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    The first Range Rover created a new type of vehicle that balanced capability and luxury. Style commentator Stephen Bayley examines the design history of an auto icon.

  2. WORDS
    6 APRIL 2015
    • The first Range Rover created a new type of vehicle that balanced capability and luxury. Style commentator Stephen Bayley examines the design history of an auto icon.

      John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive. All of them amazing world-changing individuals who achieved even more together than they might ever have done alone.

      To this list of innovators might be added the team of Gordon Bashford, Spen King and David Bache. These were the people who created the original Range Rover, one of the greatest cars of all time.

      Research for this article began with some diligent academic scrutiny of upmarket property magazines, those glossy catalogues that are freely distributed around London’s expensive W and SW postcodes. Years ago I invented a method for calculating a car’s status. It still holds good. You look at property ads for houses in Mayfair or Belgravia and calculate how many appearances certain cars make in the photographs. Very soon, some convincing figures emerge. Against the cream and bleached cliffs of smart London neoclassicism, the architecture of the stately Range Rover was and is always prominent. It is in areas like Mayfair and Belgravia where the money lands when it has stopped whooshing around the globe’s financial laundries.

      The interesting question is: how did a machine with explicit origins in agricultural equipment come to rival top German luxury cars? I remember when, as a student, I bought a 1970 edition of the now long defunct Motor magazine. It was summer and I might have been dreaming about San Francisco with flowers in my hair, and, of course, the enthusiastic girls who went with this cheerful floral vision. But what I saw was this incredibly bold new car on the cover. It was red with white-painted steel wheels, fording, as I recall, some sort of turbulent water feature. It seemed amazingly cool. And shockingly original. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

      Top Left
      Top Right
      Even in 1970, the Range Rover was quintessentially modern. Above: the original Range Rover in the Scottish Hills.

      Looking back with all my laboriously acquired wisdom about the history of design, I can now see that this first Range Rover was an extraordinary creation. 1970 was a year when desirable cars of the ordinary kind were still distinguished by whitewall tyres and fake wheel trims. Disc brakes were something of a rarity. My vision was very tightly focused on a Ford Cortina GLS two-door in whose vinyl roof, Coke-bottle curved hipline, Rostyle wheels and chrome bits, I saw the absolute epiphany of all that life on earth could offer. And then came the Range Rover.

      I did not have the words for it, but I now see that the 1970 Range Rover was an expression of what the Italian designers of the day were beginning to call “techno-functionalism”. Individuals such as Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper confidently used plastics to make achingly desirable telephones, radios and appliances for Siemens and Brionvega. Zanuso and Sapper created bold geometric shapes that added a serious measure of desire to ordinary things. Matt black was a part of their repertoire. They created a new design language whose ultimate expression had four-wheel drive.

      "The first Range Rover was an extraordinary creation. Just in terms of formal design discipline, it was a perfect summary of advanced contemporary taste. In terms of car styling, it established an enduring new language."

      Bashford, King and Bache are all now sadly deceased so we cannot any longer ask these down-to-earth West Midlands engineers and designers to what extent they were influenced by sophisticated Milan, but it was nonetheless very, very clear, even in 1970, that the Range Rover was a quintessentially modern creation. Just in terms of formal design discipline, it was a perfect summary of advanced contemporary taste. In terms of car styling, it established an enduring new language: a floating roof supported by almost invisible and blacked-out pillars, a huge glasshouse, a friendly but assertive presence, plus a clamshell bonnet with distinctive castellations. So, to the language of Italian geometry was added something architectural. If this was like medieval military architecture coming down the road, what was wrong with that? The old castles endure and so too do the Range Rover’s fundamental design attributes.

      The exterior and interior details were as bold as the overall conception. Big, confident lights front and rear were used to articulate a big personality. Frank, bold surfaces were unusual in an era only just beyond the limply expressive tail fin and the chrome highlight. It was so very contemporary. Just as modernist product designers disdained applied ornament, so too was the Range Rover free of any form of trivial decoration. And therefore, in early seventies Britain – where men in factories still wore brown coats, and consumer electronics meant, if you were lucky, colour television – it was an amazing revelation of the future. Even the Range Rover’s colours challenged orthodoxy – besides that distinctive salmon red were an avocado green and a tikka masala brown. We laugh now, but these seemed bold statements at the time. There is a well-established test for quality in design: does anything need to be added, or taken away, to improve the whole?

      The 1983 Range Rover Vogue carved a new niche as a luxury SUV.

      It’s a test the original Range Rover easily passed with the answer: “no”. Yet even as the Range Rover was a bold and unprecedented design, the psychographics were more impressive still. This was not just a hybrid machine but a hybrid proposition. It was 1967 when Bashford, King and Bache began work. They created, perhaps by inspired accident, a new genre of product.

      Versace did not yet exist. Nor did Giorgio Armani. But somehow, by the 1970 launch, Solihull had summarised a large part of aspirational consumer desire. Amazingly, Bashford, King and Bache got to the design decade a full 10 years before Manhattan or Milan’s Via Montenapoleone. The Range Rover was not the first large four-wheel-drive car with power and style credentials. Americans were able to buy a Ford Bronco or a GMC half-ton “Jimmy”. And in 1948 the ineffable Brooks Stevens – later the designer of the Harley-Davidson classic motorbikes – created the Jeepster for Willys-Overland. This was a consumerised, gussied-up, suburbanised military jeep, made as cute as can be, but essentially a Howitzer painted lemon yellow with chrome trim.

      The Range Rover was in a few ways the same, but in most ways very different. Its spiritual origins were, of course, in the original 1948 Land Rover, itself a Jeep improved by the Rover Company’s Maurice Wilks after experience on his Anglesey farm made the American original’s shortcomings obvious. He improvised to great effect and thereafter the unstoppable, indestructible Land Rover became a global product, grinding out its territory in low-range. The US Army Jeep remained admired, but was relegated to a period curiosity.

      To this off-road mastery was added equal capability on road. Spen King’s goal was to match the go-anywhere skills of a Land Rover with the on-road sophistication of a Rover P6. It was a bold vision, but he managed it. The great successes of the Range Rover were not to be measured in terms of its easy mastery of intimidating off-road terrain or even in stirring conquests of export markets, but rather in terms of overcoming less tangible, although no less scary, social obstacles at home and abroad. The achievement of the Range Rover was in the abstract philosophy of product semantics rather than the technology of vehicle dynamics.

    • Maybe a very few of the first Range Rovers were bought by prosperous working farmers who found the power, comfort and capability of the car a thrilling release from the grinding gears, flapping canvas, sharp metal angles and zero tolerance of luxury familiar in their harsh but effective Series I Landies. But then something mysterious happened. People who had no business transporting dag-rattling Cumbrian sheep or bales of reeking Welsh hay began to buy Range Rovers. The Range Rover had leapt the species barrier; a new category of vehicle had been created. And its territory was social, not agricultural.

      Thus, the Range Rover suggested to country-folk the sophistication of the city with its cosmopolitan ways. Simultaneously, with perfect symmetry, it suggested to world-weary urbanites the detachment and snobbish advantage of a place in the country. Parked in Knightsbridge, a Range Rover said: “This is all very well, but I really belong in a Cotswold village”. While in the rolling green hills, a Range Rover said: “Frankly, I am just as much at home on the King’s Road”.

      The potency of this double act is based in the absolute English infatuation with the countryside. We torment ourselves that the entire British Isles is threatened by the voracious city, but a recent survey showed that, astonishingly, only four per cent of the land is actually under concrete or tarmac. But this fear, this powerful anti-urban sentiment, inspires our national psychology. And the extraordinary thing is, this psychology can be exported. A Shanghai stockbroker, sipping Petrus in their platinum and cedar hot tub, might be dreaming of a Range Rover. They may know nothing of fishing on the River Test, or a point-to-point at Hickstead, still less of raising sheep in the Tanat Valley, but the Range Rover mystique and its tangled associations with the bewildering but wonderful English caste system affects them too.

      The luxury SUV today: Range Rover in 2015

      As soon as the Vogue appeared in 1983, a new niche had been carved in the edifice of the global auto industry: the luxury SUV. This was an unanticipated development. It was something of a guess, an accident, an unresearched hunch, a brilliant whim, an inspired gesture. Like many acts of genius, it was a unique synthesis of existing commodities. There was nothing so very unusual about cars with leather chairs and high-quality carpet. Nor was four-wheel drive altogether unknown. But put together in the same package, the Range Rover now acquired a job description and a dynamic all of its own.

      Now that the Range Rover is familiar around the entire planet, a universally admired and desired cocktail of sumptuous luxury carefully balanced with profound, but understated, competence, it is curious to note that the export potential was at first slow to be realised. It was 1987 before the car was sold in the United States. A friend moved to Long Island in the early Eighties and took his beloved metallic aubergine (with black leather) Range Rover with him: I remember well how many double-takes it inspired in Cutchogue, how many “Jeez, what is it?” comments I heard in Oyster Bay.

      By 1987, an important evolutionary event had occurred. The elegant, but Spartan, techno-functionalism of the original car had given way to a softer, more indulgent interior treatment. Additionally, four-door bodywork tended to remove the suggestion of it being a utility vehicle. Now, Range Rover development is on a geometric progression, a virtuous circle of raising-the-game with each new model. And the wonder of it all is the synchronicity: the rapidly emerging BRIC markets all maintain a reverence for off-road capability (founded in a real need to engage with abundant rough stuff), but at the same time they have a ravenous appetite for occidental luxury. No other vehicle meets the physical needs and satisfies the emotional desires of a Siberian aluminium entrepreneur, a Porto Alegre real estate developer or a Bangalore IT consultant. Or that Shanghai stockbroker. In summer 2012 Louis Vuitton opened its largest shop, a four-storey vertical mall in the city’s Plaza 66 development: a temple of European luxury directed very accurately at oriental taste. There are Range Rover vehicles outside. I wonder if anybody there knows Coco Chanel’s marvellous observation that, “Luxury is not the opposite of poverty. It is the opposite of vulgarity.” That’s the unusual trick the Range Rover performs: extreme luxury disciplined by strict design principles. It’s a trick that seems to have universal appeal.

  3. WORDS
    6 APRIL 2015

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