By David Morley
The Range Rover is a thoroughbred with a taste for the rough stuff.
As the world's car parks fill up with crossover vehicles and fewer and fewer four-wheel-drives see so much as a gravel road, it's refreshing to recall that four-wheel-drives were once used as off-road vehicles.
Although the badge has moved way, way upmarket these days, it pays to remember that the Range Rover was, despite its higher initial purchase price, once the king of the off-roaders in terms of ability.
Back in the days when Land Rovers had wheezy four-cylinder engines, and Toyota LandCruisers, Nissan Patrols and such-like were primitive, cart-sprung horrors, the Range Rover was not only a more liveable alternative, in the bush it would run rings around pretty much anything else.
That there are still so many old Rangies getting around indicates the design must have been thoroughly robust from the start.
The Range Rover (like the Land Rover) used an aluminium body that refused to rust. Take a look at a 1970s LandCruiser now and it'll probably be showing signs of the dreaded tinworm, but no such problem with a Range Rover.
The vehicle's off-road credentials came from a combination of its V8 engine and coil-sprung live axles at each end, which gave it excellent wheel articulation and also a better than average (in its class) level of ride quality on the bitumen, at the expense of some body-roll.
The trick to buying a second-hand Range Rover is to find one with some life left in it. That means buying on condition rather than on age, and being able to spot an example that's had a hard life in the scrub (and many have).
You also need to realise that it won't be the cutting-edge crossover vehicle that is in such vogue right now, and that you'll be happiest with it when you're axle-deep in mud somewhere off the beaten track.
The big clues that a Range Rover has been exposed to more than its fair share of off-road work include scuffs, scraps and graunches in the floorpan and chassis rails. The odd knock is inevitable but the undercar view shouldn't resemble a bomb-site.
Check the diff oil front and rear, too. If the oil is milky or discoloured, there's a fair chance the vehicle has been in some deep water.
Bash plates under the car hint at serious off-road use, as do big winches, high-lift suspensions and monster wheels and tyres.
Problems specific to the Range Rover start with engines that are simply worn out. This wasn't a design flaw, rather that the engines were so strong, they carried on long after they should have died and will stagger along way beyond their use-by date. Early models had SU carburettors, which required more than their fair share of fettling to keep them in tune and minimise what is likely to be horrendous fuel consumption.
A noisy driveline is not really a problem, as the transfer cases were always whiny and vocal (in automatic or manual form), but clunking, clicking suspension and drive shafts are definitely bad news.
Range Rovers can also start to feel loose in the body over time and kilometres, but there's a fix for most examples.
The body is mated to the chassis via rubber mounts, which are designed to take some of the vibration and harshness out of the cabin. The tension on these rubber bushes is critical, and as they loosen, the whole body starts to feel loose. Anybody with the right spanner and a feel for such things can usually have the car feeling a bit more tight and taut again fairly easily, but a specialist is your best bet.
The pick of the bunch now are examples built from 1986 onwards as these were designed to cope with our then-new unleaded petrol and had electronic fuel-injection as a result.
Injection improves the driveability immensely. By then, too, all Range Rovers had four doors (the earlier ones were two-doors), which makes the vehicle vastly more versatile.
An automatic version is preferable, too, given that the auto works pretty well off-road as well as on.
And in case you thought a Range Rover was exclusively pukka Brit stuff, don't forget that from 1979 to 1983 (when the Federal Government raised the tariff on parts), Range Rovers were assembled in Sydney by the then-importer, JRA.
WHAT TO PAY
It wasn't really until the early 1990s that the Japanese had caught up with the Rangie in terms of its ability to offer off-road ability with on-road smarts. An 80 Series LandCruiser or GQ Nissan Patrol will stay with the Brit off road but nothing matches the Range Rover badge for bragging rights.
The post-ULP Range Rovers now start at about $6000 and, if they're good ones, are pretty good value at that. Cars with lower kilometres or cleaner interiors are more like $10,000, but even then, it's a heck of a lot of car for the money and should leave you change for petrol (of which you'll need plenty) and some repairs. Beware of examples sporting Holden or Ford engine transplants, although one with a 4.4-litre Leyland P76 engine has a certain appeal.