It’s A Lumberjack, And It’s Okay

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By the end of the 1960s, Land Rover was in a bit of a pickle. The postwar successes of the “Series” Land Rovers had long worn off, and there was a new go-anywhere, rough-and-tumble, off-road rookie encroaching on the brand’s territory: The Toyota Land Cruiser. The Toyota had been a thorn in Land Rover’s side for a long time, namely on account of the Land Cruiser’s remarkable ability to not break down all the time. In 1970, Land Rover fired back, in typical British fashion, by classing up the joint. This is a 1993 Land Rover Range Rover. 

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Now, if you think this car looks a little old for something made in 1993, you’d be right. The first generation Range Rover belongs to that special demographic of car that sat on the market, unchanged, for an abnormally long time. But in the Rangie’s case, that wasn’t such a bad thing, because Land Rover knocked it out of the park in 1970. The idea of a bigger, more luxurious Land Rover had been kicking around the offices of their parent company, Rover, since at least the early 50s, with the stillborn “Road Rover” Series I and Series II projects. The Series II Road Rover, in particular, came especially close to being put on sale as a counterpart to Rover’s new P5 (the project was nixed just before production began, probably on account of lukewarm sales forecasts and production complexity concerns). In 1966, the idea fell into the lap of engineers Spen King and Gordon Bashford, and not a moment too soon. Toyota was still soldiering on with the Land Cruiser, Ford had just introduced the first generation of the iconic Bronco. The market was ripe for off roaders, and the Range Rover was perfectly positioned to change the game.

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The earlier “Series” Land Rovers that served as the company’s bread and butter during and after World War II were actually inspired by the American Willys Jeep. And while those little trucks were good at a great many things, namely climbing muddy hills, traversing muddy ponds, and ferrying muddy soldiers into war, they struggled when it came to the finer, non-muddy things in life. Things like air conditioning. A radio. Windows. Doors. Even a roof. That’s where the Range Rover came in. When it hit showrooms, it was the first time the world had seen a luxury SUV. Admittedly, given today’s market for ultra-lux trucks, the 1970s Range Rover may look pretty spartan (it even had an interior that you could hose down). But given many of the Rangie’s competitors were still getting the hang of those “door” contraptions, it was pretty good.

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On the technical side of things, the big bruiser came with modern coil springs and disk brakes. That meant the Range Rover was just as capable on the road as off it. Which was important, given its new clientele. Instead of being used in exclusively hard working conditions, like quarries or farms, this Land Rover could also be used for a fashionable night out on the town. It was a hardworking, tough-mudding lumberjack who could also clean up for dinner with your parents in Midtown (or, in this particular case, Morningside Heights). And like a tough mudding lumberjack, it was pretty powerful too: a 3.5 liter V8 engine developing 135 horsepower was standard. By 1993 that engine had grown to 4.2 liters. And it was available with five doors as opposed to the original three door model (which, among other things, made it easier to “pull me closer“). At first you could only have a four speed manual, but as time wore on a five speed and some automatic transmissions were offered.

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I set my expectations nice and low when I went out looking for cars to photograph this past weekend. Days after a major snowstorm in a city with a well documented disdain for all things automotive was a far from ideal setting. And yet it seems appropriate that the one car I found was a Range Rover. Of course the vehicle that defines off roading would be parked on the street in conditions like this. What’s seven inches of snow to a Range Rover? Breakfast, I’d say, and a light one at that. The Rangie was a practical off-roader in a time when most of its competitors were more closely associated with tractors than with cars. And the ethos persisted: today, the Range Rover is far from a car for the every-man (new ones start north of $85,000), but it is the go-to luxury SUV. In short, if you’re in that market, you can either by a Range Rover, or you can be wrong.

Additional Thoughts:

  • The French actually loved the original Range Rover so much that they displayed one in the Louvre, calling it “an outstanding piece of modern sculpture.”
  • The Rangie’s unique style almost didn’t happen. The boxy body was fitted to an engineering prototype as a holdover until the designers could come up with something more stylized. But when the company’s bosses saw the prototype, they liked it so much they decided to use it for the production car.
  • Pope John Paul II used a modified Range Rover as his Popemobile when he visited the United Kingdom in 1982.
  • Smaller controls, like the door handles or the knobs that control the heating system, were designed to be thick and chunky, so they can be used while wearing gloves.
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