Isn't it curious how fashions change with Land Rovers? Each decade of production has gone through various fads and fashions for enthusiasts. It is linked inextricably with the value of vehicles, of course. That's why so many 80-inch Series Is were mercilessly chopped up to build off-road triallers in the late 1980s and Range Rovers mercilessly bobtailed – ie the rear overhang chopped off – in the 1990s. Vehicles perceived to be 'old' by the public meant prices were low, and so apparently overlooked vehicles were ideal for modifying beyond the point of no return. It's happening to early Discoverys now.
In 2014, tastes have moved on. While Discovery 3 and L322 Range Rovers are going through the usual fads of off-road extras or chrome trim, classic vehicles are heading in the opposite direction. There's a growing culture of taking classic Solihull metal right back to standard, and restoring them to original condition. It is driven by value, of course, and no doubt helped by the recent high auction figures achieved by well-restored vehicles. Range Rovers in particular are falling into this bracket. There's a growing appreciation in the general motoring press recently of how good they are, and it is the first and last that usually hold attention – and the highest prices. The very earliest prototypes are selling for around £70,000. Because of this, values of Range Rovers are rising across the board and the days of a £500 project car are long gone.
Even if you do source one, then finding the correct parts and trim is going to be equally challenging, and increasingly costly. With that background, you'd expect there to be a host of the early vehicles locked in garages, halfway through extensive and costly restorations. You wouldn't think that someone might still actually use one of the most desirable, pre-1973 Suffix A models as an everyday car... Well, you'd be wrong. There's one owner who bought one new in 1971, and likes it so much that he still uses it almost daily. That man is Nicolas Bowater. In 1971, he bought a Lincoln Green Range Rover to replace his ex-RAF Series IIA for use on the farm. In the first few years, Range Rovers were far from easy to get hold of, and it was not uncommon to see them being sold at a premium. Because of this, and despite living in Kent, he had to travel to J V Likes, in Hay-on-Wye to get one, and paid £2200 for it. “I sold both my Land Rover and a Fiat 125 to get the Range Rover,” recalls Nicolas. “I bought it for the exact purpose it was designed for, and used it as an additional tractor. It pulled trailers on the farm, took materials to do fencing repairs, pulled the roller, the grass harrow, took me shooting – just about everything except taking calves to market.” Aside from working for a living, the vehicle also was called on for family duties. It went to the Isle of Skye for a family holiday, to Switzerland and France on skiing trips, and even made it as far afield as Venice. I can personally vouch for the undiluted pleasure of touring Skye in a classic Range Rover, but can only imagine what it must have been like to have done another of Nicolas' trips.
The sight of a UK-registered Range Rover tootling around the snow-covered mountain passes of Switzerland must have been incredible, never mind what it must have been like from behind the pedals. Still, here was one vehicle performing exactly the role it was conceived for. The miles soon racked up, and maintenance was undertaken as needed. Around 1977, the original engine was replaced with a brand-new one. “I can't remember exactly why it was swapped,” says Nicolas. “I presume it was using oil, because when it was stripped down, if you ran your fingers down the bores, they felt corrugated.” The new engine apparently was British Leyland's first attempt at making a fuel-efficient one. “Whatever they did, it made no difference!” jokes Nicolas.
Being a 1971 model – or Suffix A in the chassis number specification – many small modifications were a few years away. Things like rear wash-wipe and radio only came in 1973 Suffix B. Nicolas had both these luxuries added by a local garage, along with a rev counter, oil pressure and oil temperature gauges. In 1982, the farm was sold and Nicolas moved from Kent to rural Devon, taking the Range Rover with him. And it was no longer needed as a workhorse... “For the last 32 years it has been in sort of retirement,” says Nicolas. “But I still use it most days.” As you would expect, there have been the usual Range Rover jobs that needed sorting. There's been some welding here and there, and Nicolas says the chassis is as strong as it ever was because of this. It is on its fourth lower tailgate, and its second bonnet; the original flipped open one day when on the move. The replacement was a later one, and the change allowed Nicolas to move the wing mirrors from the bonnet to the doors at the same time. Slightly unusually, it's on its second roof. “I was out shooting one day, and almost out of nowhere, a shot bird landed on the roof. There's quite a weight to a bird, and it dented it.
I found a replacement from a blue car, and the original was unscrewed, removed like a biscuit tin lid, the new one sprayed green and fitted to the car,” says Nicolas. “You know, depending where you go, I've been shown so many variations of Lincoln Green – rarely are they correct – so my car wears a few shades on it now.” Everywhere you look, there's a story. The steering wheel is a later four-spoke from the early 1980s: “The original one slowly broke up, so I fitted whatever was new at the time,” says Nicolas. The original plastic ribbed seats – much in demand now, and probably the rarest part of early Range Rovers – were recovered by Exmoor Trim in 2002 in what Nicolas calls “Mercedes Taxi Cloth”, but is similar to a darker shade of the herringbone cloth used in the mid-70s on Range Rovers. “The originals were just horrible things,” recalls Nicolas. Typically, the plastic cracked, leaving sharp edges everywhere – hence why so few original seats survive now in good condition. The updating continued in 2008, when power-assisted steering was added by a local garage. “It just became too much, so I had a power system put on, using the correct parts. I then took it for a drive, and commented to the engineer who did it that it felt a little floaty now. 'Welcome to the 1970s!' he joked,” says Nicolas. The Range Rover has had so much work done over the years that Nicolas has a history file five inches thick. I'm taken out in the car for photography, and immediately you notice the unique character of an early Range Rover.
The 3.5 V8 is soft, refined, and the loudest noise is the quiet ticking of the fuel pump. Off tarmac, we float serenely across heather-covered ground withscarcely a jolt. These early models are a world away from the more complex leather-abundant later versions, but the effect of simple, long-travel soft coil springs and a powerful V8 never fails to impress. In 1971, it must have been a revelation after leaf springs. “You know, I had a friend comment not long after I bought it that I'd soon get bored of it, but I never did. It really is the vehicle that does everything, and I'd never get rid of it. It is just such a practical vehicle,” says Nicolas. It has been kept in a dehumidified garage since its move to Devon –no doubt part of the reason it is preserved so well. It runs faultlessly, too, and you would not credit the mileage it has covered. “It shows 95,000 miles, but it has had a new speedometer; the original one had done 220,000,” says Nicolas. “But it's still on the original, untouched gearbox.”
Today, Suffix A models are revered, and purists are all chasing the same rare original parts. Yet here is one owner who just carries on driving the car that he chose new. Thanks to the alterations he's made, it's still on the road after 43 years and over 300,000 miles. Here's one enthusiast who will always have his car for all reasons.