Alisdair Cusick relishes a chance to try a very late two-door Range Rover with the VM diesel engine
The classic car market has flourished in recent years, and along with the rare and exotic super cars, classic Range Rovers have definitely been on the list. Typically it is very early, Suffix A cars, those made from 1970 to 1973, that are the most coveted. The two-door body is a strong part of the appeal, for many say it suits the proportions of the Range Rover better. Aesthetics aside, practicality says the later cars are more useable, meaning Efi era, 1989 on, and ultimately the last soft-dash cars, from 1993 to 1996. So perhaps the best specification would be a blend of the two, mixing the two-door looks, with more practical, later-spec technology? Sadly, we never got those from the factory in the UK.
From 1984, we only got four-door models to choose from. European markets however were still offered the two-door, right up to January 1994. Those cars kept pace with four-door cars, so got five-speed gearboxes, air conditioning, electric windows; the whole Efi-era improvements. The crucial difference is that only rarely did they get the V8 engine. For tax reasons, the VM diesel engine was popular in Europe. Wouldn't we like to get behind the wheel of one of those... and as luck would have it, we did, thanks to one enthusiast who got in touch with LRM. I have to admit I've been in or driven plenty of Range Rovers, but the VM diesel-engined variant had eluded me – until now. There are plenty of myths about this engine, all majoring around the marine lineage of the manufacturer, but are they justified? This is the chance to check for ourselves.
The story isn't just about the engine however, for unusually, this car is in stunning time-warp condition, and probably the best example of its breed in the UK today. Owner, Lawrence Rivers, fills in the details. “I'd looked at quite a few Range Rovers in the UK classifieds, and in passing I'd mentioned them to my mum and step dad, who were about to emigrate to southern Spain,” says Lawrence. “After the move, Kev, my step dad – who speaks Spanish – took it upon himself to look in the local classifieds after he'd seen quite a few two-door Range Rovers on the roads over there.” This was a couple of years ago, before they became quite as popular as they are now.
Kev went to look at a car and sent Lawrence some pictures. “Open to a previously unknown cache of rust-free cars I investigated shipping costs, customs and registering it with VAT and the DVLA; Kev helped me negotiate the price, and I bought it.” That car was a 1992 two-door in Cairngorm Brown with a 42,000 miles on a 2.5 VM engine. Within a week of that car arriving, Kev was back in touch, saying: “You won't believe this, but there's a silver one in beautiful condition; one owner, low mileage – we can't say no to it.” Lawrence told him he must be joking, but as soon as he saw Kev's shots of it, he knew he had to have that, too; another 1992 VM-engined two-door was in his possession. Despite the brown car being the first to arrive, it ended up waiting its turn, purely because the silver one had working air conditioning. “The paintwork is as you see it today, and apart from renewing the bonnet rubbers and changing the engine bay light bulb, it is practically factory-fresh,” says Lawrence. Because he originally planned to keep it, weeks were spent removing the whole interior, including the trim, to fully treat it in rust preventative paint, seam seal and respray it in silver paint, with the underside treated similarly using heavy black chassis paint.
Original three-spoke alloys were swapped for diamond cut five-spokes, CSK-style, simply because a set came up for sale, and Lawrence liked them. Laughing, he recalls buying a Vax carpet cleaner from eBay, and laying out the complete interior carpets on the driveway to give them a thorough clean, much to his wife's amusement. “Even though it was from a hot county, without the wet dirt we get in the UK, there was dust in places you can't imagine,” says Lawrence. It is always nice to see a sharp example of a car, more so one that we didn't get in our country. Look around at all the places 1992 UK Range Rovers get frilly, and this is like new; look at the places two-door variants rot and it is unbelievable. Inside the bonnet leading edge looks like a brand new panel, likewise with the sills, boot floor and body crossmember. It's the result of a lifetime in a hot, dry climate, of course, but unusually for southern Europe, the exterior of this car is remarkably unblemished. Spain and Portugal both have a culture of 'touch parking', meaning even new cars very quickly get lots of dings, scratches and scrapes. All of which are absent, here.
Though it has a two-door body rooted in the 1970s, little details become apparent to reveal the later 1990 Efi-era production features; the high fuel filler and plastic fuel tank, welds used to hold the body together instead of bolts, and the Efi hard dash interior – left hand drive, of course. For me, the interior of the car is the real shock, for not only is it remarkably clean, but the carpet has a pile so deep you can actually comb it. Not bad for 24 years old. Wouldn't we all love to buy a Range Rover of this age that needed only a bulb, bonnet rubbers and a through vacuum? But what of that engine – could it compare to the Rover V8? Notable for its individual cylinder heads, the VM diesel came in two forms; the original 2.4 in 1986, and a later improved version, the 2.5, in 1989. Improvements included improved cylinder heads, a longer stroke, and slight increase in torque and power. Being a 1992 model, we've got one of the later 2.5 VM models. Lawrence lets me take it out to find out for myself. At tickover there is typical diesel rattle, but it is quieter than the – then pioneering – direct injection 200Tdi we all know. Direct injection was only really used in trucks until the 200Tdi appeared, mainly due to the louder noise direct injection created. The 1989 VM's indirect injection definitely results in it being quieter than a 200Tdi, but eager to see how bad it really is, I head out on some local roads.
Quickly I'm up through the five-speed LT77 'box to a decent pace, and whilst there's some inevitable diesel noise, it is far from ruinous. Before you know it you're easily cruising along, the KKK turbo gently whistling away. The engine's happy range is about 1900 to 3000 rpm, where it is comfortable without feeling stressed, and most of the torque seems available. Sitting on the 'wrong' side of the car isn't an issue, thanks to the high driving position and acres of glass that surrounds me, a key Range Rover trait. Whilst there's a current vogue (no pun intended) for two-door Range Rovers, that really means carb V8s, and LT95 four-speed gearboxes. This later era of Efi cars is in reality the spec we'd all love.
For an everyday car, this is really the one we'd want to drive to the south of France, or commute in, instead of the characterful – but tiring – four speed. So what is the VM engine really like? Forget the myth that it is a marine engine, the Range Rover unit was tailor-made, with input from Solihull to ensure the unit suited the vehicle. This later 2.5 litre VM engine was a further improvement from the original unit, itself built for the low down, high torque original brief. It is a perfectly fine engine that does the job well. A 200Tdi betters it on fuel consumption, at the cost of being louder; the V8 is smoother, has more power, and has the best sound track – at the expense of fuel consumption. Perhaps ultimately though, the reason for the VM's indifferent following is down to the engine we're comparing it against; that Rover V8.
A silky smooth, quiet engine like that could never really be bettered for a Range Rover – in the UK, that is. In the European market, as a stop gap until Land Rover's own Gemini 200Tdi was launched, the VM model did the job it was meant to, raising sales 40 per cent at one point. Lawrence is a lucky man to have not just this one, but four. Yes, since these two, he bought a further two, including one rare, late factory 1993 200Tdi. Keen to point out he's not a dealer per se – this is a seven day a week hobby for Lawrence, whilst on a career break from his usual corporate employment – he nonetheless does have to sell some, and plans to actively advertise them soon. “This would probably suit someone who wants a slice of nostalgia whilst tootling about London in” says Lawrence. Having driven it, I have to agree. If you're looking at an affordable alternative to a Suffix A two-door, and one that you can actually use, get parts for, enjoy everyday – yet still turn heads at a Land Rover show – then perhaps this is the car to own.
Contact Lawrence Rivers on 07887 628542.