In a number of ways, today’s Range Rover owes a significant debt of gratitude to the American Bantam Company and Willys-Overland, the two organizations behind the creation of the original Jeep. This vehicle inspired Maurice and Spencer Wilks to create a similar automobile for the Rover Company in England. Spencer was general manager at Rover at the time, while Maurice was an automotive and aeronautical engineer—as well as Rover’s chief designer.
During the run-up to WWII, the U.S. Army realized the need for a small, agile, go anywhere vehicle and put out a request for proposals to get it built. Willys and Bantam were the only two companies to respond to the request for proposals. Bantam consulted freelance engineer Karl Probst, who came up with a design in two days. Later Willys-Overland did more development work on the concept and the resulting automobile was an amalgamation of the original Bantam design by Probst with Willys-Overland modifications.
After World War II, there were quite a few Jeeps left over in England. Maurice Wilks bought one of them to use for various duties on his farm. Taking note of its capabilities, the two brothers decided there would be a market for such a vehicle among other farmers and people in general who needed a rugged and versatile vehicle for outdoor pursuits.
The timing was good for such a vehicle within the Rover Company.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, Rover’s production facilities in Coventry were bombed out, forcing them to set up shop from scratch in another facility. Further, raw materials were being diverted to manufacturers producing things the country needed to get back on its feet after the war. The Wilks brothers positioned that first Land Rover as an agricultural implement. To do so, they specified a number of features useful for farmers, including power takeoff capability, which enabled it to drive farm machinery, exactly as a tractor would.
By positioning their new vehicle as a tool for agricultural use, they could get the materials they needed to build it, and they could export it as well—which manufacturers were also encouraged to do to get money from other nations flowing into England. They designed it to be produced as frugally as possible. Using war surplus materials and simple construction techniques, those first Land Rovers were both rugged and inexpensive to build. These factors, which may well have been considered hindrances in any other circumstance, ultimately made the vehicle the success it proved to be. Laughably, Rover never intended the Land Rover to sell for more than about two or three years or so. The idea was to get something to market quickly bringing in money so the company could get back to building luxury cars.
However, once they did restart luxury car production, Land Rover vehicles outsold the car.
The first of the Land Rover automobiles was introduced to the public in 1948, at the Amsterdam Auto Show. A very basic vehicle, tops for the doors and a roof (in the customer’s choice of canvas or metal) were optional extras. However, it was also considered some buyers would want a more comfortable vehicle with all of the Land Rover’s capabilities intact, so they added a model in 1949 called the Station Wagon. Featuring a wooden framed body and seating for seven, the Land Rover Station Wagon housed leather seats, a heater, a one-piece laminated windscreen, a tin-plate spare wheel cover, some interior trim, and other options. There was also a version configured to carry up to ten people.
First generation Land Rover production ran from 1948 to 1958.
The Series II Land Rover introduced elements of the brand’s styling language still followed to this day. The barrel side waistline, curved side windows, and the rounded roof were all first seen on the Series II Land Rover autos. The Series II Land Rover also upped the passenger count with a model capable of seating 12 passengers. This layout proved very successful. A version of it was in production until 2002. One of the chief selling points of the 12-seater was its exemption from certain taxes, which ultimately made it less expensive to purchase than a standard Land Rover.
While the idea of the ultra-luxurious Range Rover had been around since 1951, serious work on a production model started in 1966. The success of the Land Rover made the 1950s and 60s very good years for Rover. In 1967, Rover became part of the Leyland Motor Corporation, which merged with British Motor Holdings in 1968, to become British Leyland Motor Corporation (British Leyland.) The Range Rover was being developed as this was going on.
Launched in 1970, the Range Rover went on to become the first vehicle to traverse the Americas. In 1972, a group of Range Rovers were driven from North America through Central America and into South America, passing through the area between Panama and Colombia where no roads exist, known as the Darien Gap. Despite the success of this expedition, Rover sport utility vehicles were not officially offered in the United States by Land Rover until 1987. Prior to this, they were imported as “grey market” items.
Range Rover of North America was established in 1986, so named because the Range Rover model was the only vehicle Land Rover exported to the U.S. at the time. The name was changed to Land Rover North America in 1992 as other Land Rover automobiles came over as well. The brand arrived in the U.S. at a very good time, because the SUV boom was just getting underway. Representing the ultimate in luxury made the Range Rover the most desirable SUV of all, the status symbol among status symbols.
The first generation Range Rover ran some 26 years, from 1970 to 1996. The second generation Range Rover was introduced in 1994, the same year BMW bought the Rover Group. The third generation Range Rover (introduced in 2002) was developed under BMW ownership, before that company sold Land Rover to Ford. Ford paired Land Rover with Jaguar, which is why Rover models currently run Jaguar engines. Ford sold Land Rover along with Jaguar to Tata Motors of India in 2008, who (as of this writing) currently own the marque. The current iteration of the Range Rover was introduced in 2012.
Over the years, a number of other Land Rover and Range Rover models were introduced. The current U.S. model range (June 2013) includes Land Rover LR2, Land Rover LR4, Range Rover Evoque, Range Rover Sport, and, of course, Range Rover.