Two veterans of Lode Lane relive the 1970 press launch of the original Range Rover , in style
Two veterans of Lode Lane relive the 1970 press launch of the Range Rover, in serious style
Wouldn’t it be great if time travel was possible? I would pay good money to go back to 1957 and watch my Dad weave his 500cc Norton Dominator motorbike along Yorkshire’s twisting lanes. Science tells us we can’t travel back in time, but I know that classic car restorers do it all the time. It occurs when we liberate a wreck from a farmer’s field intent on returning that car back to factory-fresh originality. And then again when we return to the location of important events in our car’s history and hold-up faded photographs to recreate the scene. There is something deep, even ancient, in our urge to connect with stories in the past.
This story is about two veterans of Lode Lane who, in 1994, felt an urge to take a road trip to Cornwall and relive the 1970 press launch of the original Range Rover. But their simple trip exploded into something so much more theatrical involving a pair of Harrier Jump jets, a Sea King helicopter, security clearance to a Royal Navy Air Base and, eventually, James Bond’s Range Rover.
Chris Elliott leans forward and tells me: “I wanted to do my own launch, one that celebrated the success of both the original Range Rover and the all-new P38 Range Rover.” Chris has had a long and impressive career with Land Rover and at the time of the P38 launch was a Principal Engineer in the Quality Department. He started at Rover in 1964, transferring to Lode Lane in 1976, and had the necessary connections but needed another driver. Without hesitation he asked his long-standing friend Geof Miller. Although Geof retired from Land Rover in 1987 he had been the Chief Development Engineer for the Range Rover project in the late 1960s and also played a key role in the Range Rover’s press launch in 1970.
“It was Chris’ idea and Pat and I were very happy to join him,” Geof agrees. Pat is Geof’s wife, and anyone who knows Pat will understand that she is equally passionate about Land Rovers but very sensible and methodical in her approach to planning. In the same way, Chris’ wife Shirley worked at
Land Rover and completed a perfect travelling quartet.
“The basic idea was to take three Range Rovers – red, white and blue – back to the Meudon Hotel, near Falmouth in Cornwall, and retrace the events and locations of the original 1970 launch,” says Chris. “Of course, we had to use a P38 Range Rover and I had access to a brand-new blue 4.6 HSE, M535 CVC. Officially this vehicle would be on a 1000mile quality audit for the week’s trip.”
Chris already owned a white pre-production Velar, YVB 155H, that he could use, and Shirley worked in the Company Vehicles Department and managed to borrow M322 CVC, a brand-new red Autobiography LSE Classic. By any measure this was an impressive convoy, but Chris wanted more. He wanted a Hawker Harrier jump jet to join the trip.
“I had always been impressed by this British aircraft that could take-off vertically and it dawned on me that the Harrier shared the same Silver Anniversary as the Range Rover, so I asked Shirley if she could get one of these too.” Chris wasn’t joking because Shirley worked alongside British Aerospace staff at Lode Lane and her contacts led to Lt Commander Joe Cannon at RNAS Culdrose. Cmdr Cannon trained aircraft carrier crew using a mock-up of HMS Illustrious’ landing deck – this would be a first-class challenge to throw at his recruits.
On Sunday October 2, 1994, the three Range Rovers set off from Chris’ house in Balsall Common, Solihull. CB radios had been fitted to each car for ease of communication enroute, though Geof smiles when he recalls “Shirley really enjoyed that LSE and listened to the CD player most of the time and didn’t hear us chatter on the CB.” By lunchtime the convoy arrived at the Dunsfold Land Rover Trust open day. Brian Bashall, the founder of the Trust, drove M535 CVC at the head of their Cavalcade eager to give visitors their first glimpse of the all-new Range Rover. Land Rover’s corporate hot air balloon rose into the sky as if giving a salute and they continued their journey to Cornwall.
June 17, 1970, is a date that has passed into Range Rover folklore along with the press launch locations: Meudon Hotel, Trevellas Combe and Blue Hills Mine. But after 25 years how much would they have changed? Certainly the Meudon Hotel, which was the main venue for the original launch, had changed little by their return in 1994. In 1970 Harry Pilgrim owned the hotel. “Harry had recently bought the hotel and hosting the Range Rover launch was just what his new business needed; in some ways it saved his bacon,” Geof recollects.
In 1994 Harry was still very much at the helm, though his son Mark was the heir apparent. Meudon and Land Rover still had a special relationship and reimagining the hotel as it was at the days of the original launch was easy.
An area close to the St Agnes at Blue Hills Mine was used extensively to demonstrate the Range Rover’s capability in 1970. The Kodak colour photographs of Geof pressing a red NXC press car hard up Trevellas Combe are iconic of the launch, but by 1994 the whole area had become a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The only access was a single-track road down to a small car park at the bottom of the cove. Pat points to her photograph and, almost giggling, says: “That is where one journalist slid a NXC press car off the road and down a bank – he got out red-faced exclaiming that he thought it could go anywhere.” Not wanting to repeat this incident, Geof carefully navigated M535 CVC between two heavy concrete posts and made his way down to the car park with Chris and Shirley close behind.
Unable to recreate the off-road scenes at Blue Hills Mine, Geof and Chris went off on foot to survey the landscape and found the exact hummock that had been used to demonstrate the Range Rover’s coil-sprung wheel articulation in 1970. Standing on that hummock was certainly evocative, but there remained an urge to recreate the off-road scenes of the
“They debated whether or not the jet exhausts would melt the delicate alloy panels of a Range Rover ”
original launch. So Chris arranged access to nearby Poldice Valley where they used M535 CVC and YVB 155H to re-enact the poses of the 1970 Range Rover launch brochure.
On October 4, 1994, silk covers were swept away to reveal a gleaming new P38 Range Rover at the Paris Motorshow. At that precise moment Chris led his convoy of Range Rovers onto the runway at RNAS Culdrose for a somewhat more dramatic launch celebration. Chris had envisaged a series of static photos, but Joe Cannon had a bigger plan to spool-up a pair of Harriers and taxi them down the runway flanking the trio of Range Rovers. With true naval officer panache he also radioed in a Sea King Helicopter to hover above and a Gazelle from which to take photographs. Chris leans forward and recalls: “I had reconciled myself to the fuel cost of three petrol V8 Range Rovers on this trip, but felt a degree of anxiety trying to guess how much kerosene a Harrier consumes each minute.” Thankfully Joe viewed the event as an excellent training opportunity and reassured Chris that he wouldn’t pick-up a bill for the Harrier’s voracious appetite of up to 100 litres per minute.
At the pre-flight briefing they debated crucial issues such as whether or not the jet exhausts would melt the delicate alloy panels of a Range Rover, and how to avoid being T-boned by a seven-tonne Harrier in the event of jet brake failure. Practice runs were undertaken using TACR2S in place of the Harriers. Then the main event began, with ear defenders in place, and the cavalcade set-off down the runway. An official Land Rover film crew recorded the event from a chase car provided by Ryders of Falmouth, and a photographer leant of out of the Gazelle above. It was a spectacular Silver Jubilee for both Range Rover and the Hawker Harrier.
Back in Solihull, at the end of the week, the fleet disbanded. Shirley found it hard to hand back her gorgeous red LSE to the company pool. M535 CVC had one more duty to perform on display at the Land Rover factory open day, after which she returned to complete the 50,000 mile quality audit to which she had been assigned.
Repainted in original pristine Biarritz Blue, with interior and trim carefully refurbished to create the stunning vehicle we see in front of us today, Chris admires the vehicle and exclaims: “She is just like she was in 1994, it takes me right back.” Settling into the driver’s seat Chris turns the ignition key and smiles as he hears the beep beep beep warning chime that is so familiar to every P38 owner. Driving her along the Warwickshire lanes near Solihull for the first time in 23 years is certainly nostalgic for Chris: “The command position of a P38 is wonderful and 535 feels like new. There are no squeaks or rattles and the 4.6 engine is effortless.” As a Quality Engineer Chris, of all people, would notice such things as the high level of fit and finish in Richard’s restoration. He continues: “In my mind the P38 is last of the classic Range Rovers and will be very collectible – Richard has done a superb job.”
There is one last question to be answered. What happened to the Harriers? In 2011 the MOD sold its entire fleet of 72 airworthy Harriers to the US Marine Corps to be used for spare parts and one might assume that the Culdrose Harriers ended their days in that huge aviation scrapyard in the Arizona desert. By chance both Harriers used on that day in 1994 have survived and are still in the UK. One in particular turns out to have been a very special aircraft indeed. XV741 was built in the first batch of Harriers and, in 1969, won the prestigious Transatlantic Air Race held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first ever non-stop trans-atlantic flight by Alcock and Brown. Piloted by Sqd Leader Tom ‘Lecky’ Thompson, XV741 took off from a disused coal yard adjacent to St Pancras Station in London landing five hours and 57 mins later at Bristol Basin, New York.
Today XV741 is nearing the end of her own full restoration in the capable hands of former RAF Engineering Technician Chris Wilson. When finished, Richard plans to take a road trip to reunite M535 CVC and XV741, and in so doing start another cycle in search of lost Land Rover time.
Below right Lt Commander Joe Cannon from RNAS Culdrose
Land Rover’s hot air balloon part of the celebrations at the Dunsfold Land Rover Trust open day in 1994 Xxxx xx xx xx xx xx xxx xx xx x x xx xx x xx x x xx xx
Top: Chris and Geof with Mark and Harry Pilgrim at the Meudon Hotel Above: Pat and Shirley take a break from the road trip at Ryders Land Rover
Hawker Harrier jump jets joined the illustrious convoy
Repainted with a refurbished interior, 535 is as good as new Below: Both Harriers used on that day in 1994 also survived. XV741 (left) at St Pancras in 1969 at the start of Transatlantic Air Race and XV741 (right), under restoration in 2017....