Where there's muck, there's brass - and Range Rovers: CAR+ archive, November 1994

Published: 09 November 1994

► Stephen Bayley on the brilliance of the Range Rover
► Why design with substance is a lasting virtue
► Paying respects to a design icon in CAR+ 

When someone wants to study the social history of Britain in the last quarter of the 20th century, they will be better off looking at the Range Rover than poring through the mountains of data produced by the Central Statistical Office. Henry Ford it was who said, ‘History is more or less bunk,’ but he also said that you can read any object like a book, provided you know how. And the Range Rover is a text rich in meaning and nuance, one that is extraordinarily eloquent of social conditions in post-modern Britain. 

No-one who wasn’t there could know exactly what went on at Rover when the Range Rover was being developed. But let’s guess. Remember that Rover in those days was a small, independent company, still working in the tradition of the two brothers who founded it. Their product line was based on upper-medium saloons of better than average quality, of greater than average prestige, of a conservative caste, but often with well-considered design and engineering details. Indeed, the Rover 2000 of 1963 can claim to e the best-designed all-British car ever made. And then, of course, there was the Land Rover. 

Looking back, you can see how the Range Rover combined both traditions. Following Einstein’s description of the process of genius, it ignored an axiom. No-one had believed there was a market for a four-wheel-drive off-road vehicle that had civilised behaviour on road.  That was axiomatic. But the basis of creativity is the ability to make unusual connections. Rover had some very creative people amply able to connect in very unusual ways. The result was a unique synthesis: a car that could cross bogs hub-deep in primeval glop and also carry four adult passengers and loads of kit in civilised comfort at surprisingly speed.

In a world numbed by exaggeration and superlatives, the Range Rover was a sensation. Quite genuinely, no-one had ever seen or experienced anything like it before. Perhaps. But then something very odd happened. People whose only experience of Land Rovers had been when one belonging to the AA came to tow their overheated Vauxhall Cresta away began to buy Range Rovers. 

To understand why, you have to appreciate the symbolic allure of the Range Rover. The British have a unique attitude to the countryside. In this country, farmers have status. While Americans have ‘station wagons’ because cars like that are used for picking up people from train stations, we have ‘estate cars’ because we like to think we belong in the country. Because Britain industrialised so long ago, the peasant class has long since been deposited into cities where they were tragically drawn by the prospect (or rather illusion) of work. The only people left in the British countryside are either prosperous farmers or the non-professional land-owning titled classes.

Compare this with the position abroad and you will see the contrast. While the word ‘farmer’ connotes prosperity to the British, the Dutch word boer (German bauer) gave us our word ‘boor’. In Italy, a contadine is not a ruddy-faced fellow in tweeds and brogues having a pink gin at The Game Fair, but a crushed Etruscan throwback living in a pigsty, with dirty fingernails, given to practising incest and bestiality (where they are not the same thing) and driving an unwashed and faded 12 year old Fiorino van. It’s the same in France. When Citroen had to make a car for the French farmers, it made the 2CV. Even in the United States (where the old Ford Bronco and GMC Blazer were faint premonitions of the Range Rover formula), ‘farmer’ means a terrible fat person in dungarees and flannel shirt with a factory-fit redneck, given to driving pick-ups and hanging out all day at diners, issuing sexist and racist grunts. 

So it was a new class that was attracted to the social and cultural symbolism of the Range Rover and its suggestions of life on the farm. This class consisted of prosperous, rootless, middle-class, British citizens, the ones with money to spend but nowhere to go, and the Range Rover provided them with powerful automotive heraldry. This class detests the city because it is full of the descendants of peasants, but at the same time craves the style and convenience of urban society. This same class admires the countryside because it suggests to them everything to do with status and privilege, but on the other hand the Nigel or Caroline you find in a Range Rover would wet their cavalry twill jodhpurs if they had to wring the neck of a bantam, deliver a lamb, get up at 3.30am or do any of the other things real country people do. The Range Rover allowed this class to dissimulate, wherever it was. On Fulham Road, you think they are on the way up to Cirencester. In Gloucestershire, you imagine they are going back ‘up’ to town.
In its progressive refinements of the Range Rover – from two to four doors, from four to five speeds and then automatic, from vinyl to club leather – its maker seems to have acknowledged this. The car remains as effective off road as ever, but by far the greater part of the evolutionary effort has gone into developing comfort and tarmac performance rather than cross-country ability. 

But while the affectations of many Range Rover users are politely laughable, I wonder whether there is a yet more fundamental explanation of this exceptional car which shows its owners in a more favourable light. Although it is perhaps not a thing of ravishing or sensuous beauty, the Range Rover is a masterpiece of dignified design. Forget the fripperies of wood and wool and leather; in the really important matters of proportion and stance the Range Rover is virtually flawless. It is all but unimprovable, which is why the same shape remains in production after a quarter of a century and why the new-generation car is an evolution of it and not a revolution against it. 

Remember that in 1970 you could still buy a Vauxhall VX4/90. For those too young to know, or who have suppressed the memory, this was a car designed ruthlessly to test the proposition that the consumer is a complete mug, a car where a tacked-on tachometer signified ‘performance’ and whose general appearance and demeanour was a chilling rebuke to all ideas of good taste. Other manufacturers were at it, too: when the Range rover went on sale, there were GXLs and de luxes and Supers all over the place. You could still buy whitewall tyres. Into this maelstrom of overblown, under-engineered kitsch, Range Rover introduced a design that was quietly dignified and stable. It is true that the panel gaps were big enough to put your fist in, but in terms of aesthetics that doesn’t matter if the cut-lines are in the right place in the first place. And they were. The original handles, integrated into the trailing edge of the doors, were a delight. To those tired of being had by cheap accessories, the Range Rover offered an aesthetic absolute: utility was made chic. The manufacturer’s confidence in the car’s correctness was further demonstrated by offering only one specification. 

There are social explanations for the Range Rover’s success, but I think those arguments would not be valid with a vehicle that was less than complete aesthetically. The very best designs are the ones with integrity, where substance and appearance are as one. Get that right and you have a timeless design. There are precedents for this. Seventy years ago, Coco Chanel looked at matelot outfits and from them created a wardrobe of time-less elegance, which has since been refined rather than changed. A Chanel suit is a joy forever. Although some social presumption plays a part in any decision to buy a Range Rover, what gives the car its real substance is more substantial. History is not bunk. History shows that, come what may, the marketing appreciates good design.

By Stephen Bayley

Design critic, guru, cultural watchdog, occasional annoyer of Ron Dennis