25th Anniversary Range Rover P38

Mike Gould casts a critical eye over the second-generation Range Rover’s history. The P38 Range Rover had big boots to fill, but with technology way ahead of its time and ‘stodgy’ styling, even its air suspension couldn’t soften the bumpy ride it had, as Mike Gould reveals.

25 years of P38: secrets revealed

Range Rover UK-spec P38A

Range Rover UK-spec P38A

 01 Concept

Land Rover’s strategy in the 1980s was to move the Range Rover upmarket and introduce a new leisure-orientated SUV while retaining as much of the utility market as possible. The Range Rover progressively acquired an impressive series of features including more powerful engines, four-speed automatic transmission, and a refined chain-driven transfer box within an upgraded, more rigid structure.

But it was clear that this wouldn’t be enough – a replacement was needed. The project for the next Range Rover was codenamed ‘Discovery’ and some of the initial renderings by Solihull’s styling studio showed extremely advanced designs – some even reprising the monobox concepts that David Bache had devised for the original model. But these were troubled times for the Rover Group. An attempted buy-out by managers had been stymied, and in 1988 the company was acquired by British Aerospace.

Although the Rover Group’s new owners stripped away its assets, they had promised the government a level of investment; and ‘Discovery’, with its profit potential as a flagship model, survived. With its name being assigned to Land Rover’s new leisure model, the programme was re-christened ‘Pegasus’.

Range Rover P38 Concept

Range Rover P38 ConceptEarly concept renderings were very advanced, including a dropped waistline and panoramic roof. But replacing the established icon was going to be a difficult task…

02 Design

The involvement of Conran Design on Project Jay (what would become the Discovery 1) showed that Land Rover was not afraid to be innovative. For Project Discovery the company hired Italian design house Bertone to produce a theme that made it to a full-size fibreglass model.

Competing with designs from two in-house teams, the Bertone offering was rejected for looking too delicate. In-house designer George Thompson toyed with ideas inspired by the Renault Espace, while colleague Mike Sampson developed a more conventional design, developing distinctive Range Rover cues such as the clamshell bonnet and ‘floating’ roof line.

In the end it was another theme by Thompson that won through, although the final approved model had elements of Sampson’s style. All the Range Rover elements were there – a shallow floating roof, clamshell bonnet and strong horizontal feature lines.

Intended to compete with luxury cars as well as in the 4×4 market, the round headlamps of the first generation were gone in favour of large rectangular units.

The interior too was geared to the luxury car market, with a massive facia blended into a high centre console. Driver and passenger airbags were installed as standard, while the seats were designed to provide the support needed for comfortable progress at speed or off-road. It was a major step up from its predecessor.

Despite competition from Bertone, Solihull designer George Thompson masterminded the finally approved style. This glassfibre ‘property’ was photographed in a closed area at Solihull.

03 Architecture

The ‘Pegasus’ code name was short-lived (being compromised by a supplier) and the project was developed under the code name ‘P38A’ – the designation of the building in a remote corner of the Solihull site that housed its development team. The engineering design of the P38A was ambitious and advanced, a complete departure from the first-generation Range Rover. In fact, time would show that it was probably too advanced for its time.

The basic architecture comprised an integrated body mounted to a separate chassis frame based on a wheelbase of 108 inches (2745mm), the same as the Range Rover Classic LSE. The body used a welded, zinc-coated steel frame with aluminium door skins, front wings and lower tailgate, remaining elements being in steel. The chassis was tapered at the front to allow for an improved turning circle, its greater width elsewhere adding to the vehicle’s stability.

By now coded P38A, the new vehicle was extremely advanced for its time. This shadow drawing shows the integrated body and sinuous chassis side members. It was an effective engineering feat, giving impressive strength and longevity.

04 Driveline

Two V8 petrol engines and a six-cylinder diesel were specified for the new model. The V8s were improved variants of the long-standing ex-General Motors design in 4.0-litre and 4.6-litre capacities, the larger engine having a longer stroke. The upgrades included a revised block with greater stiffness, lighter pistons coupled to individually balanced conrods and a poly-vee drive belt for the ancillaries.

The turbocharged, intercooled 2.5-litre diesel engine was bought from BMW, but tuned to provide more torque – albeit at the expense of power output. The lubrication system was also revised to maintain oil feed at the angles experienced during off-road driving.

The petrol V8s were coupled to a four-speed ZF automatic gearbox (ZF 4HP22), which was standard on the 4.6-litre version and optional on the 4.0. Post-launch, the automatic gearbox was made an option for the diesel. Standard transmission for the 4.0-litre and the diesel was a Land Rover R380 five-speed manual gearbox, with the diesel variant having a lower first gear to compensate for its torque delivery characteristics.

The transfer box was the Borg Warner chain drive unit as fitted to the earlier model, with a viscous coupling providing automatic locking of the centre differential during low-traction scenarios. Beam axles completed the driveline, the front featuring open steering knuckles.

The BMW M51 2.5-litre 6cyl diesel developed a reasonable 134bhp, but its torque delivery was not ideal for a Land Rover product.

The range-topping 4.6-litre V8 petrol engine developed 220bhp and was only available coupled to a four-speed automatic gearbox.

Land Rover’s R380 manual was standard for the 4.0 V8 and diesel. The V8 had an auto option from launch, the diesel soon after.

05 Airborne

Electronic Air Suspension (EAS), introduced in the earlier Range Rover LSE, was the only option. Providing five ride heights from access to extended off-road, selection was mostly automatic, with some driver control available. The ‘Low’ setting was automatically selected at cruising speed to improve stability and handling, while an even lower ‘Access’ height could be selected and locked to navigate restricted-height car parks.

The ‘High’ position enabled better ground clearance for offroad driving, while an ‘Extended’ height was automatically engaged if the vehicle grounded.

Axle location featured ‘C-spanners’ at the front and composite radius arms at the rear. The composite arms were a novel feature, removing the need for an anti-roll bar at the rear and providing a little passive rear steering to improve handling.

Perhaps surprisingly, the steering system retained the recirculating ball system rather than rack and pinion, but power assistance was standard.

This illustration of the front suspension shows the position of the air springs with their external dampers and the complex anti-roll bar shape. The axle had open steering knuckles and booted CV joints. The rear suspension (lower image) used innovative composite radius arms that allowed a certain degree of passive rear steering.

06 Electronics

The most complex and troublesome element of the design was the electrical system. At its heart was the Body electronic Control Module (BeCM), which controlled all the interior and exterior electrical functions and communicated with other vital systems. It also recorded and stored fault codes that could be read by the Test Book diagnostic computer supplied to Land Rover dealers.

Such a desirable vehicle had to be well protected against theft, so a comprehensive security system was devised. Operated by a remote handset, the system provided both perimetric and volumetric monitoring and other novel features including ‘lazy locking’ and automatic re-locking. On high-specification models, opening the doors with the remote would re-set the electric seats to the chosen memory position.

If the handset failed, the vehicle could be accessed using a unique emergency key access (EKA) code with a built-in blade. Losing the handset was, however, a major drama.

P38’s imposing facia was the user interface for its complex and problematic electrical system.

07 Capability

Being the flagship, off-road prowess had to be world-class. The variable-height air suspension provided excellent ground clearance while electronic traction control – at launch available only on the rear wheels but soon extended to all four corners – worked in combination with the viscous-coupled centre differential. The result was excellent and automatic control in slippery conditions. The braking system also featured four-channel ABS – at the time the most advanced system on any 4×4.

On automatic models, gear selection was provided via an innovative H-gate arrangement. In neutral the lever could be moved across the gate from high range to low and back, operation being by an electric motor. While high range offered a Sport mode, manual selection was available in low range for more control off road. Manual derivatives had a dash-mounted switch for low-range selection.

Pushing through foliage at Land Rover’s testing ground at Eastnor Castle was no problem, thanks to a viscous-coupled centre differential and traction control.

08 Second thoughts

Being such an advanced vehicle, the P38 project had a long gestation period spanning BAe’s six-year tenure of the Rover Group. As the 1994 launch date loomed, Land Rover’s senior managers, now reporting to new owners BMW, began to have cold feet about their new baby. Much of their concern surrounded its styling, regarded as stodgy by customer research groups who nursed affection for the original model. It may have been compared to the contemporary Metrocab, but it was too late for meaningful changes.

There was also the matter of timing. The P38 had stuck to its schedule, giving a launch date one year short of the Range Rover’s 25th anniversary. There was a feeling that it would look churlish to dump the old model so close to such a milestone. After studying companies that had run two generations of the same model side-by-side, Land Rover decided to hedge their bets and offer both for at least a year. The original became the Classic Range Rover; the P38 would be the New Range Rover.

The first few months were troublesome, but customer acceptance was rapid. Plans to produce the Classic after 1995 were scrapped.

09 Launch

The launch was planned to reflect the status of the Rover Group’s new flagship, masterminded by UK sales director Chris Langton and pulled off by the Cricket marketing agency.

Key to the launch process was an in-house satellite TV channel, Land Rover Live, which would not only broadcast elements of the launch event direct to dealers but also be a medium for technical and other training.

The press launch was based at Cliveden House, formerly the home of Lord Astor and the location of the infamous swimming pool incident at the heart of the Profumo Affair.

While the public debut of the new Range Rover would be at the Paris motor show, potential customers would be introduced to it personally at events held at Land Rover dealers, after being primed by a series of themed mailshots. In true Land Rover tradition, these events were dramatic and innovative.

Land Rover Live beamed broadcasts from around the world that included Ranulph Fiennes live from Patagonia, and culminated with a concert featuring Monserrat Caballé, famous for her Barcelona duet with Freddie Mercury that became the theme song for the 1992 Olympic Games.

Prospective Range Rover customers were treated to a lavish lunch and dinner menu with every detail being prescribed to ensure consistency. The climax of the event was the sweeping away of a cover in a terracotta theme colour to finally unveil the new vehicle.

The press launch took place at Cliveden, notorious for its part in the Profumo Affair that brought down Harold Macmillan’s 1960s government.

10 Reception

Despite its lengthy development, there was considerable concern within the company over the new Range Rover’s quality and reliability. The concern proved to be well justified.

Dealers had been invited to Gaydon for a presentation and to drive away their launch vehicles. After being regaled by Rover Group boss John Towers, advising them not to discount the new model, dealers headed home. Warwickshire was soon littered with P38s, grounded by an array of problems.

The reception by notoriously conservative customers was also muted. The diesel in particular proved problematic; although the BMW engine was a good continental cruiser, with its peak torque being much further up the rev range than the previous 300Tdi, its capacity for towing was much reduced. Some customers even switched back to the older model.

As suspected, the electrics gave trouble. The system was prone to picking up spurious signals that generated false warnings; but a more serious problem was its failure to respond to the remote key fob, locking its owner out. Some vehicles were also plagued by an intrusive creaking noise from the windscreen area that was eventually traced to inadequate clearance of a piece of facia trim. But initial problems were overcome, and the new arrival soon became extremely popular.

Initial production vehicles were plagued by problems and, although most were quickly sorted, the new Range Rover gained an unenviable reputation.

11 Facelift

Although the P38 was gaining public approval, there was one key individual who disliked it from the start. Wolfgang Reitzle had been installed as head of the company by the Rover Group’s new owner, BMW, and decreed that the new model simply wouldn’t do.

The Range Rover team, which had been working on a major facelift including a BMW V12 variant, were moved to Munich to work with German engineers on a new ‘L30’ replacement.

With a new model under development, little effort was wasted on the P38 Range Rover, and the planned facelift was scaled back. Externally there was little change, with a mask being applied to the headlamps to replicate circular lights. Indicator lenses were now clear with amber bulbs. The alloy wheels were also restyled and new options offered. There were only minor changes to the interior, and new leather seats were offered. Under the bonnet it was a different story – no V12, but both V8s benefited from mods that included long-tract inlet manifolds to improve torque and a change to the Bosch ignition. Despite its shortcomings, the diesel was unchanged.

With the New Range Rover destined for replacement, little was done to keep it fresh. Externally the front lamps were masked to resemble round units, the indicators receiving clear lenses.

12 Autobiography

The Range Rover Autobiography programme had been introduced on the earlier Range Rover, but the new model presented the opportunity for a relaunch.

While promoted as a bespoke service, Autobiography offered buyers a menu of features from which to create their unique vehicle specification. All Autobiography Range Rovers were first built in black to prevent having to repaint the complex engine bay. On arrival at Special Vehicle Operations they were stripped down and sent off to XKE Engineering in Coventry for a complete respray with multiple coats of paint and lacquer, each being hand flatted before final finishing. The seats were re-trimmed by Anderson and Ryan, also based in Coventry, the full leather covering requiring special patterns. Veneers were fitted by specialist suppliers.

The programme also pioneered the installation of lavish, high-tech infotainment, including in-car TV and navigation systems.

The Autobiography programme offered groundbreaking entertainment options such as in-car TV.

13 Staying alive

With minimal product changes over its short life, a catalogue of limited editions was introduced to keep the model alive. The most exclusive of these was the legendary Range Rover Linley. Designed in collaboration with Viscount Linley and inspired by his Metropolitan range of furniture, only six were made. Black inside and out, the Linley featured luxury touches like piano black veneer with an inset etched logo, studded black steering wheel and a black leather headlining. External features included polished black paintwork and ‘shadow’ chrome wheels.

Revealed at a special event in the Rover Group’s Park Lane showrooms, it gained notoriety when a national newspaper ran a ‘Royals on the make’ story using spurious information. To add to its legendary status, the launch vehicle disappeared from the forecourt of the dealer who had acquired it, never to re-appear.

If the Linley represented the urban character of the Range Rover, the Holland & Holland was its country cousin. Developed with the famous shotgun manufacturer, its interior featured dark brown bridle leather with contrasting piping, while outside it was uniquely finished in Tintern Green. Of special note was its internal veneer designed to replicate the feel of a gun stock. A set of matching holdalls completed the specification. Other limited editions included the Bordeaux and Westminster.

The Range Rover Linley was the most exclusive edition. The press launch took place on Park Lane, the author sporting a black shirt and tie to match the vehicle’s theme.

14 The end

Ford acquired Land Rover from BMW in July 2000 and wasted no time in finishing the development of the L30 project, now coded L322 in the Ford system. Back at the wheel wasWolfgang Reitzle who had left BMW to run Ford’s Premier Automotive Group (PAG). The L322 was launched to the press in November 2001 and a month later the last P38 rolled off the production line. With Ford being averse to quoting project codes, its farewell notice had to be re-written to read ‘The Last 2nd Generation Range Rover’.

That final vehicle, built to US spec and finished in Alveston Red, passed to the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust – although, in a final humiliation, it was judged unworthy of retention and soon disposed of in a clearing-out exercise. Fortunately it was eventually acquired by Dunsfold Land Rover after a sojourn in Spain, and now resides in its collection. While its production life was remarkably short in Land Rover terms, sales of the second-generation Range Rover still numbered more than 167,000 – quite a respectable volume.

Peak production reached around 30,000 a year, an output that comfortably outstripped that of its predecessor.

The last P38 was seen off by Spen King, project director John Hall and, kneeling in suit and tie, Land Rover’s new CEO Bob Dover.

The last P38 was eventually acquired by Dunsfold and now resides in its collection

15 A revival – of sorts

The P38 nearly had a stay of execution. The ‘Heartland’ project had revealed the opportunity for a more sporting SUV. Plans for the 1999-model-year facelift – which had included fitting the P38 with independent suspension – were returned to. However, in the end it was decided that the sportier model range should be based on a common T5 platform with the new Discovery 3.

The reaction of potential customers was tested with the ground-breaking Range Stormer, a rare Land Rover concept vehicle that was built on P38 underpinnings. Enthusiastic reaction from the press and public confirmed that the new vehicle could indeed bear the widely desired Range Rover badge.

There was some debate as to whether this performance derivative should be branded a Land Rover or a Range Rover, the bonnet design being altered at the last minute to preserve the option. The first Range Rover Sport debuted in 2005 and exhibited a few strong associations with the P38, having the same wheelbase and being only marginally longer and wider. It was a massive success, becoming Land Rover’s best-selling vehicle until the 2011 arrival of the Evoque. With comfortable profit margins, it saw its parent company through the troubles of the 2008 banking crisis and, following a successful facelift, led Jaguar Land Rover into recovery.

While the original Range Rover is now rated as a classic car, P38s can be bought for as little as £1000. Current spares availability is reasonably good, and any of the original reliability issues should be comfortably in the past. Even the dreaded air suspension system is fixable given the right equipment. Help is available through groups such as the Range Rover Register, who are happy to assist new converts to the model. Now is the time to get into luxury off-roading!

The Range Stormer was a rare example of a Land Rover concept. Its purpose was to assess the popularity of using the Range Rover brand on a more sporting vehicle.

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