It is the story of how a modern mechanical marvel became a very expensive handbag. Or a tank coated in money. It is how an effort to create a simple testament to the joy of modernity became a complicated, fussy, trinket of the rich, and how one of the great motor vehicles of our time became an international brand, and then got passed around the globe.
The Range Rover: It all started so simply, so brave and bold, and as something to love, only to become a comfort to the wealthy.
Who need no comfort. Obviously.
Launched in 1970, the original Range Rover was the product of the kind of quirky, British thought-twirling that was behind the equally inspiring Mini. At the time, Land Rover was producing the 4x4 that bore its name, and these chunky, funky take-on-the-world pleasers had, by the end of the 60s, established themselves around the world as being the solution to the challenge of overland transport where tarmac was not available.
Everybody who came into contact with the Land Rover, it seemed, loved it in its various butchy permutations, from the Queen downwards and upwards.
The Range Rover, what was to be the Land Rover’s swishier and groovier sister, was largely the product of some whimsical thinking on the part of Spen King, Gordon Bashford and Phil Jackson. Military spending cuts had put the willies up Land Rover (which not unsurprisingly was hugged to the heart of the British military establishment and dropped onto battlefields the world over). With a potential slackening in production for the armed forces, perhaps an urbanised model could find a market with the, you know, establishment types?
If not, then surely the bloody farmers would want one?
Which proved to be a correct assumption.
And then some.
Gangsta rappers driving around very slowly in incredibly shiny Range Rovers would follow many years later. But in the 70s the Range Rover quickly became the über-understated badge of the urban/country wealthy, who also used them to drive around in very slowly.
There was not very much actual luxury in this luxury version of the parent Land Rover until the 80s. One of the original selling points was that you could open the doors – two when launched – and hose the interior down.
Try that today and see what happens.
A four-door version didn’t even arrive until the early 1980s (because, you know, it was such a success, so why bother?), but what the Range Rover did have in that original, simple, box-perfect version was simplicity, the appearance of power (you had to climb up to get into it) and class. The Range Rover was big, imposing and understated.
As an example of motor vehicle aesthetic, it was near perfection.
And so it continued to be until the Americans finally noticed what was sitting under their noses. Before 1987 the Range Rover had been sold on the ‘grey market’ in the U.S. and had built up a passionate and select following. After 1987, when it started to sell officially in the States, that almost cult appreciation turned into real commercial value, and in the process helped pave the way for the SUV market which would later become so controversial.
The second-generation Range Rover (blander, more conventional in its styling, less fun) arrived in 1995 and the third generation in 2002 (it’s been tinkering, and bolting on and off toys and gizmos since then), and no matter the evolutionary pains, everyone loves the Range Rover. It may be less exclusive today that it was, and less discernible in a very crowded and controversial market, but it remains popular and as elitist as ever. It may not stand for much anymore beyond being a symbol of wealth and privilege, but it still retains its ability to impose on its neighbours and annoy the environmentalists.
For which we should be entirely grateful.