back in Banbury, started playing. “And instead of putting lipstick on a pig, we went for root and branch change,” says Heslop. “One of the biggest issues was the way it rode and handled and that’s down to the chassis. The early Seventies ones were genuinely nausea-inducing. So what could we do? We wanted to keep it all Jaguar Land Rover, keep it in the family.”

Luckily, at the time Duerden was driving a 2004 Land Rover Discovery 3, the first Discovery to have a fully independent suspension system. So that noble steed was sacrificed to the cause. The chassis from Duerden’s Discovery was whipped out from underneath it and, although it didn’t quite fit the Classic, the pair realised it could work with “a bit of modification”.

JIA's Durren Heslop with the Chieftain, which is instantly recognisable by its low stance and wider wheelarches Credit: Andrew Crowley

And, blimey, have they done some work. “Having got it to handle right, we thought we should add more power,” says Heslop. “Do we just go with the normally aspirated LS3 with 430bhp, or do we go for the supercharged engine?” Silly question. So, as with the Interceptors, the Range Rover comes with General Motors’ 6.2-litre V8 supercharged LSA engine.

Two-and-a-half years later, JIA has revealed the Range Rover Chieftain. It’s a £280,000 beast which, to the average punter, looks exactly like the Range Rover Classic of 1970. (Although the Chieftain has four doors and the Classic only had two until 1981, I know. No letters on the subject, please.) But then you get into the Chieftain and turn it on – keyless ­entry – and you realise it’s like comparing a vintage tractor to a SpaceX rocket. The noise! It’s as if you’re riding a Kalahari lion. And it accelerates about as quickly too – 0-60mph in 4.5 seconds.

Not bad for a 2.5-tonne mammoth. (The original Classic took 13.9 seconds to wheeze to 60mph.) I roar past a couple of blacked-out modern Range Rover Vogues on the M40. Deeply satisfying. Top speed? Heslop laughs nervously. He isn’t sure since they haven’t officially tested it. “Quick,” he says, “but that’s not necessarily what it’s all about with this. The reason you have a 200-watt hi-fi is not to listen to it at 200 watts. You get the best quality at the lower registers. Same with this.”

The original car's utilitarian interior has been replaced by luxury materials and modern niceties Credit: Andrew Crowley

A few other drivers double-take. Little wonder. The original Range Rover was a very handsome car. A British emblem. A car that was originally more favoured by dukes and gentleman farmers than footballers. A car often credited these days with sparking the SUV market. A car I remember bouncing around in the back of as a child in the Eighties because my dad had a racing green version that smelled of dog – Hungarian vizslas, if you’re asking. Very Range Rover, them.

The Chieftain, fortunately, does not smell of dog. JIA charged Monk Design (which mainly does superyachts) to overhaul the interior and the result is expensive cream leather all round, as smooth as Barry White in a wetsuit, but with nods to the original design. Traditional dials. Original seats and arm rests, albeit covered in that nice leather. Original indicator stalk which, back in the day, had to be farmer-friendly and capable of being operated “by a gloved hand”.

It’s been transformed into a supremely comfortable and impressive car with more power than any other Range Rover on the market. Given its cost, JIA doesn’t expect it to be rolling off-road much but if you need to drag it across a muddy field on a shooting weekend it could. Equally, it’s happy enough to sit cruising at 60mph on Oxfordshire roads, rolling into the corners and out of them with the gravitas of a vehicle on armoured reconnaissance.

To the manner born: the Chieftain builds on the strengths of the original Range Rover, which lays claim to being the world's first luxury SUV Credit: Andrew Crowley

Early last year, I went to Gaydon, Jaguar Land Rover’s design and engineering centre, for a preview of the Range Rover Velar. Gerry McGovern, chief design officer, talked various journalists though the latest in the Range Rover family. He used a photo of a Louboutin shoe (the ones with red soles, chaps) to denote Range Rover’s desirability as a brand.

Similarly, at the Geneva motor show in March, he unveiled the most expensive Range Rover ever made, the Range Rover SV Coupé. Only 999 will be made and they’ll set you back £240,000. So while the modern Range Rover continues to position itself as a global status symbol for the super-rich, the Classic remains a less flashy icon from a different age. But this does beg the question of who JIA thinks will buy the Chieftain, given that it costs so much itself.

Well, says Heslop, they’ve already had inquiries from Britons, from America, from Germany. And several from the Middle East. “Before they developed their road network, everything was off road,” says Duerden, while discussing the Gulf specifically, “and the best off-roaders in the world throughout the Seventies and Eighties were Range Rovers. So I believe there’s a significant market there.”

Fast lady: with its supercharged, 6.2-litre Corvette engine, the Chieftain accelerates from 0-60mph in 4.5 seconds - the 1970 Range Rover took 13.9 seconds Credit: Andrew Crowley

They’re appealing to a niche within a niche, they admit – clients who have the cash for a serious toy but are also nostalgic, after a piece of history instead of, say, Rolls-Royce’s first SUV, the Cullinan, which was unveiled last week and will cost from £250,000.

So if you happen to be an Arab sheikh or a wistful British toff, head down to Banbury for a play. This is a properly cool bit of kit.

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