Meet Rob Marsden – the man whose life's mission is to build Range Rovers better than the factory could produce
There's always joy to be had in appreciating something of very high quality. From watches to cars; then there's manufacturers that go that extra mile, creating something with quality way beyond what it needs. Land Rover did it with the Range Rover in 1970. At a time when you could go out and buy a cheap Mini, why would you want a four-wheel drive, V8-powered, coil-sprung estate car? As we now know, over 25 years 317,615 people would.
That quarter of a century saw many changes, and many pioneering features added to the Range Rover's features in production. Two doors went to four, leather replaced vinyl, automatic transmission came in – then the acronyms began in the 1990s.
Electronic Fuel injection (EFI), Anti-Lock Braking System (ABS), Electronic Traction Control (ETC) and Electronic Air Suspension (EAS) all brought the vehicle up to date with technology, again ensuring it was not just good, but was as good as it could be.
The Range Rover has now moved on three further generations, and the only thing to progress on those original vehicles is rust. Instead, it is the market for Range Rovers that has moved on, for there is a small industry in the UK maintaining, restoring and improving the original iconic 4x4, taking it to finish levels rarely before seen. One of those is Rob Marsden, of Classic Range Rover, in Norfolk.
Rob has always been interested in cars, and always tinkered with them. “My first car was a MkII Consul, and I always ran classic cars, so I guess I just got used to working on stuff,” he says.
On leaving school in 1989, he got an apprenticeship at the local Land Rover dealer, Mann Egerton. A full three years brought him not just up to speed with the mechanics of Solihull's fleet in the 1990s, but also sparked an interest in Range Rovers. “I couldn't drive anything but a Mini at the dealers due to my age,” recalls Rob. “But I'd always go out on road tests in the Land Rovers and Range Rovers. I remember seeing the first LSE that came to Norfolk, and before I was even asked, I had a seat cover on the passenger seat and a paper mat in ready for the ride!”
The apprenticeship finished, and Rob moved on to the DJ scene for five years. Returning from Ibiza, he "got a proper job" in the motor trade at Toyota dealer John Brundle (father of former Formula 1 driver, Martin), then VW, then at a smaller garage. After a spell running that day-to-day, he realised he could be doing this for himself, so set up Classic Range Rover in 2002.
Being a specialist is one thing, but everyone needs a unique selling point, and his is quality. "Knowing how the cars looked when new, peeling transport plastic film off them and PDI'ing them, that's what I'm aiming for”, he says. Looking at his workshop, you can't help but be amazed at the quality he achieves.
Maintaining a new vehicle is one skillset, but maintaining the same cars 20 years later is another matter. “If these cars didn't rust, I'd have the easiest job in the world!” Rob jokes. The main element now isn't spanners and servicing, but welding and structural repairs. “I could easily just strip out the mechanicals, weld up the structure, refit the same mechanicals again and let them out of the door without worry, " Rob says.
Engines and axles do get refinished and rebuilt, but they are almost run-of-the-mill overhauls anyone can do. Rob's difference is in the detail of his structural repairs. Looking around a half-built-up shell with editor Dave, what jumps out to us is the amount of straight lines on the panel joints – and the finish. Absent is the sight of odd-shaped patches; instead we see factory-style spotwelds, neat seam sealer and a body-coloured painted shell. Yes, painted. Rob reminds us that the factory sent a car off the line every few minutes; they didn't have the time or commercial motivation to make every element the best it could be. Hence the seam sealer variations around the car, leaving unprotected joints and the unpainted sill interior sections. Now, Rob can take advantage of the current materials and spend time to ensure every possible area is protected, so rust is prevented for as long as possible.
He does this a number of ways, but basically, each car is stripped down to the shell for repair. The roof comes off and the glass comes out to check the screen surround for rust (see panel, above). Next, the shell is blasted to remove corrosion and repaired as needed. The bare metal is then primed in two-pack epoxy, seam sealed, then anti-corrosion epoxy is spray-painted on, followed by 3M body Schutz. As a final detail it is painted in the body colour. All this goes beyond the factory level of finish, which was just the standard grey e-coat, plus seam sealer, and perhaps some wax (if it reached there). Rob, on the other hand, insists on four layers of protection.
Rarely are small areas repaired. Instead, replacement panels – sills, inner wings, crossmembers – are welded in and seam sealed, which then raises the issue of parts supply. Despite the newly-heralded Heritage parts scheme at Land Rover, Rob has a very long list of items that are hard to get and he thinks should be reproduced by Land Rover. Bulkhead side panels, bonnet lettering, rear side window seals, tailgates, bonnets – all will be needed, often on each restoration. To help him, he now has a collection of over 50 vehicles, plus a scarce few donor cars.
Driving over to his storage yard from his workshop, he explains how around ten years ago, he realised they were worth buying for stock. Now, his stock list reads like the Greatest Hits of the Efi-era Range Rover. CSKs, Overfinches, Wood & Pickett, 25th Anniversary, Brooklands, LSEs in hard and soft dash; it is an enviable hoard. “I rarely just buy a car to scrap; all these can and should be restored” Rob says. “I never thought I'd own one, and now I've got over 50!”
Keen to glean as much as I can for the LRM readers, I ask for his top tip. “Make sure you get any potential purchase thoroughly appraised,” he answers. “Being bolted on outer panels, it is easy to make a car look good on the outside, but underneath, the inner steel frame can be horrendous.” Sage words, and ones to take note of if you want to restore a Classic. Or you could just send your car to someone who takes real pride in his work, and obviously a huge fan of the vehicle. "My knowledge is going into each car, to make it like I knew them when new, but also so they now last like that,” he says. Amen to that.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
LOOKING AT the A-pillar area of a few cars, you can see one place that Rob's expertise is very much apparent. Lets take one problem – wet footwells. A common Range Rover problem (and Discovery 1), but the cause isn't always obvious. “Everyone starts at the sunroof, but I've never seen a blocked sunroof drain, and non-sunroof cars still have rusty bulkheads.” says Rob.
Instead, he says it could be a number of factors; The windscreen, the scuttle/bulkhead joints, the lower screen corner gap, A-pillar joints or footwell rot. To cure it, means sorting the lot, and that, says Rob, involves removing the roof and windscreen. With the roof on, the screen was fitted first on the line, meaning the gap left at the top seal can't be filled with sealant.
Over time, water sits there, eventually rotting the frame, letting water in. That water then sits in the sides of the frame, which rots the corners, which then lets more water in, and you get rotten A-pillars and scuttles. “This is why 90 per cent of cars are now rubbish in this area; water gets trapped and the whole area is constantly wet,” explains Rob. That water causes corrosion, which only ever spreads.
The cure often involves the roof coming off, welding a replacing windscreen edge on the top of the bodyframe, welding in a shaped metal plate to replace the dum-dum putty used by the factory in the lower corner gaps (often this has dried out now, hence leaks) then fitting the screen and sealing it properly. Only then is the roof refitted.