Thursday November 3, 2016
Witten by Andy Roberts
Many of us have a mental shortlist of those prime classic cars where form and function coalesce to create a genuinely ground-breaking vehicle.
They need not be particularly exotic or expensive – my own choices vary from the Vauxhall Viva HB and the Reliant Scimitar GTE to the Wolseley 6/90 - but they all delight the eye whenever a surviving example is seen on the road or at a car show. And the sale on the 29th October by Coys of Kensington of the first production Range Rover for £115, 000 is a very timely reminder of an automotive design so magnificent that one was even exhibited in the Louvre as an ‘outstanding piece of modern sculpture’.
As far back as 1951 Land Rover was considering the possibility of a ‘Road Rover’ and when NXC 231 H was revealed to the press 19 years later. it was virtually unique– a handsome 4WD estate that would be equally suited to farm work, transport for a country house weekend or merely preening along the King’s Road. The price was £2,005 16s 8d (front seat belts £7 16s 8d extra) - a reminder that the first Range Rovers date from the last days of pre-decimal coinage and a large sum of money by 1970 standards. However, the top speed was 91 mph and the acceleration was 0 – 60 in 13.9 seconds, respectable figures for the period, and the equipment list included a heater, two-speed wipers and a clock. To a 2016 driver, the rubber floor mats and PVC upholstery may make the interior seem a welcoming as an HMRC waiting room but to a generation of motorists raised on the Land Rover, the Austin Champ and Gipsy plus war-surplus WW2 Jeeps, a new Range Rover was a positive limousine.
And 46 years ago, it was also the case that the Range Rover had barely any rivals. A Land Rover Station Wagon cost over £200 less but that was aimed a totally different market to a V8 powered 4WD estate with coil suspension. Another option was to privately import a Kaiser Jeep Wagoneer but that conveyed the image of an affluent pub landlord sporting a Mike Reid/Dave Angel medallion rather than a gentleman farmer. At that time a well-heeled buyer might have equally looked at the Citroen DS Safari, Ford Zodiac Mk. IV Farnham, Peugeot 404L Familiale, Triumph 2.5 PI Mk.2 Estate or Volvo 145S but none of these imposing station wagons offered all-terrain motoring. A more plausible competitor was the Toyota Land Cruiser J40, which by 1970 was already making significant inroads into Land Rover’s traditional Commonwealth sales territories, but it lacked the sophistication of the Range Rover.
When Autocar tested a Range Rover in November 1970 they concluded that ‘it is even more deserving of resounding success than the Land Rover’ and within just a few years’ examples could be seen on motorway patrol duty, parked outside of wine bars in the Cotswolds or simply loaded with bags of agricultural feed. As for NXC 231 H, it was sold by British Leyland the coachbuilder Herbert Lomas in 1973 and it narrowly escaped being converted into an ambulance. Happily, it has undergone an extensive restoration since 2000 and today, to quote a rather wonderful early brochure, it looks ready to provide transport for ‘Business and professional people with a leaning toward the great outdoors’.
Early publicity further stated that here was a vehicle that was ‘the real thing instead of a compromise’ – a rare example of a manufacturer underselling a key product. The first-generation Range Rover ranks alongside the Citroen DS, the Mini, the Ford Transit or indeed the Land Rover as a vehicle that redefined notions of motoring per se. The price of that Masai Red former press car may have been £115,000 at the recent Coys auction but to Britain’s motor heritage, it is virtually priceless.