Since it appeared in 1970, the Range-Rover has been, as it were, in a field of its own. Along with the Mini, Model T, Volkswagen, Espace, it is one of the cars that defines a type, changes history, raises the bar, alters consumer behaviour, inspires cupidity and, while often imitated, has never been bettered. It is, in other words, an undisputed design classic.
True, Americans were already manufacturing big four-wheel-drives with comfortable accommodation, but they were redneck specials, intended for stump-pulling in West Virginia or ferrying Coors-chugging lynch mobs through suburban Alabama. The Range-Rover had the grunt of, say, a 1962 Jeep Wagoneer, but it had polite British poise and, indeed, proclivities. So instead of being used for incestuous trysts in the Ozarks, Range-Rovers were used for point-to-points in Gloucestershire and by estate agents in Parson's Green.
Architect of the first Range-Rover was the late David Bache, an unacknowledged genius of car design who had earlier helped draw the cute Austin A35 and then the impressive Rovers P5, 2000 and eventually the SD1. For the Range-Rover, Bache achieved a masterful synthesis. Details were rational and intelligent, proportions perfect, aspect nicely balanced between assertive and gentlemanly. It also had superb off-road performance, but since only zero point diddly squat of customers took them to work axle-deep in pig poo, this was relevant only in that rumours of off-road authority added to the enlarging mystique of the car.
People did not seem to mind that this consumerist masterpiece was also a sorry exhibition of British national failings in manufacturing: first-generation Range-Rovers had panel gaps you could slip your Purdey's double barrels through. But this informal attitude was disguised during the fugue of improvements that the first-generation Range-Rover experienced over its 24- year life. It was lengthened and luxurified: carpet and leather replaced rubber and plastic. Manual boxes disappeared. Dun gave way to metallic burgundy. The kitchen sink was an option, everything but being already included in the price. The original Range-Rover became a psychographic representation of the aspirations of the market sector it established.
So much so that the second-generation car did not challenge the assumptions.
Technically superior, it was judged a failure of nerve. This year's launch of the third-generation Range-Rover is rather more interesting.
Both in appearance and in use, the new Range-Rover is a very, very impressive car. It is incomparably better made than heretofore, a legacy of BMW's stewardship of design and engineering processes before Ford bought Land-Rover. It has all the virtues you would expect when fastidious Germans apply themselves to the flawless reconstruction of British myths. But it has surprising faults too.
First, although the V8 Vogue is a very imposing car, there's something wrong with its proportions. From some aspects this makes the car look weakly constructed. Second, the Range-Rover is meaninglessly huge. Parking is like docking a trawler. Third, it is so big that even the BMW 4.4 litre V8 struggles to keep up with the fast-lane flotsam on long uphill sections of motorway. It actually needs the promised V12. Fourth, it is so thirsty even Bush would blush. Fifth, though the clever air suspension automatically hunkers down at speed, there is a problem with stability when going fast.
But none of these will deter customers for whom the Range-Rover remains or will become a synecdoche of consumerist advancement. They will enjoy a superb driving environment and a sense of empowered well-being and authority that, at last, money can buy. The interior design is masterful, yet betrays a little of the strange German tendency towards kitsch when faced with a luxury brief.
But the Range-Rover remains one of the very best earthbound travel methods.
You could say it was over-designed and over-engineered, but that means great value (at a price) for the consumer. But right now, in Detroit, a frazzled variable-cost accountant is calculating the removal of philosophically alien BMW conceits from what is now a Ford product. Enormous, socially divisive and expensive to make and use, the magnificently flawed Range-Rover may be the last of its type.
RANGE-ROVER: From pounds 42,995 to pounds 62,995.