Time Travel

Two veter­ans of Lode Lane re­live the 1970 press launch of the orig­i­nal Range Rover , in style

Land Rover Monthly - - Contents - Story: Ju­lian Lamb Pic­tures: Geof Miller, Chris El­liott, Pat Miller

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....

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