The Range Rover story arguably starts all the way back in 1949 with the Tickford-bodied Land Rover 80 Station Wagons. These fancier “car” versions of the original Land Rover proved too expensive and less than 700 were made; but the idea of a more comfortable and consumer-focused Land Rover was sound.
Under the leadership of Maurice and Spencer Wilks, the “Road Rover” idea resurfaced several times in the 1950s but never made it to production.
With the arrival of the International Scout and Jeep Wagoneer in the 1960s, it resurfaced again with a new generation of Rover engineers – Spen King and Gordon Bashford.
Range Rover Development Begins
In 1966, a new generation of technical director, Peter Wilks, greenlit development of the “100 inch station wagon,” which became the 1971 Range Rover after further development and a light, modern restyle by David Bache (the original prototype was not so far removed from what went into production).
Cracking the American market, historically a hard slog for Rover, was a key part of the reason for building the Range Rover, but due to a lack of resources and capacity, the planned 1971 U.S. launch was cancelled. The regular Land Rover withdrawn from the U.S. in 1974 in the face of declining sales and increased competition.
The Range Rover’s complete evolution is too long to chronicle here, but the truck did not arrive stateside (officially) until 1987. In the meantime, the truck was a hit nearly everywhere else – it was civilized but tough and capable, although the early 2-doors were spartan compared to later models.
Land Rover was made its own company/division, separate from Rover’s cars, in 1979 and the Range was given four doors in 1981 after several aftermarket conversions proved popular.
Though British Leyland wasn’t selling Range Rovers to Americans at that time, Americans still wanted to buy them.
Range Rovers in the U.S.A.
Familiar in Britain, the Range was exotic in America, and the first gray market ones began appearing in California in 1979. By 1983 there were at least four importers in California (and some in Texas and Florida) bringing in tiny numbers of Range Rovers, making them emissions compliant, and selling them for a huge markup.
To supplement its own cars, Aston-Martin of North America got into the act in 1984. The SUV market wa also exploding with new entries – primarily from Japan but in almost every category.
Seeing the interest and the opportunity, British Leyland decided to start bringing over the truck itself. In 1985 it formed Range Rover North America, and the truck debuted at the LA Auto show in January, 1987. Sales started on March 16, 1987. By then, British Leyland had become Rover Group.
Just 36 initial dealers moved 1,762 of the ‘87s (2,586 were sold for the calendar year, including ’88 models), and they were all high-profile.
Bruce Willis, Goldie Hawn, Jack Nicholson, and Joe Montana were early owners and Range Rovers became a white hot accessory around Hollywood. The truck even got a shout-out on the Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique.”
It sold well despite a high price, and “Range Rover” was soon a household name in the U.S., where it was the only Land Rover product available until late 1992. The success of the old truck set the stage for a return of the Defender and introduction of the more mainstream Discovery.
By the late 1980s the Range Rover had grown appreciably more luxurious – it was always a comfortable place to be but was practically palatial by the end of the Thatcher era compared to the originals. Power came as always from the Rover V8, now enlarged to 3.9L (1989) and eventually 4.2L (1992). The original truck remained in production until 1996.
This particular Range is a summer regular at the Western Washington All British Field Meet.