Cars

Range Rovers

Boxy beauty and practicality have helped earn the original SUV its classic status, says Simon de Burton.

January 02 2010
Simon de Burton

Some people believe that Charles Spencer King has a lot to answer for. As the designer of the original Range Rover, it could be said that he caused the boom in what are nowadays referred to as sports utility vehicles, which are variously charged with destroying the planet, riding rough-shod over cyclists and, worst of all, causing terrible parking problems at the school gates.

Yet in other circles, King’s work is regarded as a stroke of genius. Examples of his inspired vehicle, which brilliantly combined the off-road capabilities of a Land Rover with the comfort of a saloon, have now achieved classic status in their original two-door format, which was produced from the official unveiling in June 1970 until 1994 (although, by then, most had the four-door body style introduced in 1981). Enthusiasts of the boxy first-generation model – known as the Range Rover Classic – favour the two-door body for its purity of line and no-nonsense interior, which featured plastic seats and rubber mats designed to be cleaned by hosepipe. The less austere trim of later years is also deemed to be acceptable among enthusiasts.

One fan is Simon Khachadourian, owner of London’s Pullman Galleries in Chelsea and St James’s, which specialise in art deco “objets de luxe”. Two years ago, he bought one of the rarest two-door models of all, a CSK special edition made in 1990 to honour Charles Spencer King. Finished in gleaming black with an immaculate leather interior, the Range Rover had enjoyed a pampered life as part of a collection owned by a Greek shipping tycoon.

“I have always loved the classic Range Rover shape and, unlike many modern four-wheel-drive vehicles, it is generally regarded with affection rather than irritation. Just 200 CSK UK versions were made and mine is number 22,” says Khachadourian.

“It has only covered 29,000 miles from new but I am adding to that fast as it is such a pleasure to use, and incredibly practical. In London, the high driving position affords excellent visibility and the superb power steering makes it very easy to park. This year I drove it to the Retromobile classic car show in Paris to buy stock, and the load area swallowed everything I could throw at it.”

Khachadourian is keeping mum about how much he paid for his CSK, but similarly good examples of the edition have been known to change hands for more than £30,000 – around the same as they cost new 18 years ago.

Standard production versions, however, sell for £5,000 (above average and useable) to £30,000 (superb), with early examples usually being worth the most, partly because the original is the best but also because they are inexpensive to insure and qualify for tax-free historic vehicle status if they were registered before January 1 1973. Buying a restored vehicle is preferable to buying one to do up, since rust and the ravages of time mean that for every good one there are probably 100 basket cases.

If you do decide to go down the restoration route, however, firms such as Rimmer Bros stock every component required to rebuild a Range Rover from the ground up. There are many specialists who will do the job for you and organisations such as the Range Rover Register are replete with experienced members willing to offer help and advice.

“I think that the early models have returned to popularity for a variety of reasons,” says Chris Elliott, vice-president of the Range Rover Register and the owner of one of the rare, pre-production Range Rovers that were code named Velar for secrecy purposes during the vehicle’s development. “Perhaps surprisingly, one of their advantages is their lack of sophistication compared with modern cars. They are actually rather like a large Meccano kit, which means they are always reliable and easy to repair. The two-door versions also make good family cars because of their carrying capacity and the fact that there are no rear doors for children to escape from. The only downside is fuel consumption, which can be as high as 15 miles per gallon.”

Classic Range Rover fanatic Colin Scott, an IT consultant, has overcome that problem by converting his to run on LPG (liquid petroleum gas). “Although I own a modern Range Rover, I much prefer the two classics,” he says. “There is something so enduring about the shape and the fact that they will go anywhere in comfort. We use them for shooting and driving to the Alps during the ski season, and because we live at the foot of the Cairngorm mountains they frequently prove their worth in the bad weather.”

As far back as the 1950s Rover was toying with the idea of making a go-anywhere vehicle, and between 1951 and 1959 the firm produced 23 prototype Road Rovers but didn’t believe there was a market for them. This changed with the emergence in the US in the 1960s of four-wheel-drive leisure vehicles, which caused King to formulate the initial specification for the Velar.

On June 17 1970 the first Range Rovers were tested by the press and received a rapturous response. So much so that by the time the first models went on sale on September 1 for £1,998, deals had already been done to pass them on for a profit to eager buyers further down the waiting list.

“The brilliance of the Range Rover lay in the fact that it would carry five people in comfort at an effortless 80mph, yet it could be diverted off-road in an instant where it would perform with equal aplomb,” says Graeme Hunt, a classic car specialist who likes to keep an early Range Rover or two among the stock of Ferraris, Bentleys and Aston Martins at his Kensington garage. “But what is really impressive is that these cars seem just as capable nearly 40 years on and, unlike a modern Chelsea tractor, they somehow whisper old money instead of screaming nouveau riche.”