Range Rover at 50: much more than a luxury SUV

An iconic blend of luxury and practicality, as well as a Royal favourite, no other manufacturer can match the Range Rover's versatility

A classic Range Rover
The original luxury SUV - the Range Rover - has turned 50 years old

Not every Range Rover was built with luxury in mind. For decades, the ultimate go-anywhere vehicle has been the de facto choice for British royalty but some versions were destined for more practical purposes.

Fire tender, ambulance, stretched limousine - the Range Rover utilised a unique blend of off-road ability and supreme comfort to earn its stripes. The first vehicle to travel the length of the Americas in 1972, the car chosen as the Popemobile when the supreme pontiff visited the UK in 1982, no other manufacturer could match such versatility.

Last week, Land Rover celebrated the 50th anniversary of its iconic four-wheel drive with a celebratory ‘drive-past’ at Goodwood. The cavalcade included some of the most important Range Rovers to roll off the production line in Solihull since the very first example in 1970.

The celebratory ‘drive-past’ at Goodwood to mark Range Rover's 50th anniversary

And far from being a parade of highly pampered museum pieces, the showcase again highlighted how the Range Rover has manoeuvred its way into all walks of life. It may be regarded as a luxury SUV, but many owners tell a different story.

Range Rover convertibles are now one of the rarest models, with only a few examples still on the road. David Barker bought his 1981 soft-top at auction seven years ago with a ‘cheeky bid’ of £8,250, only to discover a ‘royal’ lineage.

No safari is complete without a royal Range Rover. Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip during their state visit to Zambia, 1979 

PMV 378W was originally a standard hardtop model in Sandglow yellow before being ‘chopped’ by Townley Cross-Country Vehicles of Kent. The 4x4 was then bought by Queen drummer, Roger Taylor, who swiftly commissioned black paintwork and a full Connolly leather interior.

“The car was a total wreck when I picked it up on a trailer. Somebody decided to re-paint the bodywork in metallic maroon and there were ugly V8 stickers down both sides,” recalls Mr Barker.

David Barker bought his 1981 Range Rover soft-top on eBay, only to find that it was previously owned by Queen drummer, Roger Taylor

The original vehicle boasted a fully electric hood, power-operated front windows and flared wing extensions. In 1981 it sold at double the list price of a standard Range Rover, over £200,000 at today’s prices.

Roger Taylor then sold the convertible in 1985 to Spinney Music – Queen’s management company, owned by lawyer Jim Beach and Freddie Mercury. “It’s quite possible Freddie was a passenger in it at some point. The electric hood is ponderously slow to operate by modern standards and the whole restoration project has cost a lot of money. It was worth it – I feel like I’m driving a piece of music history,” said Barker.

TRW 425R is a Vogue SE, originally built in 1977 and supplied to motoring journalist Anthony Howard to compete in the Paris-Dakar Rally. The car was prepared by Land Rover with a full roll cage, a 200-litre auxiliary fuel tank and a composite bonnet to save weight.

Lewis Onions and his 1977 Paris-Dakar Range Rover

“Eight years ago I was searching eBay for an old banger to take rubbish to the dump,” said owner Lewis Onions, from Warwickshire. “Scanning the listings, I noticed this car in a terrible state.”

Onions is an enthusiast and immediately recognised the car’s provenance. The Range Rover had been heavily modified again to take part in the 1983 rally, which Howard and French journalist Yves Genies drove for sponsor Dairy Crest.

Lewis Onions found the 1977 Range Rover, which had been specially modified for the Paris-Dakar rally, on eBay. 

“I paid £6,000 and then spent a small fortune on a rally specification restoration. Dairy Crest was marketing English cheese to the Continent at the time under the ‘Mister Cheese’ brand, so the car was covered in logos of a cartoon character.

“Incredibly, the Range Rover was almost dumped in the Algerian desert after breaking down with no spare parts. Thankfully, Tony Howard decided to drive slowly back to Paris – which means Mister Cheese can now be driven by Mr Onions.”

Onions says his Range Rover has become too valuable to carry rubbish. “During the 1983 rally the team got through nine sets of tyres, so it must have taken quite a battering. It’s remarkable to think where this car has been and what it has achieved.”

Former Royal Navy radar operator, Warrick Green, helps organise 4x4 rallies for the Help For Heroes charity. His 1985 Range Rover Classic is a Rapid Intervention Vehicle – a fire tender once used at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall.

Warrick Green's 1985 Range Rover Rapid Intervention Vehicle

“I bought mine 13 years ago from Westland Helicopters in Yeovil with a load of fire-fighting kit included. All the fire systems still work because everything had been impeccably maintained by the Navy.”

Green, who wears a full retro fireman suit for special events, can fill the tender with up to 1,000-litres of water, as well as fire-fighting foam. The 3.5-litre V8 carried a crew of four and saw active service until 1996.

Warrick Green's 1985 Range Rover Rapid Intervention Vehicle

“I’m glad I saved her from the scrapyard. With so much water on board it’s a top-heavy vehicle to drive. But there’s plenty of power – I’ve towed a 27ft caravan on the back to some shows.”

Philip Bashall runs the Dunsfold Collection, established in 1968 by his father Brian. The Surrey-based charity is dedicated to the preservation of Land Rover history and now has more than 130 vehicles – some of which were at Goodwood.

1985 'Beaver Bullet' Range Rover

Among them is the Beaver Bullet, a 1985 five-speed that became the first diesel-powered car to maintain an average speed of ever 100mph for 24 hours. Remarkable for the era.

“If I had to save just one Range Rover from our collection it would be that car. Land Rover made a host of modifications and the Beaver Bullet went on to break 27 sprint and endurance records. It personifies the spirit of a quite legendary vehicle,” said Bashall.

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